Former Museum Employee Sentenced for Stealing Blackfeet Artifacts

Preston Jay Spotted Eagle was sentenced to five years of probation and must pay $16,860 restitution

By Maggie Dresser
Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Beacon File Photo

A Browning man who worked at the Museum of the Plains on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation was sentenced April 6 for stealing culturally significant artifacts, including a grizzly bear necklace, moccasins and golden eagle feathers, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Preston Jay Spotted Eagle, 31, was sentenced to five years of probation, as recommended by both parties in the plea agreement, 250 hours of community service and ordered to pay $16,860 in restitution. Chief U.S. District Judge Brian M. Morris presided.

Spotted Eagle pleaded guilty in October 2022 to theft of government property.

“Protecting and preserving Indian art, culture, and heritage is of the utmost importance to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (IACB), including through its Museum of the Plains Indian operations and programs,” stated IACB Director Meridith Stanton. “The IACB shares the outrage expressed by Blackfeet community members regarding the mishandling, destruction, and theft from the Museum of the Plains Indian of culturally significant and sacred Blackfeet collections by Mr. Spotted Eagle – someone entrusted with their care and protection as a then-Museum employee.”

According to court documents, the thefts occurred between May and August of 2021 from the Museum of the Plains Indian, which is run by the Indian Arts and Crafts Board and the U.S. Department of Interior. Spotted Eagle was working at the museum as an aid and the curator noticed that a bear claw necklace that contained 11 large claws was missing from the displays in August 2021.

When the curator confronted Spotted Eagle about the missing bear claw, he told her he did not know what happened to it.

During a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigation, Spotted Eagle was identified as the thief after security footage connected him to the crime. When confronted again about the necklace, Spotted Eagle said he thought he took it out of the display because it had fallen and he told the curator nobody else needed to review the video and he “could guarantee the necklace was still in the museum,” records state.

That afternoon, Spotted Eagle said he found the necklace under some papers in the collection room and when the curator asked him to show her the necklace the following day, she said it was heavily damaged. Four of the 11 claws were removed and replaced with smaller claws.

After the incident, the museum conducted inventory to identify other missing items and officials found four bear claws taken from a collection room drawer, a pair of moccasins and 26 golden eagle feathers from a war bonnet. An investigation determined Spotted Bear removed the artifacts, photographed them with his cell phone and wore historic clothing, including a ceremonial Crazy Dog Society shirt that was too small for him. He also rummaged through many sacred bundles, according to documents.

During an interview with agents, Spotted Eagle said that he found the bear claw damaged, removed it and attempted to repair it, but was unable to notify other employees because they were absent. Agents confirmed that employees were present on the date Spotted Eagle removed the necklace.

Agents also confronted Spotted Eagle about removing four claws from the necklace and replacing them, which he denied. He then abruptly ended the interview, swore and made an obscene gesture. Investigators later confirmed that Spotted Eagle posted on social media a photo of 33 immature golden eagle feathers that resembled the 26 feathers stolen from the museum headdress. Officials confirmed he had never applied for or received golden eagle parts from the National Eagle Repository.

An appraisal of the missing and damaged items determined the grizzly bear necklace was worth $3,200, the 26 golden eagle feathers were worth $7,800, while other artifacts totaled thousands of dollars. The war bonnet was not calculated because no legal market exists, but a similar war bonnet was sold overseas for $18,172 in 2012.

“Mr. Spotted Eagle not only stole from the museum, but also from the people of the Northern Plains Tribes,” said Edward J. Grace, Assistant Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of Law Enforcement. “He also wore and damaged culturally significant items that are irreplaceable in spirit and value and his actions have robbed current and future generations of seeing these items intact and enjoying their significance.”