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Published: 5/16/2003

Tribal pleas fail to stop bidding

BY REBEKAH SCOTT
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The Indian artifacts are sorted on a table, awaiting the auction on Saturday. The Indian artifacts are sorted on a table, awaiting the auction on Saturday.
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Dr. Richard “Dick” Sisson, a director with the Ohio Historical Society and a former provost and president of Ohio State University, wants to sell 500 prehistoric Native American artifacts tomorrow at a Findlay auction house.

But area Native American activists say the sale is “illegal, immoral, and wrong” and this week called on the Ohio Highway Patrol and the state Attorney General's Office to investigate.

The sale will go on as scheduled.

“We investigated. We could find no proof of wrongdoing,” said Sgt. Jim Mendenhall of the patrol's investigative unit in Columbus.

“No one will do anything about it, but that doesn't make it right,” said Barbara “Grandmother” Crandell, a Cherokee tribal representative and member of the Native American Alliance of Ohio.

The Indian group believes Dr. Sisson's collection includes items looted illegally from ancient tombs. But investigators said they had no time before the auction date to untangle a web of federal regulations that regulate trade in such items.

Jan Sorgenfrei, owner of Old Barn Auction in Findlay, said Dr. Sisson is a legitimate, legal collector. He's sure all the items for sale are legitimate “surface finds,” not dug from the Earth.

Dr. Sisson said he's collected arrowheads, stone tools, beads, and other Indian items since he was a boy, and he looks on them with respect and love. Over the years, he bought dozens of items and entire collections from other hobbyists, but he's never dug up anything himself.

Money raised from the auction will help Dr. Sisson buy a retirement home in New Mexico.

“I'm not going to accuse this man of breaking the law,” Ms. Crandell said, “But something stinks. He's got some major conflicts of interest going on.”

Several items up for auction were smeared with red ochre or ceremonially broken, signs they were taken from Indian graves, she said.

Also, Dr. Sisson's status as a collector should have precluded his seven-year membership on the historical society board. The Columbus-based public-private group oversees the state's largest, richest collection of Native American relics and remains.

Kathy Hoke, a spokesman for the historical society, said Dr. Sisson's integrity is unimpeachable.

Dr. Sisson said he serves the historical society out of a love for his home state, not because of his passion for collecting.

“There is no conflict of interest,” he said. “I keep these things absolutely, totally separate. They are two very different categories of my life.”

Legitimate academics, museums, and collectors will not deal in excavated goods, even though such “treasure-hunting” techniques were not categorically declared illegal until 1990.

Dr. Sisson is a specialist in Asian political science and taught for 25 years at the University of California in Los Angeles, and later, Ohio State University. From 1993 to 1998, he was interim president at Ohio State.

Dr. Sisson bought artifacts from Wisconsin, Arkansas, New York, and Indiana, but the vast majority of the auction offerings are from Ohio.

He said he's “somewhat of an expert” on Ohio flint items - hand him a bit of sliced stone, and he can usually tell its source and function.

Ms. Crandell said he should know then what a “birthing pipe” is.

Auction Item 342 is a stone pipe carved in the shape of a pregnant woman.

“My mother had one of those. She was a midwife. It came down to her from her grandmother,” Ms. Crandell said. “The pipe is made for a woman who assists at births. A man is not to touch it, or even look at it,” Ms. Crandell said.

“When a woman has a difficult labor, the midwife put pain-killing herbs in the pipe and had her smoke them to help her relax and deal with the pain.

“Usually, if there's no one to pass it on to, [the pipe] is buried along with the midwife when she dies. I see this - and yeah, it's probably the crudest one I've seen - and I have to wonder what the devil it's doing in an auction.”

Dr. Sisson said most of the items in his auction are thousands of years old, made by cultures that left no written records.

Ceremonial details about particular artifacts are lost to time. “I have no knowledge of birthing pipes,” he said. “I just can't comment on that particular item.”

Auctioneer Sorgenfrei, himself an artifact collector, said the Hopewell culture that produced the pipe was long gone before Ms. Crandell's Cherokee practices were established.

“No men can touch it? That's not true. That's just an old wives' tale,” he said.

Ms. Crandell was delighted at his choice of words.

“Of course it's an old wives' tale,” she said. “It was an old midwife who carried it with her, and young wives who benefited. It's only supposed to belong to old wives!”

Dr. Sisson said he has nothing but respect for the artifacts and their makers.

His philosophy dates back to an aunt, who explained to him why his first arrowhead find was so important: “There were people who lived on this land long ago, and loved it and hunted it, just like we do. They left behind these wonderful things in the Earth, as gifts to us,” he explained.

The sale begins at 10 a.m. tomorrow at the Old Barn Auction, Route 224 West, Findlay.



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