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Press Release

Browning man sentenced for theft of artifacts from Museum of the Plains Indian on Blackfeet Indian Reservation

For Immediate Release
U.S. Attorney's Office, District of Montana
Grizzly bear claw necklace, beaded moccasins, eagle feathers stolen; value of stolen, damaged property exceeded $20,000

GREAT FALLS  — A Browning man who worked at the Museum of the Plains Indian on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation was sentenced today for stealing culturally significant artifacts, including a grizzly bear claw necklace, beaded moccasins and golden eagle feathers from a war bonnet, U.S. Attorney Jesse Laslovich said.

Chief U.S. District Judge Brian M. Morris sentenced Preston Jay Spotted Eagle, 32, to five years of probation, as recommended by both parties in a plea agreement, 250 hours of  community service and ordered him to pay $16,860 restitution.

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

“As an aide employed by the Museum of the Plains Indian, Spotted Eagle was entrusted with caring for culturally significant, sacred and priceless artifacts of the Blackfeet Nation, Crow, Lakota, and other Northern Plains tribes,” U.S. Attorney Laslovich said. “Instead, Spotted Eagle plundered the museum’s collection for his own benefit—damaging, as well as stealing, claws from a grizzly bear claw necklace, taking a pair of beaded moccasins, and removing golden eagle tail feathers from a rare full-length eagle headdress. Perhaps Spotted Eagle’s most egregious conduct was to rifle through sacred medicine bundles, not only causing physical damage, but also desecrating them. These irreplaceable cultural items represent the brave and valued history of our Native American brothers and sisters, which is why we will hold accountable anyone who seeks to engage in similar criminal conduct.”

“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.  The IACB is grateful for the outstanding work of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement and the Office of the U.S. Attorney – District of Montana in bringing Mr. Spotted Eagle to justice for his destructive and reckless actions.”         

“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. Today’s sentence was the result of the strong collaboration between our special agents, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, and the U.S. Attorney’s Office.”

The government alleged in court documents that the thefts occurred between May and August 2021 from the Museum of the Plains Indian, in Browning, where Spotted Eagle was employed as an aide. None of the stolen items has been recovered. The Museum of the Plains Indian displays the arts of various Northern Plains Tribes and is managed by the U.S. Department of Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board. All art held by the museum is property of the federal government. In August 2021, museum staff noticed that a bear claw necklace was missing from a display. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service investigated and identified Spotted Eagle as the thief.

The government alleged that the first item found to be missing was a grizzly bear necklace that contained 11 large claws. An employee assumed Spotted Eagle had removed it because she had given him an inventory assignment. When asked about the necklace, Spotted Eagle reported not knowing what happened to it. A review of security system video led to Spotted Eagle. When confronted again, Spotted Eagle said he believed he removed the necklace after seeing that it had fallen off its hanger. Spotted Eagle told the employee that nobody else needed to review the video and that he could guarantee the necklace was still in the museum. That afternoon, Spotted Eagle said he found the necklace under some papers in a collection room. The necklace was heavily damaged and appeared to have had four of the 11 claws removed and replaced with smaller claws.

Court documents further alleged that museum staff conducted an inventory to determine if there were other items missing and learned that an additional four loose grizzly bear claws, a pair of beaded moccasins and 26 golden eagle feathers from a war bonnet were gone. A review of surveillance footage showed that Spotted Eagle removed the pair of stolen moccasins, but first he held several different pairs of moccasins up to the bottom of his shoe for a size comparison. He later took the pair of moccasins and rearranged the other moccasins they were stored with so the missing pair would not be easy to detect. Video further showed Spotted Eagle handling a war bonnet that was later found with 26 missing golden eagle feathers. Investigators identified additional video of Spotted Eagle removing artifacts and photographing them with his cell phone. He was observed trying on historic clothing, including a ceremonial Crazy Dog Society shirt that was too small for him but did not rip during the struggle. And he was observed rummaging through many sacred bundles, even breaking a strap on the parfleche tube case of one of the bundles. In addition to physically damaging the bundles, Spotted Eagle caused spiritual harm to them and to the community by violating cultural protocols associated with the care and handling of sacred medicine bundles.

When interviewed by agents, the government alleged, Spotted Eagle claimed that he found the bear claw necklace damaged, removed it and attempted to repair it, but that he was unable to notify other employees because they were absent. Agents confirmed the employees were present on the date Spotted Eagle removed the necklace. Agents confronted Spotted Eagle about removing four claws from the necklace and replacing them, which he denied. Spotted Eagle abruptly ended the interview, swore at the agent and left after making an obscene gesture.

Investigators later confirmed that Spotted Eagle posted on social media a photo of 33 immature golden eagle feathers that are similar to the 26 feathers stolen from the museum headdress. Spotted Eagle has never applied for or received golden eagle parts from the National Eagle Repository.


Blackfeet beaded moccasins

Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement

    An appraisal of the missing and damaged items determined the following values:

  • Grizzly bear claw necklace, $3,200 fair market value before being damaged.
  • Beaded moccasins, $350 fair market value and $425 replacement cost.
  • Four grizzly bear claws, $800 market value and $1,700 replacement cost.
  • 26 golden eagle feathers, no fair market value because the trade is illegal. The valuation of a feather under the uniform collateral forfeiture is $300 each, for a total of $7,800.
  • The smaller bear claws found on the damaged necklace were determined to be one black bear claw and three grizzly bear claws, which were significantly newer than the other seven original claws.
  • The damage to the war bonnet was not calculated because no legal market exists. A war bonnet similar to the one damaged was sold overseas for $18,172 in 2012.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office prosecuted the case, which was investigated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Office of Law Enforcement.




Clair Johnson Howard

Public Affairs Officer


Updated April 6, 2023

Indian Country Law and Justice
Press Release Number: 23-114