In Defense of Native America: The People versus David Van Horn

“In Defense of Native America: The People Versus David Van Horn” cover art for @AlamedaNativeHistoryProject on

An archaeologist is sued by the California Attorney General, and the Native American Heritage Commission for the return of stolen Native American Artifacts.

Santa Cruz Sentinel; Nov. 09, 1990

People v. Van Horn (1990)

The only “published” case in California where any entity is being sued by “The People”.

In this case: the State of California is suing David Van Horn, and Archaeological Associates, Ltd. (a company owned by him and his wife, Ruth) for the return of Native American artifacts and remains in his, and his wife’s, possession without Native American consent.

David Van Horn, an archaeologist hired by a City to examine land The City intended to use as an industrial park, found two burials, and related funerary items and goods. Also present, and a party to this action, is Horn’s assistant, Robert White. Tribes weren’t aware of the discovery until the Oceanside Blade-Tribune reported it, and hinted that Van Horn, and his archaeological consulting company were trying to conceal the existence of the discovery.

Once tribes found out, they grouped together, engaged Kern County, City governments, and demanded that the remains and everything be returned to the tribes.

This lead to a meeting, where David Van Horn agreed to return the remains to tribes. But, in a later meeting, he refused to return metates that were buried somehow on top of the remains; arguing that objects placed on top of buried remains were not “funerary objects”, or grave-related goods; he asserts his “expert opinion” that the metates were simply put there to “weigh” the body down.

Van Horn publicly showed contempt for NAGPRA, and claimed he was being unfairly persecuted for doing legitimate, scientific, work. He even went as far as to throw doubt that the representatives of several Native American tribes demanding return of these objects were even related to the bodies discovered.

This was the ultimate in sleazy denials. I bet the demurrer was fantabulous. Because, Van Horn threw out everything he could in his defense. Archaeological Associates, Ltd., claimed ignorance, and pointed to David Van Horn as the party ultimately responsible for breaking the law.

A year into the dispute, the California Attorney General, and Native American Heritage Commission filed suit to compel the return of the objects.

The statutes were clear that it is against the law to posses Native American Artifacts without Native American consent. Summary judgment was granted against David Van Horn. Van Horn, and Archaeological Associates, Ltd. were ordered to return the Native American artifacts, and repatriate Native American remains, to their Tribal Nation.

In the end, it didn’t matter how much David Van Horn tried to fight culpability for his actions, and continued possession of Native American artifacts, without Native American Consent. It didn’t matter because he never argued whether or not it was against the law to possess those objects.

And so…

the issue of fact becomes one of law and loses its triable character if the undisputed facts leave no room for a reasonable difference of opinion.

(Reid v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. (1985) 173 Cal.App.3d 557.)
The California Attorney General published an opinion on this case:
2007 Cal. AG LEXIS 23, 90 Ops. Cal. Atty. Gen. 89
Santa Cruz Sentinel; Nov. 23, 1990

There were also criminal charges filed against David Van Horn, and his assistant, for knowingly desecrating Native American graves. The case was ultimately dismissed.

However, the criminal case against Van Horn is notably “the first use of a 1988 state law that makes Native American grave robbery a felony.”

Stay tuned for more.