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Published on Tuesday, June 03, 2003.
Last modified on 6/3/2003 at 12:18 am

Hand-crafted future Crow heirloom taken in unsolved burglary

By BECKY SHAY Of The Gazette Staff

GARRYOWEN -- Ask any mother, babies grow too quickly.

Because of that, a child's time in a cradleboard is short. But there is the hope that the cradleboard will become an heirloom and the centerpiece of many children's early lives.

That was the plan Larae Pickett had when she beaded a cradleboard for her child. Pickett used the beading skills her grandmother taught her and during her pregnancy in early 2001 worked on the cradleboard until her fingers bled. She beaded while riding in a carpool to work in Billings, during her breaks at work, then at home in the evenings. It took 3 1/2 months for Pickett to bead her daughter a cradleboard.

When Vana Rae Pickett was born that May, she was bundled into the blue-beaded cradleboard with just her dark-haired head sticking out of the top. Only a few photos were taken, but in the coming months those pictures would become more than precious childhood memories of a chubby-cheeked baby. They would become the center of a criminal investigation of a stolen cradleboard that ranged from two Montana Indian reservations to a dentist's home in New Jersey.

The hope of making the cradleboard an heirloom disappeared on April 4, 2002, when Pickett came home from work and realized she and her husband, J.D.'s, Lodge Grass house had been burglarized. Almost immediately, Pickett went to look for the cradleboard. In addition to several guns, a VCR and various jewelry, the cradleboard was gone.

Pickett didn't sleep that night. She walked around the house looking for the cradleboard, hoping the burglars had changed their minds and dropped it outside. Later, when sleep did return, she dreamed the cradleboard was leaning against a tree.

Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Police Department in Crow Agency launched an investigation into the burglary. With prodding from Pickett, including daily phone calls, the investigation was kept high on the department's priority list, said Bob Pease, senior special agent. Pease said Pickett was not only distraught about the loss, but insistent that the BIA recover the heirloom she created for her baby.

The cradleboard had been appraised at about $5,000, but it "was more than a valued possession," Pease said.

"I made it for my daughter, for her to hand down to her kids and to be in our family," Pickett said. "That's an heirloom ... how could somebody steal it?"

Chris Kortlander, owner of Historical Rarities Inc. and director of the Custer Battlefield Museum, also started seeking information about the cradleboard. He put a notice on the Internet auction site, eBay, placed advertisements in the local newspaper and printed fliers to hang around the Crow Reservation. Kortlander hoped that somewhere in the "small world" of cradleboard collectors, someone would recognize and return the work.

"I was pretty confident that someday, somehow, somewhere this cradleboard would come back to this woman," Kortlander said.

The missing cradleboard came to the attention of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., when he was visiting Crow Fair last fall, according to Baucus spokesman Barrett Kaiser. Baucus sent a letter of inquiry to the BIA in Crow Agency, hoping to urge officers to keep the investigation a priority.

Pease followed several leads on the burglary case but, like many property cases, progress stalled.

"We hadn't got any place for quite awhile," Pease said.

Then one day a "source in the community" told the BIA the cradleboard had been sold to the gift shop at Dull Knife Memorial College in Lame Deer, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation.

The case picked up speed again.

A supervisor at the gift shop recognized the cradleboard in a photo as one the business had purchased. She recalled selling the cradleboard to a visiting dentist last August. Armed with the information, Pease went to the Indian Health Service and found the names of dentists who had been in the area with an annual dental health program.

Pease's next step was a round of phonecalls that put him in contact with a dentist's wife in Medford, N.J. A year to the day that it had been stolen, the cradleboard was relocated: Pease described the cradleboard and the woman said she and her husband had it. He paid $450 for the cradleboard.

"That was another hurdle we got over," Pease said. "The next hurdle was, he didn't really want to release it. He was upset, naturally, it's a beautiful cradleboard. He had one excuse after the other."

Eventually, Pease contacted the Medford, N.J., police department and, after talking to a detective, the dentist released the cradleboard.

On Monday, Pease delivered the cradleboard back to the Pickett family.

"Remember this?" Peases asked Vana Rae, who is too big for the infant-sized cradleboard.

The 2-year-old didn't respond, played with the long buck-skin fringes and absent-mindedly fingered the beadwork.

As Pickett looks back over the 365 days the cradleboard was missing, she is amazed that for part of that time -- probably when she was dreaming of it -- it was "right in my backyard" at Dull Knife Memorial College.

"In my heart, I kept on thinking I was going to see it again and here it just popped up," she said.

The Picketts have received most of the stolen goods, including a gun that belongs to Vana Rae's brother, Josiah, who is 7. Some of the jewelry is still missing, including a little girl's elktooth red and white necklace which belonged to Pickett's grandmother. The BIA is still investigating the burglary.

Pickett recalled her grandmother, Bertha (Medicine Crow) Bear Claw's words to not give up hope and "leave it up to God."

"I knew I was going to see it someday, because I made it," Pickett said. "If something is yours it's going to come back."

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