By Daina Beth Solomon
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - An offhand comment made by "Maze Runner" actor Dylan O'Brien about filching Native American artifacts from a New Mexico ranch where a movie was being filmed has stung advocates who have long struggled to protect tribal items and remains.
O'Brien, 24, said in a recent interview that he had fallen ill during the shoot for 20th Century Fox's "The Maze Runner: Scorch Trials" and implied that a Native American curse had taken revenge on cast members who took objects.
The remark has prompted an online petition with 47,000 people calling for the return of any stolen objects from the ranch where the film was shot last year.
"It brings to mind for me that our graves that were robbed for the objects that were in them. That kind of desecration and direct continuing today is not deniable or tolerable," Jacqueline Johnson Pata, executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, told Reuters on Wednesday.
O'Brien's publicist did not return a request for comment.
In an interview last month on U.S. syndicated morning talk show "Live with Kelly and Michael," O'Brien said he and fellow "Scorch Trials" cast members took items from the historic location where they filmed last winter.
"It was this ancient Indian burial ground, I guess," he said. "They were very strict about littering and don't take any artifacts like rocks, skulls — anything like that. And everyone just takes stuff, you know, obviously."
The site in question is the 22,000-acre Diamond Tail Ranch in the high desert between Santa Fe and Albuquerque. It is not home to any known Indian burial grounds, property manager Roch Hart told Reuters, and he has not been able to detect missing items.
Hart said artifacts at Diamond Tail include pottery shards and chippings of rock tools. While he has not been able to pinpoint specific tribes as the owners, he estimates that items date from the years 800 to 1700.
"Whether it be a thousand-dollar pot that was found, or a pottery shard ... we consider it all sacred," he said.
The ranch has hosted about 10 films in the past three years, including “Frontera” starring Ed Harris. If the theft allegations prove true, Hart said he will rethink plans.
20th Century Fox said Wednesday it was doing a "thorough investigation."
"If any artifacts were mishandled or removed from the location, we will do everything to ensure they are restored," the studio said in a statement.
(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Leslie Adler)