American Indian tribes should be given the first opportunity to reclaim thousands of ancient Southwest artifacts being seized by the government in its sweeping prosecution of theft and trafficking, the federal appointee in charge of Indian affairs said Friday.

Tribal leaders will have something to say to the government on this issue, said Larry EchoHawk, assistant Interior secretary for Indian Affairs.

"The tribes should get first priority," he said. "Native people in their hearts are going to feel a connection."

EchoHawk, a law professor on leave from Brigham Young University, praised his former student — U.S. Attorney Brett Tolman — for taking a tough stance on looting across tribal and federal lands, after decades of government indifference.

The number of defendants in the case has grown to 26 in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado. More indictments are expected out of Arizona.

With the first sentencing Thursday of a major defendant, the government became owner of more than 800 boxes of artifacts confiscated from a Blanding family. Another five moving vans' worth of artifacts have been surrendered by a Colorado antiquities dealer.

EchoHawk acknowledged repatriating artifacts under federal laws will be arduous. It isn't always clear which modern tribe can claim ownership of an ancient relic. Sacred and burial objects are supposed to go back to their rightful culture, while the government can keep other artifacts stolen from public lands.

EchoHawk said he didn't want to see a wholesale transfer of artifacts squirreled away in public museums. Emily Palus, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's national curator in Washington, D.C., has said it could take years to sort through and properly dispose of the relics.

They range from infant cradle boards to turquoise necklaces, pottery and even human remains — adult molars and infant teeth.

Investigators shared photographs of the seized items with the director of the bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education.

"I looked at those things and didn't want to see them," EchoHawk said. "Many of them would be sacred, part of a burial, private — I didn't want to look at them. People were trading them, making profits from them, like commodities in the marketplace."