WASHINGTON - At a recent hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs witnesses pointed to federal agencies as top violators of the most important federal law in the protection of Native American human remains and sacred objects.
The accusations ranged from the inability to manage programs, to non-compliance with legally mandated deadlines. Agencies cited include units of the Department of the Interior, the Department of Defense and the Department of Agriculture.
"What I have seen over the last two years has been disturbing," said Armand Minthorn, a trustee of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. "NAGPRA was passed to protect the human rights of Native American tribes and individual descendants. However, agency implementation, particularly that of the Department of Interior, has failed to carry out the intent of NAGPRA, making repatriation more difficult."
NAGPRA, or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, was passed by Congress and signed into law by the president just 10 years ago. It is considered "remedial" legislation in that it provides a legal basis for the return of human remains, grave goods and objects of cultural patrimony to Native Americans. This includes American Indians, Native Alaskans and Native Hawaiians.
As a result of pressures from the Native community, combined with hundreds of years of grave desecration and theft, Congress was finally forced to address the problem with passage of this law. Congress' intent in enacting NAGPRA was to ensure that Native American human remains and sacred objects retained by the federal, state, and local governments, universities and the museum community are returned to the appropriate tribes or descendants. The law also ensures some protection for burial sites on tribal and federal lands.
Today, tribes struggle with a number of federal agencies over compliance and implementation of the law. Under NAGPRA, the deadline for completion of inventories of human remains and associated funerary objects in museum and federal agency collections was November 1995. While most public museums have complied with such deadlines, a number of federal agencies remain far behind in compiling inventories of their collections.
"It is dismaying that federal agencies are, in some cases, so far behind their non-federal counterparts," said Martin Sullivan, former chairman of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee.
"Museums and universities whose primary funding does not come from the federal government have, by and large, succeeded in finding the resources to meet the timetable set forth in the law. One federal agency indicated that its existing level of resources will not enable it to compile inventories until as long as 20 years from now."
The NAGPRA Review Committee, a seven-member body established under the law to oversee implementation, draft regulations and resolve disputes, recently took issue with Interior over its management of the NAGPRA program.
Since the law was enacted, the National Park Service has been charged with implementing the department's responsibilities under NAGPRA through this program. These duties included technical assistance to tribes, museums, other federal agencies and parks, training, drafting regulations and guidelines, administering the NAGPRA grants program and providing administrative support for the review committee.
Over the years, the Park Service has come under fire from tribes and the review committee for what many see as a "conflict of interest" in its management of the program. Some critics feel that keeping the NAGPRA Program within the Park Service unbalances a delicate compromise originally struck between museums and tribes during the drafting of NAGPRA.
Until a few months ago, the program had been managed under the Archeology and Ethnography program of the Park Service, which some felt subjected tribes to unfair treatment. Some have pointed out, that this program primarily lies under the authority of the Departmental Consulting Archaeologist, a scientist and Park Service employee, leading to a potential for conflict of interest, since management requires balancing the needs and interests of the tribes, museums and scientists, and government agencies, including the Park Service.
Recently, Interior responded to these concerns by transferring national, non-Park Service, duties to the assistant director for Cultural Resources Stewardship and Partnerships and out of the Park Service.
"The National Park Service was aware of the concern that existed about its dual role of both administering the NAGPRA program while also having to comply with it as a federal agency," said Katherine Stevenson, Interior's associate director of the cultural resource stewardship area.
"Following an oversight hearing in 1999 that raised concerns about the manner in which the National Park Service was administering the secretary's responsibilities, the Park Service was directed by the secretary to consider alternatives for administering these duties."
Native people have over the years begun to understand both the scope and limitations of the NAGPRA, its process, and regulations. At the same time, they are looking at their own community needs and goals and how to address their concerns through the law. Tribes say they are hoping that with pressure from Congress, real changes will be made in each federal agency to improve the current level of compliance.
While Interior representatives say it feels the recent reorganization of NAGPRA duties addresses concerns, many tribes see it merely as an ineffective reshuffling.
"We would prefer that the secretary of the Interior transfer authority for the NAGPRA program to the level of the secretariat," said Jefferson Keel, lieutenant governor of the Chickasaw Nation. "The NAGPRA program should be administered by staff having sufficient seniority, program knowledge, and experience implementing the statute."