Federal repatriation program still troubled

WASHINGTON - After two years of ongoing pressure, the Department of Interior continues to buck criticism regarding the National Park Service's management of its Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The service has been under fire for several years for what has been termed a "conflict of interest" in its implementation of the act. Recently, Native Hawaiians raised the issue yet again with Interior officials and members of Congress, calling on the department to correct continuing problems.

The law was enacted in 1990 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 appropriate tribes, descendants or Native Hawaiian organizations. It also provides some protection for burial sites on tribal and federal lands.

Since 1998, the Native Hawaiian organization, Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, has worked with Indian tribes to push for the re-delegation of NAGPRA to a more neutral office within Interior. Many say they believe keeping it within the National Park Service unbalances a delicate compromise originally struck between museums and tribes during the drafting of NAGPRA. Representatives of Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei say that the inherent conflict of interest is a result of the NPS being charged with enforcement and implementation, while at the same time being subject to the law itself since the NPS is in possession of remains and lands covered under the law.

"The conflict of interest is something that Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei has been concerned about for some time," said Edward Halealoha Ayua, attorney for the organization. "We are in the process of contacting our congressional delegation to seek their assistance in having the new Bush administration reconsider the request for re-delegation."

In 1998, the organization wrote Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt asking him to re-delegate the NAGPRA program to a more neutral location within the department. Since that time, the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs has held two hearings on the issue and both times recommended re-delegation. The NAGPRA Review Committee has also expressed its support for the idea. However, Secretary Babbitt has refused this request and only implemented minor changes in staffing.

The Native Hawaiians say they have recent firsthand experience with the Park Service's problems and find continuing actions in clear violation of the law. They say the NPS has refused to conduct any consultation meetings regarding a collection of human remains and funerary objects retained by the NPS which are subject to NAGPRA, remains and objects claimed by Native Hawaiians.

"We are not sure whether any other Native Hawaiian organization was contacted about this, but we understand that an NPS Hawaii archaeologist has been urging Native Hawaiians who do not support repatriation of these funerary objects to submit NAGPRA claims," Ayua said. "This type of behavior is not only unprofessional, it is unethical and demonstrates our point regarding the conflict of interest."

Ayua says he hopes Sen. Daniel K. Akaka, D-Hawaii, who is a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, will get the opportunity to question Gale Norton, Bush's nominee for Interior secretary, about her views during hearings before the committee.

Now that the Bush administration is set to take over, Ayua says their first job is to educate the new Bush appointees, specifically the Interior secretary, in the hopes that re-delegation will finally become a reality.