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Indian Affairs leaders support NAGPRA review

WASHINGTON – Senate Committee on Indian Affairs leaders support a federal investigation aimed at strengthening the implementation of a top cultural preservation law involving tribes.

Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., plans to soon call for a report and study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to explore federal government compliance and enforcement of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is set to join Dorgan in his call for a GAO study, according to her staff. She serves as the committee’s vice chairwoman.

NAGPRA, a federal law enacted in 1990, is aimed at protecting American Indian remains and funerary objects and strives to reunite them with their families and homelands.

“The GAO report should examine whether or not the NAGPRA process has been accountable to tribes, as mandated by law,” Justin Kitsch, communications director for Dorgan, told Indian Country Today. The GAO is Congress’ official audit, evaluation and investigative arm.

Asked on Sept. 24 when Dorgan would request the report, Kitsch replied, “In the next week or so.”

The focus on GAO oversight comes largely in response to an August report released by the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and the Makah Nation of Washington.

The report indicated that the National Park Service has used more than $3 million in tribal grants for purposes not covered by NAGPRA. The Park Service oversees federal administration of the law. It also found that several federal agencies, including the Park Service itself, have withdrawn public notices that tie held remains and objects to contemporary Natives.

Both before and after the report, tribal leaders have raised concerns about how NAGPRA monies are being spent. And some have said they are concerned that many agencies have withdrawn draft notices – as requested to do so by the national NAGPRA program office – which has resulted in Indian remains and artifacts being left in storage for more than a dozen years and counting.

Sherry Hutt, the national NAGPRA program manager, told ICT in August that she did not believe the report would lead to congressional investigations of NAGPRA management because “there’s no new information in there that brings something to light that hasn’t already been dealt with.”

In a follow-up interview, Hutt said that a GAO audit “could allow the program to step into the actual collections of a federal agency or museum” in a way that the national NAGPRA program office is not able to do under its current statutory authority.

For instance, the national office accepts inventories of remains and artifacts “on face value,” she said, but the GAO would be able to further audit these inventories in an on-the-ground manner.

Another question asked by some Natives that could be answered by a GAO study might focus on why so many ancestors who have been repatriated have not been in possession of clothing or burial objects.

“We just don’t have the authority, structure and statute to do that kind of investigation,” she said.

“The type of work that would be done under a GAO study is different than what we can do in the program. The information gained from such a study would probably be of great use to us in the program.”

There has already been much congressional oversight involving NAGPRA, especially from the late 1990s through 2003; but since then, the legislative branch has done rather little to explore and shape the program’s operations.

A series of Senate Indian Affairs hearings during that earlier timeframe resulted in a request for the Department of the Interior, which oversees the Park Service, to make changes.

Part of the changes included hiring Hutt, who has served as the program’s manager since 2004. Her main task was to make the program responsive to concerns of the Indian Affairs committee.

Over the four years since she was hired, she said the program has provided strong leadership in the administration of the law.

Despite the changes, tribal historic preservation officers and members of the seven-member review committee of NAGPRA have long expressed support for a GAO report focused on ways to improve the program’s overall efficacy.

Colin Kippen, a Native Hawaiian who serves on the review committee, said in August he is hopeful that the GAO could use the NATHPO/Makah study as a floor to begin investigations.

He said he and other members of the committee are “very open” to “increasing the accountability and transparency” of the law’s implementation.