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NAGPRA’s big year

WASHINGTON – 2008 may be viewed as one of the most momentous years for the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act since the federal law was passed in 1990. The federal law created a legal process for federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return American Indian human remains and cultural items to respective tribes or lineal descendants.

The first big fireworks occurred in April when Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff announced that NAGPRA was one of several federal laws that would be waived to speed construction of a border fence between the U.S. and Mexico. Under the waiver, more than 55 miles on the Tohono O’odham Reservation in Arizona were affected, as well as several miles on lands owned by individual Indians and on other Indian communities.

“I understood that waiving the laws would generate some controversy,” Chertoff told Indian Country Today in a July interview.

“It’s not that we want to disregard the interests of Native Americans or environmentalists. We’re perfectly open to engaging with them. And we do engage with them if there’s a practical concern, like disturbing a sacred location. ... But we need to be able to do it in a sufficient, informal way, as opposed to getting involved in years of courtroom litigation.”

The waiver issue still isn’t fully ironed out in some tribal leaders’ minds. But that hasn’t stopped many from seeking more accountability under the law.

A report issued in August by the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and the Makah Nation of Washington was the next big milestone in the history of the law.

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 It also found that several federal agencies, including the Park Service itself, have withdrawn public notices that tie held remains and objects to contemporary Natives.

Sherry Hutt, the national NAGPRA program manager, called the report “ambitious” and said it did a positive job at drawing attention to the reasons behind the law, but that it contained several shortcomings and mistaken information.

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

The national NAGPRA office faced more scrutiny in October when questions arose in ICT over the appropriateness of how the office spends unused grant money, especially considering that some tribes were denied funding this year.

Hutt said that her office placed a portion of the leftover money into a cooperative agreement with the National Preservation Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Virginia that has a track record of bringing training to tribes. The NAGPRA office also used the funds to create what Hutt called “NAGPRA: The Video, a 12 Part Series.” Part of the series will focus on providing education to tribes on how to properly apply for and receive NAGPRA funding.

D. Bambi Kraus, president of NATHPO, has asked why the extra grant money wasn’t put into a second cycle of funding. Other tribal leaders said they were denied NAGPRA grants on technicalities.

As a result of such concerns, and others raised in the report, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said in late-September that he planned to call for a report and study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office to explore federal government compliance and enforcement of NAGPRA.