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National repatriation program draws heavy fire

WASHINGTON, D.C. - The National Park Service is under fire for a conflict of interest in management of the federal program implementing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA.

NAGPRA is the primary federal law which ensures 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 or descendants.

The law also provides some protection for burial sites on tribal and federal lands.

In the past few years, a number of tribes and tribal organizations have expressed concerns regarding the program and overall role in implementation of the law.

"The original intent and focus of NAGPRA requires that the program be raised to a level and a location within the Department of Interior which will provide the least amount of bias," said Maurice Eben, outgoing chairman of the National Congress of American Indians' Repatriation and Burial Sites Commission.

Some feel that keeping the NAGPRA Program within the National Park Service unbalances a delicate compromise originally struck between museums and tribes during the drafting of the act. Until a few months ago, the program was managed under the Archeology and Ethnography program of the Park Service, which some felt subjected tribes to unfair treatment.

Critics pointed out the program primarily lies under authority of the Departmental Consulting Archaeologist, a scientist and employee of the Park Service. This leads, they say, to a potential for conflict of interest since management requires balancing needs and interests of tribes, museums and government agencies, including the Park Service.

"This is a critical issue since this position requires the oversight of a federal statute that mediates museum and archaeological interests with the interests of American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians," Eben said.

Just last month, the NAGPRA Review Committee, a seven-member body established under the law to oversee implementation, draft regulations and resolve disputes, found a conflict of interest exists and recommended that administration be placed directly under the Secretary of the Interior.

In oversight hearings by Congress over the past two years, testimony has consistently focused on this issue. In response to some of these concerns, Interior moved program administration to an area under the Director of Cultural Resources, Stewardship and Partnerships. However, some, including committee members, remain unsatisfied.

The argument has also been framed within the government-to-government relationship and the trust responsibility the federal government owes to Indian tribes and their members concerning the return of sacred objects and remains.

"This responsibility carries with it the highest of fiduciary standards guiding the conduct of federal agencies in its treatment of tribes in the area of repatriation," said Armand Minthorn, Umatilla and interim chairman for the Review Committee.

Other issues raised at the committee's April hearing in Juneau included the lack of federal agency compliance with deadlines for inventories and a call for greater use of civil penalties for those who violate the law. The committee is expected to submit a formal letter to the Secretary of the Interior outlining concerns regarding the conflict of interest issue. These concerns will be included in the committee's annual report to Congress.