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Need for NAGPRA improvements laid out

WASHINGTON – “This is a repatriated item I’m wearing today. I wore it on purpose. You have no idea how important this is for me to wear. You have no idea how important it is for some little old lady in Kake, Alaska to know that I’m wearing this today.”

That’s how D. Bambi Kraus, president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, wrapped up her Oct. 7 testimony before the House Committee on Natural Resources.

She was referring to a bright red vest emblazoned with tribal symbols that she, a Tlingit Indian with familial roots in Alaska, wore during her testimony on Capitol Hill.

The chairman of the committee, Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., gave out a pleased sigh after her words. And he smiled.

Kraus said her statement was meant to help Congress members and attendees of the hearing remember that some tribes and individuals have indeed been able to succeed under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act as it currently stands, administered by the National Park Service of the U.S. government.

The federal law, passed in 1990, created a legal process for museums, federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return American Indian human remains and cultural items to respective tribes or lineal descendants.

But, as Kraus highlighted, many tribes and Natives have not been able to appropriately utilize the law – and not just because they don’t have the resources, although that is an ongoing problem for many.

Testifiers said there have been numerous shortfalls in multiple arenas involving the implementation of NAGPRA.

Kraus mentioned several findings from a 2008 report conducted by NATHPO and the Makah Nation of Washington, which indicated that the National Park Service has used more than $3 million in tribal grants for purposes not covered by NAGPRA.

The report also found that several museums and federal agencies have withdrawn public notices that tie held remains and objects to contemporary Native Americans.

Kraus testified about the issue, noting that national NAGPRA program office has requested some agencies and museums to withdraw their outstanding draft notices on items in their possession as they attempt to gather more information about the items to which they refer.

NAGPRA officials have said they made the request due to concerns about the large number of outstanding draft notices.

But tribal leaders say the result has been thousands of American Indian remains and artifacts being left in storage for more than a dozen years and counting. The problem, some say, is that the agencies and museums have little incentive to formalize their intentions beyond the withdrawn notice stage.

Kraus later noted that no American Indians have served in the national office, which is considered by many tribal members to be problematic.

Another problem identified by the Makah-NATHPO study, is the lack of federal staff dedicated exclusively to carrying out compliance activities.

Kraus said, too, that federal agencies don’t have a standardized protocol for how to consult with tribes on NAGPRA issues.

Susan Bruning, chair of Repatriation Committee of the Society for American Archaeology, also raised questions about the operations of the program office.

In response to questions from the committee, she said she believes the national NAGPRA office is not transparent, adding that there is a general need for increased access to certain information, as well as for clarification of how a variety of decisions are made.

Steve Titla, a lawyer for the San Carlos Apache Tribe, raised another issue. He explained that in some cases museums are classifying objects as cultural items that should be returned to tribes or individuals as sacred objects. In this way, the museums are circumventing the law, he said.

Collin Kippen, a former NAGPRA Review Committee member, testified that when he served on the committee, which is intended to oversee various issues involved in the application of the law, the problems raised during the hearing represented just a few of the many concerns its overburdened members faced.

“We need resources,” Kippen said.

‘We need to build the capacity. But we need to be sure it is aligned to the needs of the Native people.”

One hope for clarification on NAGPRA issues was laid out early on during the hearing by Rahall himself. He said that he and Sen. Byron Dorgan, D.-N.D., have requested a Government Accountability Office study on federal agency compliance with NAGPRA and research on how appropriated funds are being used.

Kippen said during his testimony that he welcomes the report, and thinks it will be useful to guide the Obama administration to improve the NAGPRA system. He said the administration needs to put in the time and resources to help make the law work better.

Dan Wenk, deputy director of the National Park Service, said the office is planning to publish new regulations involving NAGPRA in short order. He promised to soon provide more information to the committee on withdrawn notices and other matters.