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Tribes say NAGPRA grant money could be better spent

WASHINGTON – Each year, the office responsible for administrating the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act offers grant money to tribes to help them work to get back human remains and artifacts, as mandated by the law. Tribes have sometimes complained that there isn’t enough money to do this work, but this year there was actually money left over in the funds allocated by Congress.

Now, questions have arisen over the appropriateness of how the national NAGPRA office is spending the unused funds – especially considering that some tribes were denied funding this year.

Sherry Hutt, the national NAGPRA program manager, made note of the extra monies at a September meeting of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers in Washington.

“This year, we had fewer amounts of request for money in proposals than we had grant money allocated from Congress,” Hutt said. “That’s not good.”

The amount of money appropriated from Congress for grants for fiscal year 2008 was $2.4 million, according to the national NAGPRA FY ’08 final report. The total amount of monies awarded to tribes ended up being just under $1.1 million, out of total requests adding up to about $1.7 million. Museums received approximately $500,000 in grants out of total requests adding up to $560,000.

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. Under the agreement, the organization will be responsible for offering scholarships to tribes for NAGPRA grant training courses.

With the other leftover grant funds, the NAGPRA office directed an intern and other staffers 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, said at the meeting at which Hutt spoke that some tribal leaders have asked why the extra grant monies weren’t put into a second cycle of funding.

“It’s surprising for me to hear that you’re going to do a video and you’re going to have the National Preservation Institute, a nonprofit – not NATHPO – that’s going to be doing training for tribes.” Kraus said in remarks to Hutt.

Hutt said in a follow-up interview with Indian Country Today that the grants are competitive and based on advertised dates for submissions.

“To begin to mount a new competitive grants cycle in June and complete it in July would have been impossible for applicants to contend with. Tribes would not have been well served by a short cycle.”

Adding to tribal concerns, there are some tribes that applied for the funds this year but were not granted awards. Out of the 33 grant proposals received by the National Park Service focused on consultation and documentation, 23 were approved for an award.

Some tribal leaders who had their requests for grant monies rejected were especially displeased to learn that leftover monies existed and would be provided to a nonprofit and to an intern, rather than to tribes that applied for the funds.

In a letter dated Oct. 2 sent to Hutt, Ronnie Lupe, chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, said the tribe has “deep concern and disappointment” over the way the NAGPRA office handled the unused funding situation.

Lupe believes the activities described in the tribe’s application for a grant “were worthy of funding and vital to the Apache Tribes’ successful implementation of NAGPRA in the most responsible manner possible.”

“I also believe that the merits of our proposal outweigh the technicalities [used to deny us] and that your program’s decision to fund a nonprofit organization over our tribe, and perhaps other tribes, was less than pleasing,” Lupe wrote.

Some tribal preservation officials who have reviewed the application agree with Lupe, and say the tribe’s application was denied on what appear to be technicalities that, with a little leeway, could have easily been corrected.

The NAGPRA office did not give the tribe the opportunity to make corrections; instead, it offered suggestions on how its proposal could be improved in future years if the tribe wishes to apply again.

The grant application was submitted by the White Mountain Apache Tribe on behalf of the Western Apache NAGPRA Working Group. Members of the group include the White Mountain Apache, the San Carlos Apache, the Yavapai-Apache, the Tonto Apache, the Mescalero Apache, the Jicarilla Apache, the Fort Sill Apache and the Apache Tribe of Oklahoma.

It requested money to cover the planning, travel and lodging costs for tribal officials to attend an all-Apache NAGPRA summit. The summit’s aim was to partially address problems Apaches have experienced under the law, as well as how changes in the NAGPRA process or future legislation could help their situation.

As a result of the denied grant, the summit could not take place this fall. Tribal leaders are now in the process of cobbling together funds to try to make something happen this spring.

The grant also requested funds for Western Apaches to travel to the Denver Art Museum to view newly acquired and potentially sensitive Apache objects.

Seth Pilsk, an official who focuses on NAGPRA-related issues involving the San Carlos Apache Nation, said it is crucial that tribal cultural experts be able to examine the artifacts, which has not been able to happen yet due to limited funding.

“The Apaches view these types of items as alive and filled with a holy power. They have to be treated in a particular way by certain people. If they’re not treated that way, there could be really serious consequences, not only for Apaches, but for everybody.”

Sangita Chari, a grants program officer with the NAGPRA program, wrote in a letter to the tribe that one of the major concerns the office had with the application involved budget miscalculations. She also said the tribe failed to list items on a specific form.

Hutt noted, too, that her office’s grants panel must follow established guidelines when making award decisions.

“There are federal standards for grants, which the panel must abide by,” Hutt said. “National NAGPRA does not add technicalities to the federal grant requirements. The panel must make their selections based on the documents provided and are not in a position to revise budgets or make assumptions beyond what is presented.

“We certainly hope that the White Mountain Apache Tribe will revise their documents and resubmit in the next cycle.”

Despite reasoned explanations coming from the national NAGPRA office, tribal concerns about the implementation of the law have been growing in recent months. As of late September, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., planned to call for a report and study by the U.S. government Accountability Office to explore federal government compliance and enforcement of the law.