December 5, 2016
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Native Grave Protection Act Being Ignored

WASHINGTON - The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) required federal agencies and museums to (1) identify their Native American human remains and other objects, (2) try to culturally affiliate them with a present day Indian tribe or Native Hawaiian organization, and (3) repatriate them under the terms in the act. The National NAGPRA office, within the Department of the Interior's National Park Service (NPS), facilitates the government-wide implementation of NAGPRA. GAO was asked to determine, among other things, the (1) extent to which agencies have complied with their NAGPRA requirements, (2) actions taken by National NAGPRA, and (3) extent of repatriations reported by agencies. GAO reviewed records for eight key agencies with significant historical collections, surveyed agencies to obtain repatriation data, and interviewed agency, museum, and tribal officials.

Almost 20 years after NAGPRA, key federal agencies still have not fully complied with the act for their historical collections acquired on or before NAGPRA's enactment. GAO examined NAGPRA implementation in detail for eight key federal agencies with significant historical collections: Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and NPS; Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Corps); and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). First, all of the agencies acknowledge that they still have additional work to do to fully comply with the act's requirements to identify all of their NAGPRA items, establish cultural affiliations when possible, and create summaries and inventories of the items. Overall, the Corps, the Forest Service, and NPS did the most work to identify their NAGPRA items. BLM, BOR, and FWS did some work, and BIA and TVA have done the least amount of work. Second, some of the eight agencies, along with some other federal agencies, have not fully complied with NAGPRA's requirement to publish notices of inventory completion for all of their culturally affiliated human remains and associated funerary objects in the Federal Register. Until agencies (1) identify all of the possible NAGPRA items in their historical collections, (2) establish cultural affiliations to the extent possible, and (3) publish the required notices, they cannot repatriate their Native American human remains and objects. To fulfill the Secretary of the Interior's responsibilities under NAGPRA, National NAGPRA has taken some actions consistent with the act, such as publishing notices in the Federal Registerand administering a grants program. However, GAO identified some actions of concern. National NAGPRA developed a list of Indian tribes eligible under NAGPRA that was inconsistent with BIA's official list of federally recognized tribes and departmental policy. Furthermore, National NAGPRA did not always screen nominations for Review Committee positions properly and, in a few cases, inappropriately recruited nominees for Review Committee positions. Through fiscal year 2009, 55 percent of the human remains and 68 percent of the associated funerary objects that have been published in notices of inventory completion had been repatriated, according to agency data and GAO's survey results. Agencies are required to permanently document their repatriations, but they are not required to compile and report that information to anyone. Only three agencies--the Corps, the Forest Service, and NPS--centrally track their repatriations. These three agencies, however, along with the other federal agencies that have published notices, generally do not report any of their data on repatriations to National NAGPRA or to Congress. As a result, policymakers, Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiians organizations do not have access to readily available information about culturally affiliated NAGPRA items that have not been repatriated. According to officials, the remaining items have not been repatriated for a variety of reasons, such as a lack of repatriation requests and financial constraints. GAO recommends, among other things, that the Departments of Agriculture, Defense, and the Interior as well as TVA report to Congress the actions that they need to take to fully comply with the act and that they report the status of their repatriations to National NAGPRA. GAO is also recommending that National NAGPRA make improvements in its facilitation of the act. Agriculture, Interior, and TVA agreed with GAO's recommendations. The Department of Defense did not provide comments on the report.

 
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