Park Service Archeological Scandal Sparks No Reforms

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Monday, April 15, 2024
Jeff Ruch (510) 213-7028


Park Service Archeological Scandal Sparks No Reforms

Trade in Native American Skulls and Funerary Pots Did Not Trigger Charges


Washington, DC — A multi-year investigation has concluded that two National Park Service (NPS) archeologists committed extensive financial and ethical improprieties, but their trafficking in stolen Native American human remains did not constitute violations of law. That result creates a bad precedent which may hinder the legally required repatriation of such materials in the future, according to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

A whistleblower allegation filed through the U.S. Office of Special Counsel in 2021 ultimately led to an investigation conducted by the Interior Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG). The targets of that probe were two NPS archeologists, Jeff Shanks and Mike Russo, who worked at the agency’s Southeast Archeological Center (SEAC). While working for NPS, the two were also setting up a private archeology business while misusing NPS resources, including letterhead.

The IG referred these violations to the U.S. Attorney, who declined prosecution. NPS initially ignored internal complaints about the archeologists’ conduct and initiated proposed disciplinary action against Shanks and Russo only after the IG report, but the pair resigned before that came to fruition.

The IG also substantiated that in 2017, Shanks and Russo befriended a known looter of burial mounds who offered to sell his collection of funerary pots and two Native American skulls. The two archeologists retained a straw buyer to “purchase” the materials, which were then stored at the SEAC facility. For five years, the funerary pots were kept in cardboard boxes while students and staff handled, photographed, and researched the skulls and pots. All the while, they did not inform any federally recognized tribe that they possessed the collection, as required by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

The IG agents found 21 funerary pots still sitting on shelves within the SEAC facility, yet –

  • To date, no tribe has been informed, let alone consulted, about these events;
  • Rather than contact any tribe, the skulls were given to the State of Florida Bureau of Archeological Collections for storage, where they remain today; and
  • NPS did not change SEAC management or issue any procedural changes to prevent recurrence despite adopting rules to strengthen NAGPRA implementation in 2023.

“By ignoring these blatant desecrations and focusing only on ethics violations, the IG made a bad situation worse,” stated Pacific PEER Director Jeff Ruch, noting that the IG wrongly concluded the archeologists did not technically violate NAGPRA because it could not prove the notorious looter lacked a “permit” of which there was no record. “The whole point of NAGPRA is to protect Native American burial mounds and graves from systematic desecration in the name of ‘archeological science.’”

The absence of consequences for the two archeologists in this case until a whistleblower stepped forward and put their career on the line follows a pattern of lenient treatment for higher-ups within NPS, a perception reflected in dismally low morale scores in the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. This perception is also compounded by recent promotions of senior managers within NPS who had engaged in serious misconduct.

“As an institution, the Park Service has a deep history of being accountability proof,” added Ruch, pointing to the NPS whitewashing of years of tremendous cultural resource damage at Effigy Mounds National Monument by agency officials. “Without the whistleblower stepping up, the outrageous misconduct in this case would almost certainly still be going on.”


Read the Special Counsel referral letter

View the Interior IG report 

Compare the whistleblower’s comments

Scan Special Counsel’s letter to President Biden

Examine 2023 NPS rules to strengthen NAGPRA implementation

Look at abysmal NPS employee morale survey ratings

See NPS history of promoting bad actors

Revisit the Effigy Mounds scandal

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