Thousands of Indian Remains Left in Bureaucratic Limbo

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Thousands of Indian Remains Left in Bureaucratic Limbo

OSC Finds Cataloging and Repatriation Requirements Remain “Goal, Not Reality”

Washington, DC — A vast trove of Native American human remains and artifacts dug up in federal irrigation projects sit in boxes in violation of a law requiring they be inventoried and repatriated, according to a finding by the U.S. Special Counsel in a whistleblower disclosure filed through Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Nor have any remains been returned to the Indian tribes and descendants to whom they rightfully belong, which is the purpose of the law.

The law is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The agency is the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which possesses one of the West’s largest accumulations of Native American remains and funerary objects. In a disclosure filed with the Office of Special Counsel (OSC) in August 2013, Patrick Williams, a former Museum Specialist at the Bureau’s Sacramento Regional Office, detailed NAGPRA violations by its systematic failure to catalog new remains and death rite relics, track loans of collections, or notify tribes of ancestral recoveries.

The OSC found that Williams’ disclosure had a “substantial likelihood of validity” and transmitted it in July 2014 to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell who, in turn, tasked the Bureau to respond. Over the ensuing months, the Bureau submitted mounds of paper in its attempt to refute the charges. Ultimately, in a September 22nd letter to the President and both houses of Congress, Special Counsel Carolyn Lerner wrote that while some progress had been made: “Mr. Williams is correct that full NAGPRA compliance remains ‘a goal’ and is not yet reality.” She also called for a future review of the Bureau’s compliance in 2017.

“Frankly, the Bureau spent all its efforts trying to deny that there was a problem rather than fixing it,” said Mr. Williams. “In the course of its lengthy investigation, it did not open a single box, audit records, or consult outside experts – it simply conducted self-exonerating interviews of its own staff.”

Although denying NAGPRA violations, the Bureau of Reclamation admits that it –

  • Still has a backlog of more than 164,000 uncatalogued items;
  • Needs to initiate consultation with affected tribes; and
  • Is seeking $500,000 to hire six additional staff to address problems it maintains do not exist.

In her letter, Special Counsel Lerner credited the disclosure for the Bureau’s grudging progress:

“I commend Mr. Williams for bringing this matter to light; his disclosure and the investigation have resulted in progress toward significant change.”

“It has been more than three years since Patrick Williams made his disclosure. A lot of time and money could have been saved had the Secretary of Interior done her job and exercised oversight. Instead, she stepped aside and allowed the Bureau of Reclamation to simply circle the wagons,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch. “It is still too early to tell whether the Bureau will reach compliance with the law or will just wait until the stage lights dim to revert to recalcitrance.”


Read the Special Counsel letter to the President and Congress

Look at original whistleblower disclosure

See whistleblower rebuttal of Reclamation response

View all the disclosure filings
(Scroll down to 16-57 DI-13-3684)

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