Federal agency erased data to hide mismanagement of Native American remains, says whistleblower

Image: nathpo.org

Image: nathpo.org

A former Tribal Historical Preservation Officer's complaint has sparked calls for an investigation into claims that federal officials ignored a law that says human remains and relics must be documented, preserved and ultimately returned to Native American tribes.

Snip from Associated Press:

The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has directed the Interior Department to investigate whether U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials have violated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act while managing collections of remains and artifacts amassed during the construction and management of dams and waterways throughout California and parts of Nevada and Oregon.

A whistleblower complained that the bureau in Sacramento erased records within an Interior Department database and altered spreadsheets in an effort to hide mismanagement of collections under the agency's control, resulting in hundreds of remains and artifacts being lost, boxed up for storage or loaned to museums and universities without the ability to track them.

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a watchdog group, is calling for the investigation to be expanded to cover more U.S. agencies, and more regions of the country.

Here's the full text of PEER's July 10, 2014 announcement:

Federal Office Stopped Cataloguing Discoveries, Tracking Loans or Notifying Tribes

Hundreds of Native American human remains and relics are lost in a bureaucratic jumble, according to a detailed whistleblower disclosure posted by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). In response, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has directed the Secretary of Interior to conduct a formal investigation into systemic violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).

NAGPRA requires federal agencies to account for all newly discovered or currently held Native American human remains and artifacts both to preserve and ultimately return them to Indian tribes and descendants to whom they rightfully belong. Due to its work excavating dams and reservoirs, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is one of the West's largest repositories of Native American remains and funerary objects.

A combination of budget cuts and the low priority assigned by Reclamation managers caused NAGPRA responsibilities to fall by the wayside, according to Patrick Williams, a former Museum Specialist in Archeology at the Mid-Pacific Regional Office in Sacramento, California. As a result, Reclamation –

Ceased detailed cataloging of new remains and death rite relics discovered, leaving collections boxed up in storage;

Did not keep track of collections on loan to museums and universities; and

Routinely failed to notify tribes of ancestral recoveries, thus blocking any chance of repatriating ancestral remains, one of the main purposes of NAGPRA.

OSC, which implements the federal Whistleblower Protection Act, found that Williams' disclosures of legal violations as well as "abuse of authority and gross mismanagement" by Reclamation met the statutory standard of having a "substantial likelihood of validity." On July 1, 2014, the Special Counsel transmitted Williams' disclosure to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell with a directive for requiring her agency to investigate and report back within 60 days. At that point, Williams can review that response and it is up to OSC to accept or reject the response or order Interior to fill in evidentiary gaps.

"Reclamation has abdicated its legal duty to track and protect these sacred objects," stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, noting that Williams' frustration in repeatedly failing to get his chain-of-command to address these issues led him to leave in disgust. "If these were your ancestors' remains, you would be aghast to see them treated like a Lost and Found rummage bin."

Typical of the barriers Williams faced was a September 7, 2012 memo entitled "Museum Property Procedures" which was never countermanded, in which Williams and his colleagues were directed:

"LOANS* For now, loan slips found in collections will be noted and not pursued at this time.
HUMAN REMAINS* Collections with human remains will be set aside for now."

"Not only has Reclamation lost hundreds of human remains and artifacts but it has barred Indian tribes and their members from the repatriation process," Ruch added. "The managers responsible for this fiasco should be fired."