Levi Rickert, editor-in-chief in Native Challenges. Discussion »
WASHINGTON - The repatriation process of American Indian human remains and funerary objects by the Smithsonian Institution is lengthy, cost a lot of money and may ultimately take several more decades to return items to American Indian tribes under its current system, according to the US Government Accountability Office, GAO.
This GAO report is the second of a two-part, three-year effort to examine how publicly funded institutions are complying with the two federal laws that direct repatriation to Native Americans. Last year the GAO examined the repatriation work of eight key Federal agencies and the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, NAGPRA.
According to the GAO report, "Smithsonian Institution: Much Work Still Needed to Identify and Repatriate Indian Human Remains and Objects," examiners suggest that Congress should consider ways to expedite the repatriation process and that the Board of Regents considers four administrative changes.
In 1989, Congress passed a law that created a repatriation process for the Smithsonian Institution; two of the institution's 19 galleries and museums hold important collections of American Indian human remains and sacred objects.
The law also created the National Museum of the American Indian. Though not certain of the exact number, the Smithsonian states it has about 20,000 catalog records of American Indian human remains, in addition to many more catalog records of cultural objects held at the National Museum of Natural History and the American Indian museum. Only a quarter of these have been repatriated to the rightful Native Indian owners, according to the GAO report released in May.
In addition to not regularly reporting to Congress, federal auditors said the repatriation process is lengthy and resource intensive. Both museums use a two-step repatriation process that starts with a printout from an electronic catalogue system that lists human remains and cultural objects that is sent to the tribe. The Indian tribe is then required to file a claim to either museum indicating their interest. Only then does the museum begin a lengthy process of using the "best available information" to build a case report that may or may not recommend repatriation. This process requires an American Indian tribe to review thousands of electronic records, which, many times do not contain all relevant information.
When the Smithsonian did repatriate remains and objects, the GAO discovered it took a median of nearly three years for an item to be returned by the Natural History museum and a median of 1.5 years at the American Indian museum.
"The GAO has confirmed twice now that the two federal laws enacted for the benefit of Native American lineal descendants and communities are not working. The amount of work that needs to be done by Indian country is overwhelming, whether at the Smithsonian or at a federal agency repository," said Reno Keoni Franklin, chairman of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, NATHPO. "Unless changes are made, the burden has been shifted to the Indian tribes and most simply do not have the resources to conduct this important work."
NATHPO supports the GAO's recommendations that Congress seek to expedite the Smithsonian's repatriation process and that the Board of Regent's take actions to expand the oversight and reporting role of the Smithsonian's Repatriation Committee, establish an administrative appeals process, and develop a policy for the disposition of culturally unidentifiable remains and cultural items. In addition, NATHPO calls for Congress to ensure that the Smithsonian will:
NATHPO also calls on Congress to request a GAO examination of the repatriation work being conducted by the approximately 450 museums that hold over 110,000 American Indian remains.
Last year, the GAO audited eight key agencies, including the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, and issued
In 2008, NATHPO, in partnership with the Makah Tribe, conducted an independent audit of NAGPRA, which led to the 2010 GAO report. The GAO began its work on NAGPRA in 2009 based on a joint request by then Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) and Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV). The U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs will conduct a hearing June 16 on the policy goals of NAGPRA and the Smithsonian.
posted June 15, 2011 8:17 am et
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