Nature: GAO about to release report on NAGPRA office at Interior
"To scientists, ancient human bones and artefacts from Native American burial sites can offer a unique window onto history. But to some modern Native American tribes, allowing researchers to study these remains amounts to desecration. Long-standing tensions between the two groups were meant to be eased by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, which allows tribes to reclaim many remains held in museum collections.

But the first official audit of the government agency that administers NAGPRA portrays a troubled organization that has failed to serve tribes well, and does not always give a fair hearing to scientists' claims. The final report, from the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), is expected by autumn, but Nature has obtained a draft that is currently under review. Both the GAO and the NAGPRA office in Washington DC declined to comment on the draft.

The act created a system in which museums, universities or federal agencies that hold ancient skeletal remains and associated funerary objects had to file inventories of such items by 1995 with the NAGPRA office, part of the US Department of the Interior. Any tribe could reclaim items that were shown to be culturally affiliated with it, while the remainder could be kept by institutions for further study. The GAO report says that under the NAGPRA, 142,186 specimens have been repatriated from 209,626 publicly disclosed items. These constitute 55% of the human remains and 69% of the associated funerary objects that were inventoried.

But determinations of cultural affiliation often prove to be ambiguous and contentious, as in the Kennewick man dispute, in which the US courts ruled in 2004 that scientists could retain a 9,000-year-old skeleton from Washington state. In May this year, tensions ratcheted up when the Department of the Interior unveiled a federal rule that could allow tribes to claim thousands more artefacts — with no cultural connection — if they had been found near tribal lands. Some scientists are already considering legal challenges to prevent these repatriations."

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Audit picks a bone with US relics office (Nature 7/21)