Vandalism and looting remains a threat to sacred sites, ancestral lands and burial grounds, according to tribal advocates. Here, a rock panel on U.S. Forest Service lands in Utah was damaged. The area is part of the disputed Bears Ears National Monument. Photo by Tim Peterson

A 'dark period' in American history: Repatriation committee gets back on track

The Trump administration has finally announced new members of a committee whose goal is to ensure compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The NAGPRA Review Committee had been on hold ever since Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke joined the Trump team more than a year ago. But after a long wait, he announced John Beaver, Honor K. Keeler, and Barnaby V. Lewis as the new members of the advisory panel.

“I am grateful that John, Honor and Barnaby have agreed to serve on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee,” Zinke said in a press release on Tuesday. “These roles are incredibly important in advising the department on decisions on Native American human remains and cultural items. Their experience and guidance will be incredibly beneficial to the committee.”

Prior to the announcement, the seven-member committee was down to just three members. And it hasn't met in more than a year amid complaints from tribes and Democrats on Capitol Hill.

"How can the department adequately enforce NAGPRA when Secretary Zinke put the review committee on hiatus, indefinitely?" Sen. Tom Udall (D-New Mexico), the vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, said at a hearing last November.

Honor Keeler, far right, testified at a field hearing of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on October 28, 2016. Photo: Tom Udall

But with the committee finally back on track, one of the new members is eager to get to work. Honor Keeler has focused on repatriation issues as an assistant director for Utah Diné Bikéyah, an organization based on the Navajo Nation.

“The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee exists because of a dark period in U.S. history when the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples was not obtained, and the graves and funerary objects of their families and ancestors were disturbed and stolen,” Keeler, who is a a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, said on Tuesday.

Despite NAGPRA's passage in 1990, burial grounds, ancestral lands and sacred sites continue to face threats. In 2016 alone, Keeler said more than 12 cases of looting and vandalism were reported within the Bears Ears National Monument, whose boundaries in Utah remain the subject of dispute after President Donald Trump dismantled it late last year.

“Repatriation is important and difficult work. It involves bringing forward injustice and intergenerational trauma for many tribes," she said. "And for many institutions, the repatriation process causes a deep reflection of institutional history and current practices.”

The NAGPRA Review Committee was established by Congress to address exactly those kinds of issues. The panel consists of tribal officials, spiritual leaders and other experts who monitor and review implementation of the law, which requires federal agencies, museums and other institutions that receive federal funds to inventory their collections and return ancestors and artifacts to tribes and lineal descendants.

And when disputes arise with institutions, the NAGPRA Review Committee is often called in to provide guidance. Though its findings are not binding, they can be influential in helping return ancestors and remains to their rightful places.

"We are talking about grave robbery and Indigenous people’s ancestors and cultural items that are being taken, have been taken and are still being taken from their appropriate resting places," said Willie Greyeyes, a Navajo citizen who serves as chairman of the board for Utah Diné Bikéyah. "These objects need to come back physically and ceremonially."

In addition to Keeler, two other tribal experts are joining the NAGPRA Review Committee. John Beaver is a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation who previously served as curator for the tribe's cultural center in Oklahoma.

Barnaby V. Lewis, a citizen of the Gila River Indian Community, is also on board. He serves as the historic preservation officer for his tribe, which is based in Arizona.

Secretary Zinke plans to appoint the seventh member of the NAGPRA Review Committee this summer. Nominations are open until June 4, according to a notice published in the Federal Register.

The committee has yet to announce a meeting -- the last one took place in Colorado in March 2017. Another one was supposed to take place in July 2017 but it was was canceled by the Trump administration.

Even though the committee was on hold for an extended period of time, the NAGPRA program itself has continued work. Grant award are expected by August and hundreds of repatriation notices have been published in the Federal Register.

Federal Register Notice:
Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee: Notice of Nomination Solicitation (May 6, 2018)

Government Accountability Office Report -- Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act: After Almost 20 Years, Key Federal Agencies Still Have Not Fully Complied with the Act:
Summary | Highlights | Full Report

Government Accountability Office Report -- Key Federal Agencies' and the Smithsonian Institution's Efforts to Identify and Repatriate Indian Human Remains and Objects:
Highlights | Full Report

Related Stories:
Few fines under Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (May 7, 2018)
Tribes set to reclaim ancestral remains uncovered in Idaho (May 7, 2018)
Chip Colwell: Rights of the dead and the living clash over DNA studies (April 6, 2018)
Secretary Zinke criticized for offering Japanese greeting at hearing (March 16, 2018)
Tribes seek to repatriate ancestral remains uncovered in Idaho (February 7, 2018)
Secretary Zinke refused to meet with National Park Service advisory board (January 17, 2018)
Trump administration sets up roadblocks as tribes call for return of sacred items (November 8, 2017)
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