Effigy Mounds National Monument
The Effigy Mounds National Monument is home to tribal burial grounds and other places important to nearly two dozen Indian nations. Photo: Jimmy Emerson, DVM
Full-time NAGPRA investigator hired for first time in decades
Monday, January 31, 2022
Indianz.Com

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Biden administration is taking greater steps to enforce the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, more than 30 years after the law went on the books.

On Monday, officials announced the hiring of the first full-time NAGPRA investigator at the Department of the Interior. The new employee will help ensure that museums and other institutions are complying with the federal law, which requires the return of ancestral remains and cultural property to their rightful American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian caretakers and owners.

“Repatriation is a sacred responsibility for many Native Americans,” Chuck Sams, a citizen of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation who serves as director of the National Park Service, said in a news release.

“We hope our efforts to streamline the requirements of NAGPRA and invest in additional staff will lead to more instances of proper repatriation and reburial of Indigenous ancestors and cultural items,” said Sams, who is the first Native person to lead the NPS.

And just as significantly, the NAGPRA investigator will look into violations of the law, possibly even criminal wrongdoing. Such a role is familiar to David Barland-Liles, a long-time federal government employee who helped investigate the theft of tribal ancestors from a national monument.

“David is a proven leader and skilled investigator who has helped us strengthen our government-to-government relationships with Native American tribes and I am pleased to have him serve in this critical role,” Sams said of the new NAGPRA investigator.

Barland-Liles has worked for NPS for 33 years, according to the department. He was part of a team that received the John L. Cotter Award of Special Achievement for Excellence in Archeology for helping resolve the theft of ancestral remains from the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa.

The crime was an inside job — carried out by Thomas A. Munson, the former superintendent at Effigy Mounds. He admitted he took tribal ancestors from the federal site and kept them in garbage bags in his home.

“This was a racist and bigoted act,” Patt Murphy, the NAGPRA representative for the Iowa Tribe of Kansas and Nebraska, wrote in a victim impact statement submitted in federal court.

“Thomas Munson stole them and then dumped them into cardboard boxes,” Murphy said of the ancestors that were taken from their resting places.

Munson pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 10 consecutive weekends in jail, 12 months of supervised probation and home detention for 12 months. He also agreed to produce a videotaped apology to the tribes affected by his crime and to have a written apology published in Indianz.Com and other Native news outlets.

More than six years after the November 2015 plea agreement, there is no record of a videotaped apology in Munson’s court file. No one from his defense team or the federal government ever contacted Indianz.Com to publish the apology either.

Despite the apparent lapses, the U.S. Probation and Pretrial Services System in July 2017 said Munson “complied with the conditions of probation imposed by the court” and recommended that “proceedings in the case be terminated.” There are no further entries in the case docket.

The high-profile case, though, is something of an anomaly. Rarely has anyone — an individual or an institution — been punished for violating NAGPRA since the law was enacted in November 1990.

Effigy Mounds National Monument
A bald eagles flies over the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. Photo: National Park Service

The lack of accountability was brought up during recent consultations on proposed changes to the NAGPRA regulations. One Native Hawaiian advocate said it was almost pointless to seek investigations into alleged violations of the law.

“We submitted 12 requests for investigations to National NAGPRA over the last, I don’t know, how many years,” said Edward Halealoha Ayau the former executive director of Hui Mālama I Nā Kūpuna O Hawai’i Nei, a group that has helped return Native Hawaiian ancestors to their resting places.

“Only one case was investigated,” Ayau said during a NAGPRA consultation on August 17. The Bishop Museum in Hawaii paid a civil fine of $13,500 as a result.

“This has to improve, because we’re still getting notifications from museums of inventories that they didn’t file by the deadline, but nothing seems to happen if they don’t comply,” Ayau added.

“So if you want to say facilitating respectful return, then please mean it, and those who didn’t comply should be investigated to determine whether or not they have legitimate grounds for not complying and if not, then they should be fined,” Ayau told officials and employees at Interior, including Barland-Liles, who participated in the consultations last year.

The webpage for the National NAGPRA program prominently promises “Facilitating Respectful Return” but the sessions have not yet resulted in a proposed NAGPRA rule. In the news release on Monday, the department promised that the update would be published in the Federal Register sometime “in the coming months.”

“The repatriation of human remains and sacred cultural objects, and the protection of sacred sites is integral to preserving and commemorating Indigenous culture,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland, a citizen of the Bay Mills Indian Community.

“Changes to the NAGPRA regulations are on the way and long overdue,” said Newland, who previously served as president of his tribal nation.

Interior’s announcement comes as the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs takes a deeper look at NAGPRA. An oversight hearing on Wednesday afternoon is titled “The Long Journey Home: Advancing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act’s Promise After 30 Years of Practice.”

The department is sending a representative to testify at the hearing, though it won’t be the new NAGPRA investigator. The witness list follows:

Ms. Joy Beasley
Associate Director, Cultural Resources, Partnerships and Science
National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior
Washington, DC

Dr. Anna Maria Ortiz
Director, Natural Resources and Environment
U.S. Government Accountability Office
Washington, DC

Ms. Carmen Hulu Lindsey
Chair
Office of Hawaiian Affairs
Honolulu, Hawaii

Dr. Valerie Grussing
Executive Director
National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers
Washington, DC

Dr. Rosita Worl
President
Sealaska Heritage Institute
Juneau, Alaska

The hearing takes place at 2:30pm Eastern on Wednesday in Room 628 of the Senate Dirksen Office Building. A livestream will be available on indian.senate.gov.

Effigy Mounds National Monument
A wooden boardwalk was constructed through the Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa without consulting tribes or following protocols. The boardwalk was removed in 2010. Photo: National Park Service

As for the Effigy Mounds, the theft of ancestral remains wasn’t the only blemish at the monument, which is home to hundreds of tribal burial mounds, some in unique animal and other shapes. Following Munson’s departure, staff constructed walkways, damaged sacred sites and undertook other construction projects without consulting tribes or following federal historic preservation laws, according to documents obtained by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility.

After learning of the work, one tribal leader complained that staff turned their ancestral burial grounds into “places to walk your dog,” according to one document obtained by PEER.

The tribes with cultural, historic and other connections to the Effigy Mounds National Monument follow:

Crow Creek Sioux Tribe
Flandeau Santee Sioux Tribe
Ho-Chunk Nation
Iowa Tribe of Kansas & Nebraska
Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma
Lower Sioux Indian Community
Omaha Nation
Otoe-Missouria Tribe
Ponca Tribe of Nebraska
Prairie Island Indian Community
Sac and Fox Nation of Missouri in Kansas and Nebraska
Sac and Fox Nation of Oklahoma
Sac and Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa
Santee Sioux Nation
Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community of Minnesota
Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate Tribe
Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
Upper Sioux Indian Community
Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska
Yankton Sioux Tribe

Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Notice
Oversight Hearing “The Long Journey Home: Advancing the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act’s Promise After 30 Years of Practice” (February 2, 2022)

Department of the Interior Takes Steps to Enhance Compliance of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act
National Park Service announces hiring of first full-time NAGPRA investigator

The following is the text of a January 31, 2022, news release from the Department of the Interior.

WASHINGTON — The National Park Service has hired a full-time investigator to enhance oversight and museum compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) for the first time in in the Act’s 31-year history. Additionally, the Department of the Interior recently completed consultation with 71 Tribal Nations across the United States on improvements to NAGPRA regulations. Together, these efforts will further Interior’s commitment to facilitate and ensure respectful disposition and repatriation under NAGPRA.

In July 2021, Interior announced the beginning of Tribal consultation as part of an ongoing review to update NAGPRA. The proposed changes to NAGPRA regulations, which will be made available for public review and comment in early 2022, would streamline requirements for museums and federal agencies to inventory and identify Native American human remains and cultural items in their collections.

“The repatriation of human remains and sacred cultural objects, and the protection of sacred sites is integral to preserving and commemorating Indigenous culture,” said Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Bryan Newland. “Changes to the NAGPRA regulations are on the way and long overdue.”

The proposed updates will incorporate input from more than 700 specific comments made by Indian Tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations (NHOs) during consultations. Key feedback from the robust consultation included:

  • Strengthening the authority and role of Indian Tribes and NHOs in the repatriation process,
  • Addressing barriers to timely and successful disposition and repatriation,
  • Document and address requests of Indian Tribes and NHOs when human remains or cultural items are discovered on federal or Tribal lands before items are further disturbed, and
  • Increase transparency and reporting of holdings or collections

“Repatriation is a sacred responsibility for many Native Americans. We hope our efforts to streamline the requirements of NAGPRA and invest in additional staff will lead to more instances of proper repatriation and reburial of Indigenous ancestors and cultural items,” said NPS Director Chuck Sams.

In his new role as the civil penalties investigator, David Barland-Liles will explore allegations of museums failing to comply with the requirements of NAGPRA, present findings to the Secretary of the Interior, serve as a witness in legal proceedings as necessary, support the enforcement actions of proper authorities, and provide technical assistance to institutions and federal, state and Tribal agencies on how to comply with NAGPRA. Civil penalties may be assessed against any museum that fails to comply with the requirements of NAGPRA. Barland-Liles will also work with law enforcement agents to support their work on criminal investigations that may arise from his administrative investigations.

“David is a proven leader and skilled investigator who has helped us strengthen our government-to-government relationships with Native American Tribes and I am pleased to have him serve in this critical role,” added NPS Director Sams.

Barland-Liles, a 33-year veteran of the NPS, joins in his new role after serving 25 years in NPS law enforcement. He served as the case agent of a distinguished team that successfully resolved the 1990 theft of Indigenous human remains from the museum collection of Effigy Mounds National Monument. Among Barland-Liles’ many achievements, he was awarded the John L. Cotter Award of Special Achievement for Excellence in Archeology for his work during the Effigy Mounds investigation, and he was nominated by the U.S. Attorney for the Northen District of Iowa for a Department of the Interior Distinguished Service Award.

The Department will publish a notice of proposed rulemaking for public comment in the coming months. The initial draft proposed text and the current regulations can be found on NPS’s NAGPRA website.
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