Indian Issues:

Key Federal Agencies' and the Smithsonian Institution's Efforts to Identify and Repatriate Indian Human Remains and Objects

GAO-11-755T: Published: Jun 16, 2011. Publicly Released: Jun 16, 2011.

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The National Museum of the American Indian Act of 1989 (NMAI Act), as amended in 1996, generally requires the Smithsonian Institution to inventory and identify the origins of its Indian and Native Hawaiian human remains and objects placed with them (funerary objects) and repatriate them to culturally affiliated Indian tribes upon request. According to the Smithsonian, two of its museums--the American Indian and the Natural History Museums--have items that are subject to the NMAI Act. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted in 1990, includes similar requirements for federal agencies and museums. The National NAGPRA office, within the Department of the Interior's National Park Service, facilitates the governmentwide implementation of NAGPRA. Each act requires the establishment of a committee to monitor and review repatriation activities. GAO's testimony is based on its July 2010 report on NAGPRA implementation (GAO-10-768) and its May 2011 report on Smithsonian repatriation (GAO-11-515). The testimony focuses on the extent to which key federal agencies have complied with NAGPRA's requirements and the extent to which the Smithsonian has fulfilled its repatriation requirements.

GAO found that almost 20 years after NAGPRA was enacted, eight key federal agencies with significant historical collections--Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Reclamation, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service; Agriculture's U.S. Forest Service; the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; and the Tennessee Valley Authority--have not fully complied with the requirements of the act. All of the agencies acknowledged that they still have additional work to do and some have not fully complied with NAGPRA's requirement to publish notices of inventory completion for all of their culturally affiliated human remains and associated funerary objects in the Federal Register. In addition, GAO found two areas of concern with the National NAGPRA office's activities. First, National NAGPRA had developed a list of Indian tribes for the purposes of carrying out NAGPRA that was inconsistent with BIA's official list of federally recognized tribes and an Interior legal opinion. Second, National NAGPRA did not always screen nominations for NAGPRA Review Committee positions properly. GAO found that repatriations were generally not tracked or reported governmentwide. However, based on GAO's compilation of federal agencies' repatriation data, through September 30, 2009, federal agencies had repatriated 55 percent of the human remains and 68 percent of the associated funerary objects that had been published in notices of inventory completion. The relevant agencies agreed with the recommendations in both reports and GAO is making no new recommendations at this time.

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