It’s a scandal only a few people have heard of and even fewer media outlets are reporting on.
As Harry Reid and his ilk railed against the Washington Redskins, a whistleblower complained hundreds of Native American Indian remains and artifacts being lost, boxed up for storage or loaned to museums and universities without the ability to track them.
Perhaps the attack on the football team was a deliberate ruse to distract attention from what the Obama Administration is doing to Indian tribes, especially in the West. The Bureau of Reclamation has erased records within an Interior Department database and changed spreadsheets to hide mismanagement of Indian collections under the agency’s control.
Since 1990, the bureau has been tasked with finding and returning artifacts and remains to their rightful owners under a federal law known as The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The federal government’s handling of such remains and artifacts, though has been criticized for years.
A Government Accountability Office report in 2010 was critical of the Interior Department after the agency asked for more money and eight years to come into compliance with the law. But documents also show the Mid-Pacific Bureau in Sacramento deleted hundreds of records hiding several years of errors.
A document from the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, (PEER), outlines a number of times where the bureau failed to catalog human remains and artifacts, failed to track loans, deleted records, and to let tribes know of recoveries. A filing with the Office of Special Counsel also raised questions about the agency not complying with the law once it stopped keeping records.
The office also routinely failed to tell tribes of long-stored and newly uncovered remains and funeral objects. Some of the collections date back to the 1970s, when the federal government was building the New Melones dam and reservoir on the Stanislaus River, west of Jamestown, California.
In August 2010, the Smithsonian Institution returned several artifacts to California’s largest tribe, the Yurok, in what is one of the largest repatriation of ceremonial artifacts in U.S. history.
The Yurok received 217 sacred items stored on museum shelves for nearly 100 years. The necklaces, headdresses, arrows, hides and other things from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian are thought to be a least a thousand years old.
Some of the items included woven baskets, headdresses, eagle and condor feathers, head rolls made from pileated woodpecker scalps, white deer skins, obsidian blades and flint, all of which were used for centuries in sacred rituals and dances.
The returned artifacts were purchased in the 1920s by Grace Nicholson who owned a curio shop in Pasadena, California. After she acquired them, she sold some of them to private collectors like Harmon Hendricks and George Gustav Heye, and eventually they became part of the Museum of the American Indian in New York.
Last month, the Smithsonian returned another of 128 ceremonial pieces. The most recent items included a basket cap decorated with shells, dresses adorned with abalone, arrow quivers made from woodpecker scalps, and “jump sticks” decorated with woodpecker heads.
And while most of items have now been returned, the museum is keeping 15 ceremonial caps that the tribe is working to acquire. As the tribe works to get the caps back, it also has plans to file claims against three more museums, including one in Del Norte County, another in Portland, Oregon, and with the University of Washington’s museum.
The 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act (similar to NAGPRA) transferred stewardship of more than 800,000 Indian artifacts to the Smithsonian and required the institute to consider repatriating them to federally recognized tribes.
While it’s unclear how widespread the problem is, PEER said it wouldn’t be surprised if similar things were happening elsewhere given that budget shortfalls and other priorities are challenges found throughout the agency. The Secretary of the Interior now has 60 days to investigate the whistleblower’s accusations and report back to the Office of Special Counsel.