ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — An independent federal agency is calling for an investigation into allegations that U.S. officials ignored a law requiring them to catalog, preserve and ultimately return human remains and relics to American Indian tribes.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel has directed the Interior Department to investigate whether U.S. Bureau of Reclamation officials have violated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act while managing collections of remains and artifacts amassed during the construction and management of dams and waterways throughout California and parts of Nevada and Oregon.
A whistleblower complained that the bureau in Sacramento erased records within an Interior Department database and altered spreadsheets in an effort to hide mismanagement of collections under the agency's control, resulting in hundreds of remains and artifacts being lost, boxed up for storage or loaned to museums and universities without the ability to track them.
The watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility told The Associated Press on Wednesday that it hopes the inquiry will be expanded to cover more agencies and more parts of the West.
"These are relics that do not belong to the American government," said Jeff Ruch, the group's executive director. "The point of the law is they belong to the tribes from which they came. If these were your ancestors' remains and they were boxed up someplace where you couldn't get any information about them, you'd be pretty angry."
A spokesman with the Bureau of Reclamation's Mid-Pacific office could not immediately comment, saying he was unaware of the whistleblower's case and the call for an investigation.
The federal government's handling of Native American remains and artifacts has been criticized for years. Following a critical report by the Government Accountability Office in 2010, the Interior Department asked for more money and at least eight years to bolster compliance with the law.
But progress has been slow and frustrating, and communication with tribes is still lacking, said D. Bambi Kraus, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers. "It's encouraging that this is being investigated," she said.
A filing with the Office of Special Counsel shows Patrick Williams, who used to work as a museum specialist in archaeology in the bureau's Mid-Pacific office, raised concerns with his supervisors that the agency was not complying with the law's requirements once it stopped keeping detailed records of remains and relics. He also said the office was not filling out the proper paperwork when loaning out artifacts, essentially making the items untraceable.
The office routinely failed to notify tribes of long-stored and newly uncovered remains and funerary objects, Williams said. Some of the collections date back to the 1970s, when the federal government was building the New Melones dam and reservoir in California.
"They more or less wanted to sweep it under the rug," Williams said in an interview. "They were telling me to change things they didn't want to see in the record and not to record information that tribal members might want to see as part of a repatriation request."
Williams said his supervisors told him creating detailed files of the remains and artifacts to comply with the law was "too complicated and required too much time and effort." He said his concerns resulted in hostility and threats of termination.
"I'm not about to break the law for anybody, and they wanted me to go along with it," Williams said. "I would rather step out, and that's what I did."
A combination of budget cuts and the low priority assigned by bureau managers resulted in responsibilities under the law falling by the wayside, Williams said.
While it's unclear how widespread the compliance problem is, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility 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.
"This is a statutory duty they feel they can ignore," Ruch said. "The most important part is tribes aren't being consulted, so there's nothing to prevent this from going on for years and years."
The Office of Special Counsel has given the Interior Department 60 days to investigate the allegations and report back.
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