Federal officials have ordered an investigation into a whistleblower's allegations that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation routinely hid widespread mismanagement of human remains the agency collected while it built and managed dams across California, Nevada and Oregon.
According to the Associated Press, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel is ordering the U.S. Department of Interior to conduct the investigation into whether the Bureau of Reclamation's Mid-Pacific office in Sacramento violated the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, causing hundreds of human remains to become lost—possibly forever—as they were boxed-up or loaned out without any way of tracking them.
Jeff Ruch, executive director of the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, told the AP, "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."
Ruch says that he hopes the investigation will be expanded to cover more federal agencies across the West.
According to officials, Patrick Williams—a former museum specialist in archaeology at the bureau's Mid-Pacific office—informed his supervisors that the agency was breaking federal law by not keeping detailed records of remains and relics, and by not notifying tribes of any discovered remains.
Williams says that his bosses claimed that the law was too complicated and keeping detailed records required too much time and effort.
Or, in short, he claims that the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation—the federal agency charged with building and operating most of the dams and reservoirs in the American West—was committing what amounts to mass grave robbery via breathtaking laziness and utter indifference.
He told the AP that his concerns were met with 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."
Historically speaking, the federal government—and the United States in general—have been wholly catastrophic failures on pretty much every possible level when it comes to dealing with living American Indians in a dignified, respectful or even vaguely humane manner—much less their graves.
But the way the nation has handled the remains of dead Native Americans is nothing short of horrifying.
For most of the 19th and 20th centuries, federal officials, universities, museums and private individuals routinely plundered the graves of American Indians for bodies and relics under the often dubious—and typically racist—guise of "scientific research," and repatriation of those remains back to their respective tribes has been a slow process.
For example, "The Father of American Archaeology" Thomas Jefferson systematically excavated a Native American burial mound near his home in Monticello, Virginia, sometime in the 1770's or 1780's—removing the bones of "a thousand skeletons."
Starting in 1867, the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C. began removing the skulls of Native Americans from battlefields and reservation graves for study by medical staff—skull size was at the time considered a good indicator of intelligence, and many experts in the fields of anthropology at the time were anxious to prove the superiority of the white race based on skull size.
A number of prestigious eastern institutions like the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History began collecting remains—plundering fresh graves and ancient burial grounds for specimens. The Smithsonian Institution alone is estimated to have collected the remains of some 18,500 Native Americans.
The University of California system has a particularly shady history when it comes to the remains of Native Americans:
"During the first half of the 20th century, California's anthropologists played a leading role in both the exhumation of graves and the trade in funerary artifacts. Ralph Glidden, a self-styled archaeologist, filled and decorated the Santa Catalina Island museum with hundreds of crania and bones taken from Tongva graves. UCLA bought what remained of his collection in 1962. Fifty years later, the university still housed 200 body parts exhumed by Glidden.
At Berkeley, archaeologist Edward Gifford tested his eugenic theories of racial difference on the skulls of native peoples sent to the university by collectors all over the state. By 1948, Berkeley was boasting to Life magazine that its Native American collection included "more than 10,000 Indian skeletons, many of them complete." A full-page photograph depicted a room full of human remains and a graduate student using a "craniometer to measure an ancient Indian skull." A colleague recalls seeing human bones displayed in the landmark Campanile in the early 1960s."
Some of the excavated remains wound up being displayed in traveling carnivals or exhibitions. The 1893 World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago had a display of both living and dead Native Americans which was intended to be both entertaining and proof of the superiority of white people over "primitive" peoples.
The problem of grave robbing reached such a point that many tribes resorted to finding secret locations to bury their dead.
After his violent death at the hands of guards while in U.S. Army custody at Fort Robinson, Nebraska, in 1877, the body of famed Lakota Chief Crazy Horse was spirited away by his parents to be buried in a still-unknown spot somewhere in modern-day southern South Dakota.
One of the worst modern examples of Native American grave desecration happened at Slack Farm in Kentucky, when 10 looters armed with bulldozers dug into the site of a nearly 600-year-old settlement, tossing aside bones and destroying artifacts as they searched for valuables.
The profiting in stolen Native American artifacts is also becoming an international problem.
The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, signed into law in 1990 partly in response to what happened at Slack Farm, requires federal agencies and any institution that receives federal funding to return Native American and Native Hawaiian remains, sacred objects and other relics to their respective relatives and tribes.
It also makes trafficking in the remains of Native Americans a felony offense.
Since being signed into law, it's estimated that the remains of around 32,000 individuals have been repatriated to their respective tribes, along with hundreds of thousands of relics and other objects.
But budget cuts at the Interior Department have made compliance with the law a low priority, and Native American groups say the progress has been "slow and frustrating."
Williams' allegations against the Bureau of Reclamation includes charges that the human remains held in storage by the agency—the collection of which dates back as far as the construction in the 1960's and 1970's of the New Melones Dam and Reservoir in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California—were loaned to museums and universities without the required paperwork, making the remains virtually untraceable.
Williams also alleges that the agency erased an Interior Department database of records and altered spreadsheets to hide the mismanagement.
A spokesperson for the Bureau of Reclamation told the AP that they were unaware of the allegations or of any pending investigation.
The Office of Special Counsel has given the Interior Department 60 days to complete their probe.
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