By Rob Capriccioso
Indian Country Today
WASHINGTON - One area of the Obama administration's proposed fiscal year 2011 budget sticks out like a sore thumb. While most Indian-focused programs are remaining steady or are set to make increases, the National Park Service has proposed to dramatically reduce the amount available for NAGPRA grants.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is the 1990 law that created a legal process for federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funding to return American Indian human remains and cultural items to respective tribes or lineal descendants.
NAGPRA grants, supported by appropriations from Congress, are meant to build cultural resources capacity for Indian tribes, Native Hawaiian organizations and museums, so they may work to fulfill the law.
For the past three years, Congress has appropriated $2,331,000 each year for the NAGPRA grants program, which is widely heralded by many tribes for its ability to help them get up to speed on carrying out the intentions of the law.
Despite the tribal appreciation of the program, the Park Service only requested $1,750,000 for it in 2011. That's a decrease of $581,000 or 25 percent of the level Congress appropriated for the program in 2010.
The dramatically curtailed request comes at a time soon after the Park Service reported the actual number of grant applications has more than doubled since fiscal year 2008.
The national review committee that oversees NAGPRA-related issues has long been concerned the grants program should not be shortchanged - and it has seen a need to increase, not reduce, its funding. The committee recommended in its 2008 report to Congress that the grant amount be increased to $4.1 million.
So, it is all the more puzzling to tribal officials why the Park Service is trying to cut the program via its reduced budget proposal.
"It would be one thing if Congress didn't want to support this successful program," said Colin Kippen, a former chairman of the review committee.
"But why is the agency that knows all too well the importance of these grants trying to reduce the amount available to tribes, Native Hawaiians and museums?
"I am really troubled by this, especially because it reduces capacity-building surrounding NAGPRA at the very time when more tribes have learned about items that should be repatriated."
In the past, NAGPRA officials have said the grants program just wasn't popular enough to dole out all the funds appropriated by Congress, so the officials who run the program ended up reshuffling funding to use the grants money for other purposes.
The reshuffling of funds away from the grants program was so alarming to Ronnie Lupe, chairman of the White Mountain Apache Tribe, that he wrote a letter to NAGPRA headquarters in 2008, saying his tribe has "deep concern and disappointment" over the way officials there have handled the program. One of his concerns is that the NAGPRA office may show bias against tribal cultural resource directors who might not be the best grant writers, but who know the traditional ways of their people.
Also, since there is only one Native person on the NAGPRA staff, Lupe and others have said the office sometimes suffers a disconnect from the communities it aims to serve.
After the fiscal year 2011 budget reduction announcement, some tribal officials are questioning whether the Park Service and federal NAGPRA officials are boldly trying to codify less money to the grant program, so they may more easily do as they see fit with congressional funds.
"That's one question that needs to be asked," said Kippen, who suggested tribal officials contact the Government Accountability Office to report their concerns. The GAO is currently in the process of investigating NAGPRA officials as a result of concerns raised in a 2008 report co-authored by the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and the Makah Nation.
NATHPO continues to track the developments of the grants program and is disheartened by the Park Service's 2011 budget request.
"NATHPO is concerned about this severe reduction [in the program] as the NAGPRA grant program was designed to be, and is the major source of federal support made available to Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations to seek the return of their ancestors and sacred items," said D. Bambi Kraus, director of the organization.
Ramon Riley, director of cultural resources with the White Mountain Apache Tribe, said the elimination of a substantial portion of the program will likely cause on-the-ground problems for many tribes. His tribe was able to use one of the grants in recent years to become better at fulfilling its NAGPRA mission.
"It's not right for this program to be reduced. It helps tribes build capacity to carry out the law and protect their sacred items and people."
In response to questions about the proposed cutback, Sherry Hutt, program manager for the national NAGPRA program, said times are lean.
"As to why the amount for grants has gone down, I do not have more to tell you than the general sense that budgets are tight across the board in federal agencies.
"You will note that Congress cut certain grants programs to zero as they did not think they had a clear sense of mission and criteria for awards. Obviously, Congress and the Department of the Interior do support the NAGPRA grants program, as funding continues even in difficult financial times."
To date, Hutt's explanations of the NAGPRA grant situation have raised general concern in Indian country, but her office's new budget request changes may raise more red flags, some tribal affairs experts believe.
"It's time to bring our concerns to the GAO and Congress," Riley said. "Something is wrong here."