Haaland, Cole, McCollum Introduce Bill to Protect Indigenous Burial Sites From Unlawful Excavation, Theft

Published on Sep 17, 2020


September 17, 2020

Contact: Felicia Salazar, 202.981.1594

Haaland, Cole, McCollum Introduce Bill to Protect Indigenous Burial Sites From Unlawful Excavation, Theft

Bill will increase penalties for those who excavate and steal indigenous funerary objects, sacred objects, and other cultural patrimony from Tribal sites

One Pager | Bill Text 

Washington, D.C. – Today, Members of the Congressional Native American Caucus leaders, Co-Chair Deb Haaland (N.M.-01), Co-Chair Tom Cole (Okla.-04) and Co-Chair Emeritus Betty McCollum (Minn.-04) introduced and bill to protect indigenous burial sites from unlawful excavation and theft. The bill will amend the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to increase penalties for those who excavate and steal indigenous funerary objects, sacred objects, and other cultural patrimony from Tribal sites. This bill also creates efficiency in the administration and oversight of NAGPRA by transferring enforcement authority from the Interior’s U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) — the appropriate Interior department that works more closely with Tribes – and protects Tribe’s confidential information to prohibit the public disclosure of culturally sensitive information. 

“Everyone’s loved ones who have passed on deserve to be laid to rest and their burial site protected, but throughout history indigenous burial grounds have been raided and stolen from without penalty or oversight,” said Co-Chair Haaland. “The bill that we’re introducing today, will make sure our cultural items don’t continue to be stolen from Tribal lands. While money is no replacement for stealing our living sacred items, we’re bolster the penalties so looters will be adequately held accountable so our ancestors can rest in peace. ”

Co-chair Cole said, “I am proud to join my colleagues in introducing legislation to improve the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act. By delivering harsher penalties for the unlawful excavation of precious tribal items and streamlining enforcement of justice against such crimes, we can help preserve the priceless history and culture of tribal nations. The reforms outlined in our legislation will help safeguard the sacred treasures, artifacts and other items belonging to Native Americans.”

Co-Chair Emeritus McCollum said, “Excavating and stealing from sacred tribal sites is a crime, but the fines are currently so low that they do not deter this illegal conduct – which has resulted in the loss of tens of thousands of sacred items. This important legislation strengthens NAGPRA by increasing penalties and transferring oversight authority to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. By passing this bill, Congress will reinforce the need to treat indigenous sacred and cultural objects with the respect they deserve, and provide tools to help Tribes to repatriate stolen objects and ancestral remains.” 

The amendment to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) specifically

  • Amends existing penalties by increasing the monetary fine for violating NAGPRA protections to either 5% of the museum’s annual budget or 25,000, whichever is less for each substantiated failure to comply. 
  • Transfers NAGPRA’s jurisdiction, enforcement, and all other activities delegated by the Secretary of the Interior from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA).
  • Creates new section to protect Tribes’ culturally sensitive information when it is deemed “confidential” to prohibit public disclosure by the Secretary, museum, or federal agency. 
  • Establishes additional public disclosure protections for confidential information that is submitted to the review committee provided that the affected party seeks to keep the information confidential. 

The bill to amend NAGPRA has support from Tribes and organizations who have been working on this issue for generations. 

“The disturbing and illegal taking of items of tribal cultural heritage has been condemned by many tribes throughout the United States, including the Pueblos. This NAGPRA amendment is a key step in strengthening existing laws to better prevent theft and trafficking and facilitate the repatriation of our living sacrosanct items used for worship and other cultural purposes that our ancestors passed down to us. These changes are long overdue. I commend the bipartisan Co-Chairs of the Congressional Native American Caucus for their ongoing work to fight for Indigenous rights and protect our living cultural identities and spiritual practices.” - Michael Chavarria, Chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors (APCG)

“Revision to NAGPRA is long overdue.  While the original intent of NAGPRA was to wholly prevent the unlawful excavation and retention of our cultural items, it has in practice over the years provided only a minor hurdle to overcome for federally-funded local government agencies, academic institutions, and museums. Despite NAGPRA, tens of thousands of cultural objects continue to be removed from federal and tribal lands without tribal consent or meaningful consequences. The amendment to NAGPRA provides much needed revisions to help NAGPRA fulfill its original intent. We support the amendment to NAGPRA.” - Robert Deschampe, Tribal Chairman, Grand Portage Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

"On behalf of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, I express support of U.S. Representatives Deb Haaland, Tom Cole, and Betty McCollum's new Amendment to the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act of 1990 and thank them for their leadership on this issue of great importance to Indian Country. The legislation would make important, practical, and long overdue amendments to the Act. It is practical and precise and would result in conforming NAGPRA to the human rights legislation that it was always intended to be, rather than a treasure map for pot hunters. It shows great respect for our ancestors, and we thank the Congressional Native American Caucus Chairs for their leadership on this enormously important issue.” - Chief Douglas Lankford, Miami Tribe of Oklahoma

“As currently written, NAGPRA places a de minimis value on our invaluable and irreplaceable cultural objects and items.  The amendment to NAGPRA helps remedy this shortcoming by increasing the fine to a more effective amount in order prevent calculated violations of NAGPRA.  We fully support the amendment to NAGPRA.” - Kevin DuPuis, Tribal Chairman, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

“Repatriation and protection of our sacred objects and ancestors are vital to our continued existence and to passing on our teachings and culture to the next generation. The NAGPRA amendment further strengthens these protections. We support the Chairs of the Congressinoal Native American Caucus' amendment to NAGPRA.” - Cathy Chavers, Tribal Chairwoman, Bois Forte Band of Chippewa

“Protection of our ancestral graves is the most important sacred duty as tribal leaders. Illegal excavation and looting of burial grounds is unacceptable and an insult to our spiritual and cultural beliefs. We applaud Representatives Haaland, Cole, and McCollum's efforts to protect our ancestors.” - Leonard Forsman, Chairman, Suquamish Tribe

“Returning our ancestors to their rightful home and allowing them to rest in peace is vitally important in Hopi culture.  By strengthening the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Representatives Haaland, Cole, and McCollum's bill will help ensure our ancestors and sacred items receive the protections deserved.  This critical legislation comes as we welcome home our ancestral remains from Finland.” - Clark Tenakhongva, Vice Chairman, Hopi Tribe

“Tribal Nations in New Mexico fight tirelessly to protect and bring home human remains and culturally significant objects that have made their way into museums and other institutions. The Indian Affairs Department applauds the efforts to amend NAGPRA, particularly the increased penalties that will be incurred by those that fail to comply with the law. It is vital that we work diligently with tribal officials to ensure that items of immeasurable significance to Tribal Nations are returned to their proper home.” - Lynn Trujillo, Cabinet Secretary, New Mexico Indian Affairs Department 

“The preservation of our Native cultures, lifeways, places, and histories for present and future generations is core to NCAI’s mission. These amendments are long overdue. NCAI is grateful to Representative Haaland and the co-sponsors of these important amendments and urges Congress to take immediate action to ensure our ancestors and sacred sites are protected.” - said Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians




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