Whistleblower: Native American human remains mishandled by federal government

RENO, Nev. ( & KRNV) -- Hundreds of Native American human remains and relics may have been mishandled and lost in Nevada, California, and Oregon. The government agency responsible for the safe return of the artifacts to their rightful descendants will be investigated for gross mismanagement after a former employee blew the whistle.

The Bureau of Reclamation has a duty to preserve and return ancestral artifacts and remains to their rightful owners under a federal law known as The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), enacted in 1990. According to documents from a whistleblower, the Mid-Pacific Bureau chose not to, and deleted records to hide discrepancies for several years.

"We've experienced the same frustration. For years, for decades, of requesting to have repatriated these collections, only to be held up by bureaucracy, only to be held up by the interpretation of the law," said Marvin Wright.

Wright is from the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe. He is not surprised the Bureau of Reclamation will be investigated. He is a former member of the National Review committee for NAGPRA, and says disrupting burial grounds is blasphemous, and mishandling the remains is disrespectful on a whole other level.

"How do we not think about having the anguish and the frustration because our relatives are sitting in a box rather than being in their final resting place with our mother earth?" he asks.

A document prepared by the Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, (PEER), outlines instances of the bureau failing to catalog human remains and artifacts and keeping track of loans, deleting records, and failing to notify tribes of ancestral recoveries.

"There appear to be a conscious decision to make this the lowest priority that ensure the work wouldn't be done," said PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch.

An internal memo from 2012 reads, in part, "loans slips will be noted and not pursued," and "human remains will be set aside for now."

In a statement, the Mid-Pacific Regional Bureau said:

"The Bureau of Reclamation and the Department of the Interior take this matter very seriously. Having been made aware of the issue, the Department is contacting the Office of Special Counsel to request a formal copy of its letter calling for an investigation in order to determine appropriate next steps."

Ruch said he hopes the investigation will expand to other regions. Wright, on the other hand, believes the government will put its interests ahead of tribal customs.

"As long as those collections remain in boxes and repositories, the desecration continues," said Wright.

The Secretary of the Interior has 60 days to investigate the whistleblower's accusations and report back to the Office of Special Counsel.