National Parks Service 'Confused at Every Level,' Officials Say

Desecration of Native American Remains Prompts Scathing Report

Aerial photo of the Marching Bear burial grounds at Effigy Mounds National Monument
US National Parks Service

Even as it celebrates its 100th anniversary, the National Parks Service (NPS) finds itself “confused at every level,” according to agency officials after reviewing an almost unbelievable case of theft and desecration of ancient Native American remains and artifacts.

Effigy Mounds Monument Scandal Rocks Park Service

The desecration in question took place at northeast Iowa’s Effigy Mounds National Monument, a park dedicated to the early Native American culture known today as the Effigy Moundbuilders. Found in parts of Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, effigy mounds are considered sacred ceremonial sites often used as burial grounds. The more than 200 mounds found in the park are believed to contain artifacts representing the cultures of some 20 federally recognized American Indian tribes.

A 2014 Parks Service investigation revealed that as early as 1990, the park’s superintendent had “voluntarily, intentionally and knowingly removed prehistoric skeletal remains,” and hid them at his home for more than 20 years. When the remains were finally recovered, investigators found that many of the bones had been fragmented “beyond recognition.”

“These are people,” said Iowa's state archeologist, “and there are living peoples who care deeply about these remains, just as most modern Americans would about their ancestors.”

On January 4, 2016, the former superintendent pled guilty to violations of both the federal Resources Protection Act (ARPA) and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). On July 8, 2016, he was sentenced to 10 consecutive weekends in jail, 12 months’ supervised probation, home detention for 12 months, a $3000 fine and a $25 special assessment. He was also ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and pay restitution in the sum of $108,905.

The crime “violated the trust of the American Indians in particular, the public, and the National Park Service,” stated current Effigy Mounds National Monument superintended.

Theft and Desecration Revealed Deeper NPS Problems

As if desecration of Native American remains and cultural artifacts wasn’t bad enough, a Parks Service “after action report” made public the week of August 8, 2016, revealed deeper problems that call into question the agency’s ability to enforce the laws it administers and to carry out its core mission.

“The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.” – From the National Parks Service mission statement.

The same after action report revealed that along with the theft and destruction of human remains, at least 78 projects undertaken by the Parks Service at the Effigy Mounds National Monument from 1999 to 2010 violated sections of the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.

The projects – completed at a cost of over $3.3 million – involved the installation of “an extensive system of boardwalks throughout the more than 200 American Indian sacred mounds.” Ostensibly built to help protect sacred artifacts from visitors, the construction of the walks resulted in damage to the over 1,200-year-old mounds, according to the report.

How Did this Happen?

Parks Service officials who conducted the investigation and compiled the after-action report said the wrongdoing at Effigy Mounds raised two vital questions: “Are similar incidents happening in another park unit?” and “How do we make sure these incidents never happen again?”

“These incidents were perpetrated by individuals and their guilt falls under the legal arena,” wrote the officials. “Pertinent to this report is determining how they were able to get away with it for so long.”

The report suggested three crucial NPS management problems that allowed the Effigy Mounds incidents to happen and go undiscovered for two decades:

  • “Lack of staff knowledgeable and skilled in cultural resources management results in inappropriate collateral duties assigned to staff not qualified to complete the task;”
  • Employees who “consistently reported that they had no authority to report concerns or to follow up on concerns reported in their chain of command;” and
  • “Law enforcement rangers and solicitors are not well enough versed in cultural resources laws and policies.”

 “Sometimes it seems as if we hold visitors, concessioners, and contractors to a higher standard than we do ourselves when it comes to resources stewardship,” wrote the NPS officials.

'Confusion at Every Level'

The report concluded that the roles of the various NPS parks, regional offices and the Washington Support Office in managing the cultural resources entrusted to them were neither “well defined nor consistent.”

“What work we should be doing and where it should take place to be most effective is not clear,” stated the report. “There is confusion at every level … While this confusion has to do with who does what at each level of the agency, there is no understanding as to roles, responsibilities, and authorities regarding risk, mismanagement of or impacts to cultural resources.”

All of this bad news comes on the heels of complaints by Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, as reported in the Washington Post, that the NPS harbors a culture that “allows” sexual harassment, criticism for “confusing park promotion with corporate commercialism,” and an apology for his ethical lapses from NPS Director Jonathan B. Jarvis.

How to Fix the Problem

In their after-action report, the NPS officials made three “overarching recommendations” for ensuring that incidents similar to those at Effigy Mounds never again happen there or at any other National Parks facilities.

  • “Educate and empower all employees as stewards” of the cultural resources in the National Park Service. Note that the NPS provides its employees a Cultural Resources Career Academy for that very purpose.
  • “Increase the understanding and awareness of the civil, criminal, and administrative penalties and implications in cultural resources laws, federal regulations, and policies;” and
  • “Resolve the confusion of what work cultural resources professionals should be doing and where it should take place along with associated responsibilities, accountabilities, and authorities.”

“Laws, regulations, and policies foster good cultural resources stewardship,” concluded the report, “Cultural resources laws, regulations, and policies work well when regularly applied as they were intended.”