Republican Representative for Indiana Todd Rokita introduced a bill in Congress this week that would increase fines for disturbing Native American historic sites.
The bill would be an amendment to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. It proposes moving the office of enforcement for the act from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. And it would increase penalties for disturbing Native American grave sites, specifically through higher fines.
A press release from Rokita cites an incident where archaeologists from Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne excavated formal tribal sites as part of the motivation for the bill. The release says the researchers did not notify tribal leaders prior to the excavation, which goes against the federal law.
“No one is above the law, especially researchers and professors who rely on federal funding,” Rokita says in the release. “I have introduced legislation that would hold liberal academics accountable to tribes when they violate federal laws pertaining to Native American graves and funerary objects. It is imperative that we respect the rich history of the Native American culture, which is uniquely American, and give tribes and their deceased the respect they deserve.”
Press Secretary for Rokita Hilton Beckham says supporters of the bill believe the increased fines will increase awareness and compliance with the law.
She says while there are no Native reservations in Rokita’s district, sites like those protected by NAGPRA are part of Indiana’s history.
“Additionally, since coming to Congress in 2011, Mr. Rokita has worked on issues related to tribal communities, including the Bureau of Indian Education and the Tribal Labor Sovereignty Act which come through his Education and Workforce committee assignment,” Beckham says.
Rokita also supported legislation to end employee protections for tribal casino workers earlier this year. The Associated Press reports the Republican congressman saw a spike in campaign contributions of more than $160,000 from tribal gaming interests after he took up the bill.
Beckham says those contributions did not play a role in the proposal of this week’s bill.
The bill proposed this week had four original co-sponsors: Oklahoma Rep. Tom Cole, Arkansas Rep. Don Young, Minnesota Rep. Betty McCollum and Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore.
This story has been updated.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.