University of California

University of California Blasted for Slow Return of Native American Remains, Artifacts

UC Berkeley is still in possession of most of its indigenous remains and cultural items even though the university is legally required to return them to tribes, state auditors found.

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The University of California is failing to return hundreds of thousands of Native American remains and artifacts to their tribes of origin, despite a decades-long legal mandate to do so, according to a recent state audit.

The California State Auditor also blasted the UC Office of the President for not making repatriation efforts a priority, citing in the report a lack of critical funding and planning.

UC Berkeley has the largest remaining collection, according to the audit.

Cal is a 155-year-old institution that’s celebrated for its progressive values and fight for social justice. But for many indigenous tribes, including the Chumash Indians, a dark history – their history – lies behind the university’s iconic green gate.

“It’s not okay to house human remains for scientific purposes, research purposes,” said Nakia Zavalla with the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians in an interview conducted by ProPublica and NBC News. “It was horrific. I just can’t believe that practice ever existed.”

In 1990, the U.S. Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to protect Native American gravesites and create a process for tribes to have their ancestor’s remains and cultural artifacts returned, or repatriated, from government agencies and museums that collected them for archeological or anthropological research.

In 2018, Zavalla’s tribe won its decade-long battle against UC Berkeley to have their ancestors returned, ProPublica and NBC News found. Zavalla says the process of retrieving their ancestors was disturbing.

ProPublica - The Repatriation Project: The Delayed Return of Native Remains

“We found them in rows of shelves and, at times, the skulls separated from the rest of the body,” Zavala said. “It was unbelievable how many ancestors they had been housing and for how many years they had them there.”

According to state auditors, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, UC San Diego and UC Riverside still maintain very large collections of Native American remains and artifacts, despite their repatriation mandate.

“It’s been 30 years that they’ve had to get this done,” said Jim Adams who supervised the state agency’s review of NAGPRA and its 2001 state counterpart, CalNAGPRA. The two acts require institutions to return remains and cultural artifacts, but Adams says there continues to be a major lack of funding and planning by some UC schools.

Data from the audit shows UC Berkeley had the largest collection by far, with nearly a half million items. UC Berkeley repatriated thousands of the items between 1990 and 2019, but is still in possession of approximately 350,000 remains and artifacts, according to the audit.

Internal audit documents obtained by the Investigative Unit through a public records request show “Berkeley estimates that it will take 10 [more] years to completely repatriate its collection” and cost $1.5 million annually. Yet, UC Berkeley’s Chancellor only earmarked $470,000 to get it done, the documents reveal.

“And that’s concerning considering how much time has passed since the requirements were established,” said Adams.

Berkeley is not the only UC institution estimating another decade for repatriation. According to the audit, “The [UC] Office of the President has not prioritized returning remains.”   

In a statement, a representative of UC Berkeley’s chancellor said the campus “appreciates the [State’s] guidance” and is “eager to implement all the new recommendations.”

UC Berkeley, he says, is expanding funding for repatriation and hiring four additional dedicated NAGPRA staff. The UC Office of the President also said it’s “committed to implementing all recommendations.”

In statements, UC Riverside and UC San Diego said they’re committed to upholding NAGPRA. UC Riverside said it recently completed its largest repatriation to date of over 25,000 objects. NBC Bay Area is still waiting to hear from UC Santa Barbara, which state auditors said was still reviewing its repository of cultural items.

But not all academics are on board.

“I don’t agree with repatriation and reburial of skeletal remains,” said San Jose State University Professor Elizabeth Weiss.

Weiss is a physical anthropologist, meaning she’s an expert at looking at skeletal remains to reconstruct the past and understand certain modern human health issues, such as bone biology.

Weiss is one of the harshest critics of repatriation. After publishing her book “Repatriation and the Erasing of the Past” and posting pictures of herself holding skulls on her Twitter page, Weiss faced a storm of backlash including from her own university.

“This was a completely normal picture. Certain tribes posted photos of them working on skeletal remains or with skeletal remains,” Weiss said. “I think it would be insensitive if I would put a clown hat on the skull. I think that this photo showed my respect and my love for the study of the past.”

Despite being attacked for her views, Weiss says she continues to speak out because, in her opinion, anthropology is at risk.

“It’s at risk of losing all the skeletal remains. But it’s also at risk of losing the goal to understand through scientific research as opposed to accepting stories to prevent from offending somebody,” she said

When asked how she would feel if her own great ancestors were dug up from their graves and studied, Weiss said she would have no problem with it.

“My parents in their will have said that they want to donate their bodies to science. I plan to do the same,” she said.

But Nakia Zavalla says that’s not what her ancestors and thousands of others wanted. While repatriation has improved, Zavalla says trust still wavers.

“I think that their words need to be followed by their actions,” Zavalla said.

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