UC campuses lag in returning Native American artifacts

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UC Berkeley and other UC campuses have been slow to return Native American tribal artifacts kept in their collections and have failed to comply with federal law, a recent audit found.

The audit, conducted by the state of California, revealed that several UC campuses were failing to meet benchmarks for repatriation outlined by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. Among the UC campuses, UC Berkeley has returned the lowest percentage of artifacts, according to the audit. Of the hundreds of thousands of relics kept in campus’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology and elsewhere, only about 20% have been returned.

UC Berkeley Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Linda Rugg said the UC system is currently engaged in rewriting its repatriation policy in consultation with Native Californian tribes, which will address many of the audit’s findings.

A draft of the UC repatriation policy released by the UC Office of the President, or UCOP, contains detailed flowcharts and checkpoints for the redesigned process, although no specific timeline has been revealed for repatriation. It also contains a prohibition on using cultural items for research purposes, adding to an existing ban on the use of human remains without explicit tribal permission.

A portion of UC Berkeley’s outsize delay in returning artifacts stems from the sheer number in its possession, which totals 10 times the collections of other UC campuses, according to Sabrina Agarwal, a bioarchaeologist who chairs the UC Berkeley NAGPRA Advisory Committee.

Another key factor is that many tribes in the Bay Area are not recognized by the federal government, and NAGPRA and the UC system’s current policy do not include the need to reach out to tribes that are not federally recognized.

The information revealed in the audit, however, is not new, Agarwal said. Such findings have been consistently reported over the past years. Agarwal added that UC Berkeley has been taking proactive steps to address the issue, including the creation two years ago of the advisory committee she now chairs and efforts to bring more tribe members onto the committee. Campus students from Native organizations are also involved.

Yet the pace of the repatriation has been frustrating for Native communities, as representatives said they see it as another instance of a decadeslong pattern of the campus “ignoring” their concerns.

“If there were another community of people whose ancestral remains were being held in collections, largely from anthropological digs and looting of graves in a relatively recent time, I don’t believe that there would be a fight on returning them,” said Phenocia Bauerle, director of Native American Student Development at UC Berkeley, in an email.

She also expressed hope for the new UCOP policy’s commitment to addressing the issue but added that “the lack of repatriation is a symptom of the problem.”

Representatives from the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe expressed similar sentiments, citing in a statement “the Politics of Erasure, marginalization and disenfranchisement” of their rights as a Bay Area tribe. The tribe has also released a variety of publications based on research from remains repatriated to them by Stanford University and others.

Both Bauerle and the tribal representatives stressed the importance of respect and collaboration in the repatriation process.

“Institutions need to respect the world view and knowledge of the tribes that they are working with,” Bauerle said in the email.

Contact Annika Rao at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @annikyr