New bill would hold UC schools accountable to returning Native remains, artifacts

After more than three decades of failing to comply with state law to return Native remains and artifacts to their respective tribes, UC schools would be pushed to expedite the process under a newly introduced bill, SB-61, by Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa.|

Thirty-three years after the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed, University of California schools are still failing to return Native remains to their respective tribes in a timely manner, according to a 2020 state audit.

A newly introduced bill, SB-61, authored by state Sen. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, would expedite the repatriation process by requiring campuses to allocate sufficient resources and by mandating reporting of their progress.

“We've been talking long enough,” Dodd said. “It's time for action right now ― it is just the right thing to do.”

Thousands of unearthed Native American artifacts are still in the possession of private and state-funded institutions and museums, according to the 2020 Assembly Bill 275 by Assembly member James C. Ramos, D-San Bernardino, which calls it “a key human rights violation.”

Many Indigenous tribes believe the digging up of their descendants’ remains is not only unjust, but has also disrupted their spiritual journeys. Tribal members want their ancestors’ remains to be returned so they can rebury them.

Government agencies and museums — including universities — are required to return the remains and artifacts under both the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the state’s version of the law, CalNAGPRA.

But a 2020 state audit revealed that most UC schools had “inadequate policies and oversight” in their repatriation process.

Campuses at Berkeley, Riverside, San Diego and Santa Barbara have not reviewed all Native American remains and cultural items in their possession, the audit said.

Also, the University of California Office of the President has provided neither the necessary guidance nor the funding for repatriation, the audit showed. Only UC Davis and UCLA have returned the majority of their collections.

According to the audit, UC Berkeley had returned 20% of remains by 2020. It was the only school they reviewed that also required additional proof from tribes in order to return remains and artifacts, as well as require written support from all consulted tribes before remains could be returned, a process that can take more than a year.

In one instance, UC Berkeley required a tribe to provide additional proof beyond geographic location and the tribe claimed Berkeley had not given the tribe’s oral history and traditions the same weight as scientific evidence. The tribe eventually provided sufficient proof for Berkeley, but it added an extra 18 months to the decision, according to the audit. Several tribes complained that Berkeley’s process lacked transparency and timeliness.

“We thought writing letters and working with our UC system would get it done,” Dodd said. “Frankly, it did at UC Davis and UCLA, but not so much the other UC institutions.”

The University of California system and the UC Berkeley Office of the President did not return emailed requests for comment on Tuesday.

Senate Bill 61 would implement the auditor’s recommendations to address university shortcomings, allocating funds and resources to return remains and other items in a consistent and timely manner, according to the early draft, which does not yet detail how much funding and what resources.

It does state that institutions with more than 100 sets of Native American human remains or cultural items will need to have full-time repatriation coordinators on or before July 1, 2024, as well as a detailed plan and budget for repatriation efforts. They will also follow a uniform plan for consulting with tribes.

As chairman of the Government Organization Committee, Dodd said they’ve worked a lot with tribes and the topic of returning native remains from UC schools “has been a constant theme over time.”

“We appreciate Sen. Dodd and the state legislature pressing the University of California to do what’s right,” said Robert Smith, chairman of the Pala Band of Mission Indians, in a news release. “It’s confounding it requires a state law to do that.”

Jesus Tarango, chairman of the Wilton Rancheria, said in a news release “We have met our obligations to honorably lay our people to rest. The UC campuses need to meet their obligation to return our ancestors and cultural items to their rightful resting places.”

Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, said in a comment Tuesday that their tribe “is in the early stages of consulting with Sen. Dodd on Senate Bill 61.”

Dodd described tribal leaders as mostly “aghast” that it takes further legislation to push the UC schools to return their remains and artifacts after so many years have passed.

“Universities said ‘we’ll do it, we’ll do it, we don’t need new laws,’” Dodd said. “Well, obviously, we do, because they haven’t been able to adhere to that.”

“The least we can do is budget adequately so that the time and money can be found to return those items to the tribes,” he said.

The bill would go before the state Senate’s education committee in February or March before going to the committee on appropriations, the state Assembly and then the governor’s desk, Dodd said.

You can reach Staff Writer Alana Minkler at 707-526-8511 or alana.minkler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @alana_minkler.

Alana Minkler

Breaking news & general assignment reporter, The Press Democrat

The world is filled with stories that inspire compassion, wonder, laughs and even tears. As a Press Democrat reporter covering breaking news, tribes and youth, it’s my goal to give others a voice to share these stories.

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