PD Editorial: UC inexcusably drags its feet returning Native American remains and artifacts

By its own count, UC still has an estimated 9,000 remains and more than 200,000 artifacts that should be returned to Native American tribes.|

Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

University of California officials may indeed believe the repatriation of Indigenous human remains and cultural artifacts is “a fundamental value,” as they declared in a policy adopted last year. Unfortunately, it appears timeliness isn’t valued nearly as much.

More than 30 years after passage of a federal law requiring the return of Native American remains and cultural items — and more than 20 years after enactment of a similar state law — the UC system still maintains collections so large that it likely will take a decade or more to return them.

For the second time in three years, the state auditor has issued a report criticizing the slow pace of repatriation efforts. Acting state Auditor Michael S. Tilden said the university has made some progress since the 2020 report but has failed to provide necessary guidance or funding to fulfill the system’s many obligations.

“We reviewed the university’s campuses at Berkeley, Riverside, Santa Barbara, and San Diego and found they continue to maintain large collections and that some have yet to completely review all the remains and cultural items in their control,” Tilden wrote in the new report.

By its own count, the university system still has an estimated 9,000 remains and more than 200,000 artifacts eligible to be returned under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, approved by Congress in 1990 and a 2001 state law.

The lack of direction and a full inventory of collections has created “an unnecessary level of frustration and complexity” for tribes seeking the return of remains and artifacts, according to the state audit. The repatriation of human remains is especially critical for tribes who believe their ancestors cannot rest until they are properly buried.

Earlier this year, the Berkeley campus returned the remains of 20 members of the Wiyot tribe along with 136 artifacts. White settlers massacred an estimated 80 to 150 members of the tribe, who lived on an island in what is now known as Humboldt Bay, in 1860. The remains were removed in the early 1950s during waterway construction and sent to Berkeley’s Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Some schools are doing better. According to the report, UCLA has repatriated almost all of its collection, and the Davis campus has returned 95%. But then there are schools that have done almost nothing. Riverside and San Diego have repatriated less than 1%.

In response to the report, UC officials reaffirmed their commitment to repatriation and accepted a series of new recommendations from the state auditor’s office. But given decadeslong inertia, it’s clear that something more than adoption of “a fundamental value” is needed.

The Legislature should amend the state law, as the auditor’s report recommends, to require the UC office of the president to provide adequate funding for repatriation efforts and to report periodically on progress.

As Ted Hernandez, historic preservation officer for the Wiyot, told CNN earlier this year, “Our ancestors should not be in boxes or on shelves, they should be home with their families.”

After all these years, a greater sense of urgency should be fundamental. UC officials have failed, and state lawmakers need to intervene to bring justice and final peace to tribes that were wronged.

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Editorials represent the views of The Press Democrat editorial board and The Press Democrat as an institution. The editorial board and the newsroom operate separately and independently of one another.

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