Sacramento-area colleges still holding onto to Native American bones and artifacts are about to face the law

A statue of a traditional male Nisenan dancer stands in the heart of downtown Auburn. Photo by Scott Thomas Anderson

By Cristian Gonzalez and Liam Gravvat

In the last century university anthropology departments have excavated Native American burials for research purposes. Today, Native Americans are struggling to get sacred items from those digs returned to their communities. Hundreds of thousands of native funerary objects, and human remains, continue to sit in boxes within UC and CSU repositories. Various laws, federal and state, have been passed to redress this since 1990; though universities have only given back a fraction of items as of 2022.

Assembly bills 226 and 389 aim to hold institutions of higher learning accountable for their failure to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

AB 389 was authored by Assemblymember James Ramos and ultimately signed by Governor Gavin Newsom. The bill requires the CSU system to implement systemwide and campus-level repatriation policies and repatriation committees. These policies include annual updates on repatriation progress and procedures for the safe handling of Native American remains, funerary objects and cultural items.

A 2023 audit found that only 6% of items and remains in CSU collections have been returned to tribes since NAGPRA was passed. Sacramento State has only repatriated 5% of its Native American collections. 

Objects and remains face delays in return due to the high financial and emotional costs of repatriation, and the lack of resources and personnel afforded to NAGPRA efforts, experts and officials said.

According to a statement from the United Auburn Indian Community, the restrictions on research caused by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, and California’s state-level iteration of the act CalNAGPRA, caused controversy in academic and professional archaeological communities. The tribe argues that the repatriation of Native American items is ethical.

“It’s unfortunate that some researchers and academics still want to be able to operate outside of standard ethical protocol, and to conduct research without consent,” the tribal government said in a statement. “We have seen Ancestors that were mounted on stands as display specimens, whose bones were ground up for isotopic or DNA analysis, or whose bones were sawed open for use as anatomy specimens. It is horrific.”

It takes significant resources to repatriate items. Tribes don’t always have access to those resources.

“This is not something that just cost a few dollars – we do them one at a time,” said Cassie Dowdle, the NAGPRA manager at Wilton Rancheria. “This takes a lot of resources, just the initial phases of going through the claim process doing the consultations inventory in the collection, that takes manpower to do … Beyond that, we have to have a place for the collections to go home. And so, having land is one of the biggest pieces that is hard for the tribes.”

Reburial is an expensive and emotionally taxing process. Sometimes the original burial sites no longer exist and tribes must settle for reburying remains as close as possible on land that they still own. Some items aren’t eligible for repatriation, based on how they were obtained.

“A private donor could be somebody who bought a basket back in 1955,” Dowdle observed. “They have a basket they’d like to donate to the school, and then the university will take that and that’s a private donation that does not fall under NAGPRA.”

Each tribe has its own practices in handling disturbed funerary objects. AB 226 and AB 389 include these practices in their considerations for handling procedures at UCs and CSUs.   

“Not all the tribes are just one big, giant nation,” Dowdle noted. “We’re all individual ones. So, we do have to work with everyone’s tribal policies.”

Dowdle and Wilton Rancheria are also looking forward to the improved repatriation processes that AB 226 and AB 389 will bring. However, some think the bills are not doing enough to restore the artifacts to their rightful owners.

“The issue I see with the bills is they are not being prioritized,” said Lillian Huyana Hall, an enrolled member of the Ione Band of Miwok Indians. Hall’s point was regarding the sluggish pace of artifact repatriation. “Rather than making excuses for why no progress has been made, higher education institutions must shift their perspective while being intentional and taking responsibility,” she emphasized.

The Ione Band of Miwoks is made up of Northern Sierra Miwok and Nisenan peoples after having received federal recognition in 1994. The Ione Band also gained their first trust lands in Northwestern Amador County in 2020. 

Hall has potential solutions, in addition to the already passed bills, that could quickly return all items to their rightful owners.

“One consideration is instead of giving institutions the authority and unlimited timeline, the state could consider hiring local tribal members to move this work forward,” Hall offered. “Or contract with California tribes and/or their tribal departments.”

California has dozens of different tribes and each university possesses many of their artifacts. To work through these remains and relics, Hall advocates for tribal councils and members to participate in the repatriation process. 

“Our relatives deserve to have a final resting place where their loved ones can visit them,” Hall went on, “and continue cultural practices; through prayer, song, or simply a place to mourn their loved ones.”

Dr. Rose Soza War Soldier, assistant professor of Native American studies at Sacramento State – and a member of the Soboba Band of Luiseño Indians – believes a lack of direction from CSU leadership has led to the delay in repatriation efforts. 

“I really think that there was a lack of guidance from the CSU chancellor’s office, and that, in many instances, perhaps the campuses didn’t know what to do,” Soza War Soldier said. “According to the report, though, a number of the campuses, they actually were not familiar with NAGPRA at all.” 

The professor is hoping that AB 389 will hold universities accountable to CalNAGPRA requirements.

“One of the things that it provides is external accountability. And you would think that if the United States Congress passes a law that institutions would seek to be compliant with that law. That never happened,” Soza War Soldier reflected. “It sets up a structure of external accountability.”

War Soldier also suggested that one reason it was easy for universities to avoid accountability is the general public’s lack of awareness of Native American history. She spoke about how most of her students have never heard of NAGPRA or repatriation efforts.

“They’re a product of the California public school systems,” she observed. “And yet, when they come to my class, they actually don’t know a lot about California native history. About a number of different policies … And so, to really work towards informing, educating so that there is a general foundation and basis–that there can be a conversation. And there can be mutual understanding.”

Julianna Martinez, a senior social work major at Sacramento State with indigenous heritage, had never heard of NAGPRA and was unaware of Sac State’s place in repatriation efforts. 

“I’ve heard that a lot of different museums who have a lot of the remains and artifacts,” Martinez acknowledged. “But as for at Sac State, I didn’t realize that there were still artifacts and remains that weren’t being given back to different tribes and the indigenous people.”

Martinez was dissatisfied with the way Native American remains had been procured and handled. 

“I feel like it’s disrespectful; and honestly, if we think about it, imagine if–within our own communities we have our loved ones in different cultures–we were to go, and we were to do that same thing,” Martinez said referring to the excavation of Native American graveyards. “It dehumanizes a lot of people and the people that are struggling with everything within history and dwelling over the fact that their ancestors aren’t being respected.”

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2 Comments on "Sacramento-area colleges still holding onto to Native American bones and artifacts are about to face the law"

  1. In most other cultures this is called archaeology not grave robbing.

  2. Great article! Also your editor’s note on this! Thank you for providing this information so people are aware. Best wishes to you.

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