Audit: University of California Failing to Promptly Return Native American Artifacts

UC President Janet Napolitano. (Photo courtesy of the University of California)

(CN) — The University of California failed to comply with state and federal rules on returning Native American human remains and cultural objects, resulting in inconsistent dealings with tribes that delay repatriation of their artifacts, the California state auditor reported Thursday.

The protection of important Native American sites and the return of their remains and artifacts is governed by the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.

Under the law, government agencies and museums holding Native American remains and cultural artifacts must return them to tribes that can trace their relationship to them.

The process is vital and sacred to many tribes who believe that the spirit of their ancestors is not at rest until they are properly buried, but only tribes recognized by the U.S. Department of the Interior are eligible for the repatriation process.

After many California tribes lost their federal recognition during the mid‑20th century, state lawmakers passed CalNAGPRA in order to expand the number of tribes that can submit repatriation claims.

Under a 2018 amendment to CalNAGPRA, the University of California — which maintains a collection of hundreds of thousands of remains and artifacts — is required to implement a systemwide policy for repatriation.

But UC campuses at Berkeley, Davis and Los Angeles have fallen short of their duties under state law, according to a California state auditor report outlining the impact of uneven requirements for tribes.

Campuses work with Native American tribes to review evidence demonstrating the tribe’s affiliation with remains or an artifact, but each campus has different approaches to engagement and the level of evidence they require.

Unlike the other two campuses, Berkeley consistently required tribes to submit additional evidence to prove affiliation beyond what the tribe shared in its claim, resulting in extended delays before remains and artifacts were repatriated.

Nearly all Native American artifacts and remains held by UCLA — which sits on historical land of the Tongva — has been returned, whereas Berkeley has only returned about 20% from its collection.

“These variations underscore the need for the university to develop a uniform NAGPRA policy that ensures consistency across its campuses, as CalNAGPRA requires,” the summary of the audit states.

The audit also found inconsistencies in cases where multiple tribes lived in a geographic area over time and a campus concluded it could not affiliate an artifact to one tribe.

Berkeley consults all tribes in overlapping territories and requires they all support a collective agreement — a process which can take more than a year in some cases — whereas Davis only requires tribes make a good faith effort to obtain support from other tribes before repatriation.

Campuses are also out of compliance with state rules requiring repatriation committees be composed of equal numbers of university and tribal members, according to the audit.

“Until the campuses and the Office of the President revise their committee memberships, they cannot ensure that they are involving all needed stakeholders in repatriation decisions and hearing sufficient tribal perspectives before making these decisions,” the audit states.

The report also recommends California lawmakers amend state law to allow more tribes to be eligible for inclusion on a list of state-recognized tribes.

After federal recognition rules were changed in 2015, the number of tribes in California formally seeking recognition decreased dramatically, from 81 tribes in 2013 to just four in 2020, the audit found.

UC President Janet Napolitano said in a May 21 letter to State Auditor Elaine Howle the university system agrees to issue a final policy on CalNAGPRA compliance by August.

Napolitano also agreed with the recommendation that UC determine whether tribes have been informed that the university holds their cultural objects.

“If campuses have not done so, we will determine an appropriate method of communicating with tribes about missing remains and artifacts,” Napolitano wrote in the letter. “The university understands the need for a stronger policy to better effectuate repatriation of Native American human remains and cultural items, and to improve our relationships with Native American communities.”

A spokesperson for the Gabrielino-Tongva Tribe of Southern California did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the audit.

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