Updates to our Terms of Use

We are updating our Terms of Use. Please carefully review the updated Terms before proceeding to our website.

Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Tribes Sue University for Human Remains

SAN DIEGO (CN) - Twelve Indian tribes, known as the Kumeyaay, sued The University of California in Federal Court, seeking repatriation of 9,000-year-old human remains excavated from the school's San Diego campus in 1976.

The Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, which consists of 12 tribes in San Diego County, claims the University violated Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act by keeping the two human remains.

Named as defendants are The University of California, The Board of Regent of the University, University of California president Mark G. Yudof, Chancellor Marye Ann Fox, and Vice Chancellor Gary Matthews.

Jeffrey Gattas, a spokesman for UC San Diego, told Courthouse News that while it had not seen the lawsuit, "the campus has followed University of California procedures in seeking to address the treatment of the human remains and artifacts found on campus property in 1976."

Gattas told Courthouse News in an email: "Developed in response to federal regulations, UC's detailed procedures included review by University faculty committees at both the campus and UC system levels. We believe the University process has achieved a decision that is in accordance with both the law and our commitment to the respectful handling of human remains and associated artifacts."

But the tribes' complaint states: "In 1976 while excavating from the oceanside cliffs of La Jolla, California, two human remains were unearthed. Radiocarbon dating yields an age for the remains to be between 8,977-9,603 years old. The archaeological site from where the remains were removed is identified as CA-SDI-4669 aka W-12-76. The excavating was conducted as part of an undergraduate class that was engaged in an archaeological field research project on the University House (aka the University of California, San Diego, Chancellor's House.) The area of the excavation was well known to be rich with Native American burials and artifacts and several years ago was designated as a sanctified cemetery under California state law. The excavation in 1976 was led by Professor Gail Kennedy. After their discovery, Professor Kennedy took the remains to the University of California, Los Angeles ('UCLA'). In the years since their discovery the Native American remains have been stored at numerous locations: UCLA; the San Diego Museum of Man; the National Museum of Natural History; the Smithsonian Institution, San Diego State University Department of Anthropology and today are stored at the San Diego Archaeological Center by mutual agreement by KCRC and the UCSD."

The tribes say they have sought repatriation of the remains for more than 20 years.

During that time, the complaint states, the human remains were held at UCLA and The University of California, San Diego campus, where they have stayed since 2008.

"Then on May 14, 2010, the National Park Service finalized 43 C.F.R. § 10.11, the long awaited regulation on how 'culturally unidentifiable' Native American remains and objects should be disposed of by a museum," the complaint states. "Essentially, the regulation provides that 'culturally unidentifiable' Native American human remains should be repatriated to the tribe whose aboriginal lands they were removed from. In light of the new regulation, KCRC requested a meeting with defendant Fox. The meeting was held on May 28, 2010 and defendant Fox stated that while she was prepared to repatriate the Native American remains and objects, the ultimate decision would need to be made by the defendant Yudof, University of California president, unless he choose to delegate the authority to her. Defendant Fox also requested that KCRC's legal counsel prepare an opinion outlining KCRC's legal position based on the new regulations."

The tribes say that after submitting a legal opinion in the summer of 2010, nearly a year passed as the university tried to determine if other tribes might come forward to claim the remains. As part of that process, the university prepared a notice of inventory completion, which "identified the human remains as Native American," because they were excavated from the Kumeyaay's aboriginal lands.

Fox and Matthews also contacted The Native American Heritage Commission, which confirmed that the Kumeyaay were the most probable descendants, according to the complaint.

"Satisfied that there were no other tribes in the area that could claim the Native American human remains and objects, the notice of inventory completion was submitted to the National Park Service. The notice was published in the Federal Register on December 5, 2011, and became final on January 5, 2012," the complaint states.

It continues: "The day before the close of the comment period, KCRC's legal counsel was notified that three University of California professors were prepared to file a temporary restraining order in state court seeking to enjoin UCSD from repatriating the Native American remains and objects to KCRC. The professors and UCSD entered several agreements whereby both sides agreed to stay any action until UCSD could have an opportunity to review the professors' pleadings and also see if the case could be mediated. The professors have informed UCSD that they are no longer interested in pursuing mediation. At this time, KCRC is unaware of whether the professors have filed their case against UCSD in state court."

The tribes add: "Defendants have determined that the human remains are 'culturally unidentifiable.' Although KCRC disputes this finding and firmly believes the Native American human remains and objects are Kumeyaay; for purposes of 43 C.F.R. §10.11, the human remains will be treated as 'culturally unidentifiable.'"

The 12 tribes on the committee are the Barona Band of Mission Indians; Campo Band of Kumeyaay Indians; Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians; Inaja-Cosmit Band of Mission Indians; Jamul Indian Village; La Posta Band of Mission Indians; Manzanita Band of Mission Indians; Mesa Grande Indian Reservation; San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians; Iipay Nation of Santa Ysabel; Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.

The tribes are represented by Dorothy Alther with California Indian Legal Service of Escondido. They seek an injunction against the university.

The pre-Columbian Kumeyaay lived from modern-day Escondido south into Baja California. Formerly known to Anglos as Diegueño, the tribes have reclaimed their own name for themselves, as many tribes have done in the past generation.

Categories / Uncategorized

Subscribe to Closing Arguments

Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.