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Wednesday, December 6, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Wednesday, December 6, 2023 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

University of California system slammed for slow return of Indigenous artifacts

The state auditor says the University of California system has caused “an unnecessary level of frustration and complexity” for tribes.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — California's state auditor released a report Thursday calling out the University of California system for not returning Native American remains and items of cultural significance per the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. This isn’t the first time the UC system has been scolded for noncompliance, with a similar audit in 2020. 

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990 and then adopted to apply to California universities (CalNAGPRA) in 2001, calls for federal and state-funded entities to promptly return Indigenous remains and cultural artifacts. 

“Nonetheless, more than 30 years after the passage of NAGPRA, the university has not adequately prioritized returning its collection to tribes,” the auditor said in the report. 

The audit focused on four University of California schools — Berkeley, Riverside, Santa Barbara and San Diego. The review shows that all four universities have extensive collections and that it may take up to a decade for all items to be returned. Not only have the objects not been given back, but many have been stored inappropriately or not even reported. In 1995, campuses were supposed to complete an entire inventory of all remains and some cultural objects. 

The University of California Office of the President included funding for all campuses for repatriation efforts in the 2021-22 fiscal year but left no money for the program in the 2022-23 budget. The auditor said putting the funding on each campus to figure out is “shortsighted.” However, the UC system said it's taking the audit seriously. 

“To strengthen this ongoing effort, the university intends to implement each recommendation to the university made by your office. We will continue to look for ways to make real and meaningful progress in our efforts,” said Michael T. Brown, University of California executive president of academic affairs, in response to the report. 

The University of California did not immediately respond to questions about specific actions to meet the audit’s recommendations or why they have fallen short for decades. The system did provide a copy of the current repatriation policy that took effect in January 2022. However, the state auditor says it isn’t enough and lacks crucial deadlines. 

UC Berkley has yet to return over 350,000 items and remains. UC Riverside and UC San Diego are among those that recently discovered sizable and unreported collections and have yet to return any portion of their artifacts. UC Santa Barbara’s numbers are still under review. 

The audit recommends that the University of California Office of the President monitor Santa Barbara’s inventory process to ensure it is completed by July 2023. Additionally, the UC president should issue published guidance to all campuses for a standardized practice to respond and return any remains and cultural objects. Additionally, there must be a “uniform process” for the colleges to consult with tribes. There are also calls for detailed plans of action with deadlines and full-time repatriation coordinators on all campuses with over 100 returnable items. 

With over 30 years of little progress, the state auditor also called on the Legislature to act. Legislative actions could include amending state laws to require the colleges to report return progress regularly, provide funding for the programs and changing CalNAGPRA committee requirements to allow for a more diverse membership. 

Under NAGPRA, continued noncompliance can lead to civil penalties. 

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