Native Americans Demonstrate for Remains Return

By Judith Scherr
Friday October 05, 2007

Representatives of eight Native American tribes say UC Berkeley has failed to provide adequately for the return to their tribes of remains and artifacts it holds at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology.  

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) coalition will hold a demonstration today (Friday) at noon at Sproul Plaza on the UC Berkeley campus to call attention to what they see as the university’s refusal to adequately implement the law, which mandates that federally funded museums identify native human remains and cultural items in their collections and return them to the tribes. 

According to the coalition, the university-mandated reorganization of a semi-autonomous NAGPRA unit at the Hearst Museum has made it more difficult to establish claims that are the basis of the repatriation of native remains for burial.  

Native religious beliefs and the 1990 NAGPRA law that requires repatriation are both violated when remains are not returned to their tribes, Lalo Franco of the Tachi Yokut Tribe in Santa Rosa told the Planet on Thursday.  

For the university, however, the dissolution of the NAGPRA unit is a simple reorganization of functions, integrating the oversight into other museum functions.  

“The reason the university reorganized [the unit] was because it was not an effective unit,” university spokesperson Marie Felde told the Planet on Tuesday, adding that the number of personnel devoted to NAGPRA and the museum’s ability to comply with the law has not changed with the reorganization. 

Integrating the unit into the other museum functions “is the way all the other museums are doing it,” she said.  

Franco said, however, that the disbanded unit was led by Native Americans who understood the significance of the fragments and worked closely with the tribes to help them prepare their claims. 

Now there are no Native Americans at the museum responsible for NAGPRA, he said. 

“These are human beings,” Franco said. “They have a right to be reburied.” 

Corbin Collins, spokesperson for the coalition, characterized those who are seeking the remains as “just ordinary people.” It took the combined expertise and understanding of the Native American scholars in the now-dissolved NAGPRA unit to lay the basis for the claims, he said. 

After preparation at the museum level, claims go to a body that represents the statewide University of California, which includes the two archeologists that recommended the dissolution of the NAGPRA unit, Collins said.  

Franco argued that there is a fundamental clash between researchers and those who view the fragments as human beings. The researchers simply view the collections as “valuable research material,” he said. 

NAGPRA coalition members have been asking for a meeting with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau to create dialog around the issue, Collins said. 

Associate Chancellor John F. Cummins responded. “The chancellor did not want to meet with the coalition. He wanted to meet with individual tribes,” Collins said. 

Spokesperson Felde underscored that Cummins was “more than happy to meet with individuals. It’s important to note it isn’t like anyone is unwilling to meet,” she said. “The associate chancellor is quite open to meeting.”