The University of California system adopts a new approach to repatriation

4 minute read

I’d like to point readers to a story in Nature reported by Rex Dalton, on a story of repatriation from the University of California, San Diego. In some ways the case resembles the Kennewick case. This time, it is the University administration that has initiated the repatriation of the very ancient skeletal remains.

Officials at the University of California are moving to give two of the oldest-known skeletons in North America to a local Native American tribe, against the recommendation of university scientists who say the bones should be retained for study.

Dalton’s article indicates that dating methods have placed the remains at more than 10,000 years old. Normally, this would mean it is very unlikely for cultural or biological evidence to connect them to any specific recent or extant tribe. Under U.S. law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) governs the disposition of skeletal remains and cultural material from Native American groups. For NAGPRA, evidence of “cultural affiliation” is an important component for adjudicating the right course of action for ancient remains.

Cultural affiliation is important under NAGPRA because the law recognizes that there may be competing interests regarding ancient remains or artifacts. Not only may there be a scientific interest in ancient remains, but also different tribes may have competing claims on material. This may be true even for quite recent artifacts and skeletal remains, because the same geographic area may have been home to multiple groups, sometimes sharing an area and sometimes in succession. Often the representatives of different tribes have similar approaches to questions of repatriation and can come to agreement even if there is uncertainty about affiliation. These agreements often involve archaeologists also, as the interests of scientific study by no means are always in conflict with the wishes of tribal groups. In my experience, NAGPRA consultations can be extremely positive for scientists, and repatriation is often the right choice for research institutions and universities as well as for tribes.

For ancient remains that date long before the formation of any of the present-day tribes, there is much uncertainty about how NAGPRA should apply. The specific cultures of present groups did not exist 10,000 years ago. There may be cultural and biological connections between these very early people of the Americas and today’s groups, but those connections are likely to be shared widely across both North and South America. This was one of the main problems in the Kennewick case, and it also is a problem in the UCSD case.

Dalton previously reported on the UCSD case in October. At that time, the local decision-making process had led to a rejection of the request for repatriation. But that decision was threatened by action from above – the system president Yudof and UCSD chancellor Fox. From that October article:

Currently, decisions about cultural affiliation are made by a panel of scientists--typically including a Native American--at each campus. Campus actions are then reviewed by a nine-person University of California panel, which includes two Native Americans, before a final decision is reached. But in September, the office of Mark Yudof, the president of the University of California, initiated discussions about possibly eliminating the system-wide committee.

Dalton’s current article brings us up to speed on the reburial request:

[L]ast month, University of California president Mark Yudof and UCSD chancellor Marye Anne Fox began seeking a rare federal approval to give the skeletons to the local Kumeyaay tribe, which has asked for them. And some anthropologists say the decision is based on politics, not science.
"This is scandalous," says Robert Bettinger, an anthropologist at the University of California, Davis, who is on the panel that oversees how archaeological remains are handled at all ten University of California campuses. The panel was not consulted on this transfer proposal.

This seems like a breach of procedure by the University of California. The administration appears to be ignoring the expert panel that usually consults on matters of exactly this kind. These are matters in which University facilities and collections may intersect with federal agencies or laws regarding archaeological remains. The reason to involve these experts is that federal laws are complicated, and their application depends on the age and provenience of artifacts. One decision may create a precedent that will have many effects in the future, and experts are in the best position to think through how the overall collections and facilities of the University of California system may be impacted.

As an anthropologist, this kind of situation makes me worry that political or financial interests may be ultimately deciding these questions, instead of a real dialogue between tribes, scientists, and other stakeholders.

Still, I keep the Kennewick case in mind. The scientists who were most vocally opposed to repatriation and reburial in that case were a mixed group from across the U.S. Few of them had much history of working with tribes in the Pacific Northwest. The case was highly politicized, on both sides of the issue of repatriation, and again it was not obvious how the NAGPRA law should apply. In my view, these scientists did a poor job of representing the archaeological and anthropological communities.

There is no easy solution in cases like this, and I wish that everyone could reduce their volume and listen better. For me, what might have seemed obvious as a younger scientist now seems much more complicated.