The University of California will adapt its repatriation policies for Native American cultural property found on UC campuses to increase transparency and communication.
Gov. Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 2836, which aims to improve the UC’s repatriation procedures, into law Thursday. Repatriation describes the process of returning the remains and belongings of Native Americans to their original communities.
The bill will create a systemwide repatriation oversight committee, require greater consultation of the Native American Heritage Commission and implement two future audits to ensure compliance. The NAHC identifies and catalogs Native American cultural resources, including important objects and sites.
Students across the UC advocated for AB 2836 and said they think the bill emphasizes accountability and respect in one of California’s most prominent institutions.
Jeike Meijer, the external vice president for local affairs in UC Santa Barbara’s student government, said she and other UC EVP’s organized a lobby day in Sacramento to promote the bill. Meijer is also a student of indigenous descent.
She added that people from at least five UC campuses advocated for the bill at the lobby day, speaking to legislators and the appropriations committee.
Some contend UC repatriation has been disorganized in the past, varying widely across different campuses and often failing to return remains and other cultural property. Jamie Kennerk, an advocate for the bill and the Undergraduate Students Association Council external vice president.
“The bill addresses discrepancies we’ve seen across the UC in regards to repatriation,” Kennerk said. “For example, UC Berkeley has one of the largest collections of native remains in the country.”
Kennerk, who is of indigenous descent, added she thinks it is disrespectful to deny communities the remains of their members and their belongings.
“I think it’s disgusting,” Kennerk said. “You would never do that with any other group … It’s a lack of respect to native bodies.”
Angela Riley, the chair of UCLA’s Committee on Repatriation and a law professor, said in an emailed statement she thinks UCLA has sought to live up to the obligations of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a piece of human rights legislation under U.S. federal law that protects the repatriation process on federal and federal-funded land.
She said she feels UCLA has been very successful in its repatriation efforts under NAGPRA because UCLA works to maintain close and open relationships with affected tribes.
“We have very few sets of human remains in our custody, owing in large part to a successful repatriation and reburial of a couple of years ago of more than two thousand ancestors,” Riley said.
Jaime Geronimo Vela, an anthropology Ph.D. student of indigenous descent, said he is concerned that it will be difficult to enforce the bill.
“It’s great on paper, but now you have to enforce it. A lot of these things, when they’re a rider in a bill, they don’t receive any notice,” Vela said. “The public doesn’t hear about it.”
Riley said the UC system is reviewing its repatriation policies to ensure transparency in repatriation decisions. UC President Janet Napolitano met with the bill’s authors to ensure that the bill will satisfy the concerns of tribal members.