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Cultural Affairs Commission aims to fund repatriation program for Indigenous art

The Cultural Affairs Commission is leading repatriation efforts for Indigenous artifacts stored at UCLA. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Jamie Jiang

June 6, 2021 10:17 p.m.

A newly reelected undergraduate student commissioner plans to support and fund the repatriation of Indigenous artifacts at UCLA.

Promise Ogunleye, the Undergraduate Students Association Council Cultural Affairs commissioner, pledged to facilitate artifact and art repatriation efforts during her run in the 2021 USAC election.

Ogunleye’s Arts Restoring Community initiative aims to create a team to work on mutual aid projects, grant funding, fundraising and research to assist the repatriation of items housed at UCLA and educate the student body on repatriation.

Ogunleye plans to work closely with the School of Arts and Architecture or Fowler Museum to facilitate repatriation at UCLA, she said.

Ogunleye said this is a first for the Cultural Affairs Commission.

Ogunleye said her initiative was inspired by a student proposal to rename Janss Steps to Kuruvungna Steps to honor Indigenous people who inhabited the land before UCLA.

“UCLA is on stolen land,” Ogunleye said, “It’s not enough to just rename the steps. UCLA needs to do more.”

Under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, all museums receiving federal funding must repatriate federally classified as Native American “human remains” and “funerary items.”

Clementine Bordeaux, a NAGPRA representative for the American Indian Graduate Student Association and a Sicangu Lakota Oyate tribal member, said the UCLA NAGPRA committee is one of the most successful among the University of California campuses to return Native American items.

A 2019 audit by the state of California found that UCLA had returned 96% of NAGPRA inventories in museums.

While ancestral human remains and burial items are protected under NAGPRA, forcing UCLA to repatriate other items such as art may be more complicated, said Bordeaux, a culture and performance doctoral student. Art is not protected under NAGPRA, so compliance cannot be guaranteed.

However, Bordeaux says, art repatriation would still be a worthwhile cause.

“To be able to return items would be almost priceless for tribal communities,” Bordeaux said. “Because of colonization and settler colonialism, a lot of tribal communities don’t have access to those items anymore.”

Megan Baker, also a NAGPRA representative for AIGSA and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said UCLA worked with state-recognized tribes, which is uncommon for other institutions that must comply with NAGPRA.

UCLA has set a national standard in its repatriation efforts, said Baker, an anthropology doctoral student.

The UC is proposing a revision to its Native American Cultural Affiliation and Repatriation Policy that would mandate the University to consult with California Native American tribes to prepare inventories for repatriation.

Ryann Garcia, co-president of the Native American Law Students Association, said UCLA has made a point to work in consultation with local tribes. Garcia said the Fowler Museum stays in contact with Native officials working in the Tribal Historic Preservation Officers program to reconnect items to local tribes.

Garcia said UCLA’s repatriation efforts are notable because of long-time student organization around this issue.

“This type of work is really special in California. … You don’t really see it happening in a lot of other states,” Garcia said. “The next step is looking at more tribal law being respected on a wider scale and more international human rights law, rather than just being confined to federal law.”

However, Ogunleye said more can be done on UCLA’s part to honor Indigenous land and repatriate art items. Ogunleye hopes her plan will institutionalize support for existing repatriation efforts and allow this support to continue into future generations of USAC offices.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Ogunleye said.

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Jamie Jiang | Podcasts producer
Jiang is the 2021-2022 Podcasts producer. Previously, she wrote for the campus politics beat, where she now serves as staffer, covering stories regarding transfer and nontraditional students. She is also a fourth-year linguistics student with a minor in comparative literature.
Jiang is the 2021-2022 Podcasts producer. Previously, she wrote for the campus politics beat, where she now serves as staffer, covering stories regarding transfer and nontraditional students. She is also a fourth-year linguistics student with a minor in comparative literature.
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