Native Americans have a long history of oppression in this country. Their land was taken, their people murdered and their sacred sites corrupted, all for the sake of building the United States. A new form of this old oppression is still happening, and the University of California is playing a role.
In this issue’s feature story, “Forgotten but not Gone,” it is confirmed that the University of California, and UC Santa Cruz in particular, is in possession of Native American artifacts and burial remains. The question of where and what those remains are is left unanswered.
Keeping Native American remains is problematic for a number of reasons. It means that graves were disrupted to obtain these remains, which is disrespectful to any culture. And to make matters worse, many Native American tribes believe that disruption of burial sites can cause spiritual trouble.
Awful as this may be, it is technically legal. According to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the government and institutions that receive government funding cannot be in possession of Native American cultural items. However, this legislation only applies to federally recognized tribes — and not all tribes have government recognition.
Tribes that aren’t federally recognized generally are on the smaller side and more difficult to document. But this shouldn’t mean that they don’t receive the same rights and respect as federally recognized tribes. For the UC, or any other institution, to hold onto these remains just because of a legal loophole is tasteless and inconsiderate.
The fact that information about what exactly we are in possession of is difficult to find makes this even more abhorrent, as people have a right to know what cultural crimes the UC is a part of. Schools have to release information about what they have under NAGPRA, but UCSC’s information is extremely difficult for the public to find. Even UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum has a sidebar on its website with links to the NAGPRA inventory database; UCSC only has a compliance statement on their Office of Research website.
There’s no doubt that some would argue that the Native American remains are being used for research purposes and thus are needed. But no research is worth inflicting even more pain on a group of people who have already suffered at the hands of the U.S. government so much.
And what’s more, retaining these remains actually interferes with the UC’s main goal. It is supposed to serve as a way to educate all California students who meet certain academic standards, but it is doubtful that Native American students would feel completely comfortable supporting an institution that exploits their people. There is constant talk of the UC needing to become more diverse, but this is one negative example of actions speaking louder than words.
Stanford University gave back Native American remains, including some from federally unrecognized tribes, in the 1980s. It’s time the University of California did the same.
It may be legal for the UC to hold on to federally unrecognized Native American tribes’ remains, but it certainly is not just. They should be given back to their rightful owners, and the cloud of mystery surrounding what exactly the UC has should be dispersed.