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California Assembly committee holds repatriation hearings at Barona

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LAKESIDE, Calif. - A Kumeyaay coalition charges the National Park Service has not been effective in meeting requirements of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, in part because its personnel are also archaeologists.

"We want the matter turned over to the California tribes," coalition leader Steve Banegas told a California Assembly committee hearing on the Barona Indian Reservation July 19. The hearing was to determine whether the 1990 federal law regarding return of American Indian remains held in California universities and museums was being effectively carried out in the state.

The Assembly's Select Committee on Native American Repatriation convened the meeting that included a cultural coalition of 12 Kumeyaay bands for the first time ever on American Indian lands as well as officials from museums and universities who are holding the majority of the American Indian remains.

State sources say there are approximately 9,000 American Indian remains being held in state institutions and some private collections. There are additional thousands of Filipino and Native Hawaiian remains as well.

They estimate 80 percent of the state institutions have not done proper inventory on the matter. This is not entirely their fault since many of institutions are under funded and lack the staff for the daunting task, they added.

The act was signed into law by President Bush and set up a process in which the remains were to be inventoried and returned to their respective tribal descendants.

"That has not happened yet," says Banegas, adding the matter should be "turned over to California Indian tribes."

Banegas goes on to say repatriation is a pivotal issue in establishing government-to-government relations.

He brought the matter to the attention of Assemblyman Darrel Steinberg, D-Sacramento, committee chairman, and persuaded him to hold the hearings on Barona land.

Andrea Jackson, a Steinberg spokeswoman, says he became interested in the issue when a northern California tribe tried getting Ishi's brain from the Smithsonian. Ishi was believed to be the last remaining Yahi Indian. Jackson says Steinberg was truly shocked when he found out how many American Indian remains were being held by California universities and museums.

"Right now we're trying to determine the questions and figure out if the problem is best addressed through the legislative process or by other means," Jackson says.

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Steinberg says he began to realize that this was a problem of great magnitude, adding that he feels many of the state universities have not complied with the federal law. The University of California, Berkeley, has been one of the biggest culprits in that it has a collection to rival the Smithsonian in terms of sheer volume.

"I tried to take a tour of the U.C.'s holdings and I couldn't even bring myself to go to where they have the remains," Steinberg says. He describes the idea of holding remains as "gruesome" and says that this is an issue of dignity and civil rights for American Indians.

Although Steinberg has no solution for the entire problem at the moment, he says he wants to make sure that the museums and universities at least start taking the steps to comply with the federal law. He says there is much contention at the University of California regarding the process.

Calls to the University of California, Berkeley were not returned.

Larry Myers, who works for the state of California Native American Heritage Commission, attended the Barona hearings. He said he feels the meeting went well and at least served to open a dialogue on the issue.

The biggest problem he identifies is funding to enforce the federal law. The Native American Heritage Commission, a small office, has been the only state agency that has dealt with the issue.

Myers said he feels that though the law is federal, it should be the state that should step in to help remedy the problem. "The state of California was responsible for decimating our people just as much as the federal government was. It is in state-run institutions that these remains are being held and the state should step forward and take the lead in returning these remains to the proper people."

Another issue Myers says many have not taken into account is the fact many of the remains may have toxic residue. They have been infested with bugs and were sprayed with pesticides to combat the problem.

"What happens when they try to rebury these remains with toxic residue and it gets into the soil or groundwater? I don't have the answer myself, but this needs to be taken into account because many of these remains are highly, highly toxic."

For now all interested parties are gathering information and trying to determine the next step.

Steinberg says that everyone should stay focused on the bottom line.

"These are people who had families and traditions. The ultimate goal here is that they should be able to return to their people."