How they got there is a mystery, but seven skulls and several bone fragments have made their way from the medical school at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom back to their ancestral homelands in San Luis Obispo County, California.
"They didn't volunteer to leave the U.S.," John Burch, a spiritual leader of the Salinan Tribe of Monterey and San Luis Obispo Counties, told the Los Angeles Times. "They were kidnapped, and now they're home."
While the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act governs the return of remains and artifacts to tribes from museums and institutions in the United States, it does not apply to foreign institutions like the University of Birmingham, reported the Los Angeles Times.
But June Jones, a bioethicist in the university's School of Medical and Dental Sciences, told the newspaper that the university sees repatriation as “a moral choice.” The school will also be returning bones to indigenous groups in Australia and New Zealand.
"This is an honor," Jones told the Los Angeles Times. "It's all about respect for cultures and beliefs, even if they don't happen to be ours."
Burch was able to navigate the bureaucracy with the help of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California), the U.S. Embassy in London and the state's Native American Heritage Commission, reported the Los Angeles Times.
"Getting remains into the U.S. has been very problematic," Dave Singleton, a program analyst with the heritage commission, told the Los AngelesTimes. "As far as we know, this is the first of its kind in California."
Clues to the bones origins were written on labels: "Dug from a grave near Avila, San Luis Obispo County, California by R.W. Summers."
Summers, an Episcopal minister in San Luis Obispo and an amateur archaeologist amassed a collection of Native American artifacts during his life—he died in 1898.
His collection ended up with his friend Selwyn Freer, a British clergyman. The Los Angeles Times reported that Freer’s family reported that was prominent at the university in Birmingham, but it’s not known if that’s how the bones came to be there.
The Salinian Tribe claimed the remains when Jones contacted tribes whose ancestors were known to have lived in the area. The tribe has more than 700 members, about 80 percent of which still live in the tribe’s traditional territory, according to the tribe’s website.
Once back in the United States the bones were identified as being Native American by anthropologist Robert Hoover, a professor emeritus at California Polytechnic State University. According to the Los Angeles Times, one sign was the pattern of wear consistent with the grit in the early Native diet.
In early May, the bones and skulls were laid to rest during a tribal ceremony in a secret spot where other Natives are buried.