BERKELEY, Calif. - A coalition of American Indians is promising further protest and even legal action if University of California - Berkeley refuses to aid in the return of human remains and sacred objects stored at its Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
Hundreds protested Oct. 5 after university representatives said in meetings the museum would not reinstate a department that had assisted tribes in proving their right to ownership of items under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
At the heart of the protest was frustration with the federal law, which requires tribal members to undertake a lengthy process to reclaim items.
''Our ancestors are being held hostage by these scientists,'' said Lalo Franco of the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut Tribe.
Spokesman Marie Felde said the university is in compliance with federal law and will continue working collaboratively with tribes.
But a coalition representing 400,000 tribal members may consider a class action lawsuit if the university ignores its demand to assist in the return of all estimated 13,000 human remains at the museum, said Pit River member Mark LeBeau.
''For once, the law is going to work for Native people,'' he said at the protest.
The Hearst Museum is home to the second-largest Native collection in the nation, with more than 200,000 items. For years Natives have disputed the university's claim that a majority of its Native collection cannot be directly linked to modern tribes.
The ongoing conflict here echoes across Indian country, where battles have been raging between tribal members who - under NAGPRA - must prove items belong to them and not to the institutions and researchers who have invested in maintaining their expansive Native collections.
Some researchers view items as ''pieces of data,'' while others have embraced what they can learn with repatriation, said John Beaver, a Creek anthropologist and archaeologist who coordinates repatriation at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.
''As a museum, we're not talking about static cultures; we see the items as very real and vibrant. However, they can become alienated when collecting items,'' he said. ''Institutions have particular questions to grapple and struggle with in working out returns.''
UC-Berkeley's relationship with many tribes has been strained regarding NAGPRA.
The museum department that had overseen responsibilities related to NAGPRA was unique to the University of California system. It was established in the late 1990s after concerns regarding UC-Berkeley's compliance were addressed by the federal NAGPRA review committee.
The department was disbanded this summer during a reorganization of the museum in preparation for an expansion, Felde said.
UC-Berkeley now plans to follow the model of other universities by integrating NAGPRA responsibilities within museum operations, Felde said. Seven museum employees would still address repatriation issues, she said.
Interim Museum Director Kent Lightfoot has said that stronger ties with Natives are ''crucial'' to the success of the museum's planned expansion.
But many such ties are now severed.
The coalition that organized the Oct. 5 protest includes members of California tribes such as the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut and the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians. The museum holds 9,000 California Indian baskets.
Members had asked in letters and in meetings with officials that tribes be consulted regarding the museum's collection, and requested the reversal of decisions already made.
The coalition's most pressing concern was the disbanding of the five-member NAGPRA department, three members of which were Native, under the recommendation of two non-Native archaeologists. Tribes were not consulted because the university viewed the decision as ''administrative restructuring,'' Felde said.
But opponents argued tribes should have been consulted because they worked directly with the department.
In 16 tribal visits last year, NAGPRA staff helped tribal members examine documents and search library records and collections for items, said coalition member Corbin Collins.
Claims under NAGPRA are determined by the campus repatriation committee, which receives recommendations from the system-wide University of California Repatriation Committee.
Law professor Carole Goldberg serves on that committee as a representative of the University of California - Los Angeles. She said UC-Berkeley did not have to consult with tribes regarding the department, but that move would have been in ''the spirit of NAGPRA.''
''The spirit of NAGPRA is that tribes and Indian people have a very strong interest in what is done with the ancestors,'' she said.
Museum and university officials insist the reorganization will allow the museum to better work with tribes. Felde said the museum is seeking a repatriation coordinator, a tribal outreach coordinator, an education specialist and a cultural attache for NAGPRA claims.
She also said the museum plans to find ways other than NAGPRA to partner with tribes, including internships for tribal members.
But most at the protest were not interested in such offers.
Being denied ownership of ancestral and cultural remains is equivalent to the historical ''loss of land, life and liberty,'' LeBeau said.
''The right to control ancestral remains is a basic human entitlement,'' he said. ''Throughout American history, scientists routinely pillaged Native burial grounds and shipped massive amounts of ancestral remains to museums.''
Reports to Congress in 1988 estimated that the looting of cultural sites had occurred on 90 percent of cultural sites in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, and on 50 percent of all private and public sites nationwide.
The Senate and House unanimously passed NAGPRA, and President George H.W. Bush signed the bill into law in 1990.
Under NAGPRA, museums had to submit an inventory of their Native collections by 1996. Protesters said UC-Berkeley only identified 20 percent for repatriation, claiming all other items could not be directly linked to a modern tribe. Officials declined to provide a number.
After it failed to meet the deadline, UC-Berkeley was given until 2000 to comply.
In November of 1999, the federal NAGPRA review committee expressed concern about difficulties Natives were having regarding UC-Berkeley's lack of ''good faith consultation,'' according to committee minutes.
That legacy of mistrust lingers.
In an effort to reach out to tribes, the Hearst Museum's new interim director, Judson King, attended a meeting of 175 tribal preservation officers in Palm Springs.
Members of the protest coalition also attended, and held a session about their position.
They have planned a second protest Nov. 2, to coincide with the Day of the Dead holiday, said Morning Star Gali, of the Pit River Nation.
''UC-Berkeley must acknowledge that while the Hearst Museum may temporarily control ancestral remains and sacred objects, control does not constitute ownership,'' she said.