The University of California, Berkeley is working to repatriate thousands of ancestral remains and sacred objects to native tribes from whom they were taken more than a century ago.
The Wiyot Tribe in Northern California is one of hundreds of tribes currently recovering what was stolen from them. So far, the tribe has received more than 20 remains from their ancestors, according to tribe president Ted Hernandez.
“Those people who think it’s no big deal or it doesn’t matter: Imagine someone goes to your cemetery, digs up your ancestors, wraps them in boxes, and puts them on a shelf. Our ancestors shouldn’t be in boxes or on shelves, they should be home with their families,” Hernandez, who is also the tribe’s historic preservation officer, told CNN.
For thousands of years, the Wiyot were stewards of Duluwat Island, located in the marshes and estuaries of what is now Humboldt Bay along the northern California coast. Then in 1860, a group of white settlers interrupted the tribe’s annual world renewal ceremony and massacred dozens of Wiyot women, children and old men.
“It wasn’t right for past generations to dig up their remains and take them to Berkeley or wherever. But people can learn from their mistakes and the new generation finally got to see why it was wrong,” Hernandez said. , 54 years old. said.
The repatriation is part of a larger movement of indigenous tribes recovering remains and artifacts across the country as they gain more legal and economic resources.
Other universities have created similar roles and processes. Vassar College and the University of Tennessee have repatriated thousands of indigenous remains. Indiana University amended its policies last month to stop research into remains and create a council with tribal leaders to facilitate consent that would allow research or repatriation of remains.
UC Berkeley returns remains through school Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Committeewhich deals with claims made by tribes asking for artifacts in the possession of the school.
The law was passed in 1990 to recognize that remains deserve to be “treated with dignity and respect”, and that objects removed from tribal lands belong to descendants and should be returned by museums and universities.
“We’ve had a very difficult relationship with Native Americans in the United States because institutions and museums have taken their ancestors and their possessions without their consent for over 100 years,” Sabrina Agarwal, a bio-archaeologist and chair of the UC Berkeley NAGPRA committee.
“It’s part of restorative justice across the country. If we’re going to rebuild those relationships, repatriation is the first step. There can be no healing or restoring trust without repatriation,” she said. .
The ancestral remains that were repatriated to the Wiyot people last year are at least 150 years old, according to Hernandez. Welcoming their ancestors into their homes marks a long-awaited sense of justice and peace.
“When we redeemed our ancestors, we held a ceremony for them, and this is an important part of our healing process. As the Wiyoti people, we are known as the people of the world, who bring balance into the world,” Hernandez said.
“Bringing our ancestors home is part of restoring balance, not just for the Wiyot people, but for the rest of the world. Our ancestors need to be home with their families so they can continue their dances with the creator and go on to heal the world and the disease around us.”
Hernandez said his tribe is in the process of receiving more remains and ancestral artifacts from the university, and hopes the partnership between Berkeley and the native tribes can set a precedent for other institutions.
Rebuilding Trust with the Indigenous Community
The University of California system began banning research on all Indigenous ancestral remains in 2018. After reports surfaced the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology of UC Berkeley falling behind in repatriation effortsin 2020, the university established the new NAGPRA committee which Agarwal now leads.
Comprised of three university faculty members and three members of the tribal community, the committee has so far returned at least 1,000 ancestral remains and more than 53,000 sacred objects, according to Agarwal.
Today, there are 9,000 remains and more than 200,000 NAGPRA-eligible property that the university plans to return, Agarwal said.
“Decades of structural racism against Native people is a major reason why their artifacts and ancestors were collected in the first place and not returned,” she added. “We intend to bring home all of our Native American property, artifacts and ancestors.”
More than a decade ago, the Wiyot tribe made a request for the return of sacred objects and were denied, says Agarwal. The campus committee found their application unfairly denied during a review.
“We had our bad days with Berkeley when they wouldn’t work with us, so we were definitely skeptical at first, but I saw the honesty of the staff today and how much they want to help,” Hernandez says. . “We’ve been through a lot. We’ve been slaughtered, enslaved and driven out. So trust is a tough word, but we’re getting there slowly. It takes work.”
Yet some tribes in other states continue to face obstacles in recovering their artifacts. In Texas, the local Miakan-Garza tribe, which is not recognized by the federal government, has petitioned the University of Texas at Austin to restore ancestral remains for years.
“As Indigenous people, our ancestors are spread all over the world. All must return home, and that will only happen when institutions take the initiative to return what is ours,” Hernandez said. “This is history in the making, and we will ensure that everything that is ours goes to our people.”
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Company. Discovery. All rights reserved.