Native American human remains returned after 15 years

Julie London, who began the University’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act program, began a systematic search of all the archaeological storage areas on and off campus to find all the Native American collections in 1996 when she came across a box of Native American remains. It took 15 years to repatriate the remains.

This month, the University’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act program returned the box of partial human remains to the Tubatulabal Tribe, marking SF State’s first repatriation of the school year.

The NAGPRA program was established in 1996 to help reconnect tribes with pieces from their past. The University holds custody of 40 collections containing Native American human remains and associated funerary objects. The University has been a repository for archeological findings since 1949, according to Enrique Riveros-Schafer, SF State’s associate vice president for academic affairs.

“We have repatriated 25 archaeological site collections to seven different tribes in 13 years, plus an entire basket collection to another tribe,” said Jeffrey Fentress, SF State’s NAGPRA program coordinator and archeologist.

Since the program’s inception, its coordinator and members have consulted with federally and non-federally recognized tribes about the cultural affiliation and appropriate treatment of human remains and cultural items.

One of those is the Tubatulabal tribe, which is non-federally recognized and whose ancestral home is near the Kern River — located northeast of Bakersfield.  The University returned the tribe’s remains after retrieving a box labeled “No Site, No., Bones, Lake Isabella, Box 1 of 1.”

“The individual from Lake Isabella was an adult, probable male,” Fentress said about the remains. “This means there was only enough skeletal material to estimate the sex.”

According to Kathy Wallace, cultural liaison with NAGPRA at SF State, neither documents nor records exist indicating how the box with the human remains arrived at the University.

“Many of the human remains and artifacts the University has come from excavations that are done prior to construction projects,” Schafer said.

Typically, an agency excavates a site before it begins a construction project. If archeologists find Native American artifacts or human remains, it creates a contract with an institution, such as a university, to house the findings and eventually return them to their rightful owner, Schafer said.

The University holds site collections for Caltrans, California Department of Parks and Recreation, the U.S. Army Reserve and other agencies, according to SF State’s NAGPRA program website.

While SF State officials are not sure about the origins of the Tubatulabal remains, Donna Miranda-Begay, chairwoman of the tribe, believes the findings were excavated in the 1940s when the Isabella Dam was built.

Regardless of how the remains made their way to the University, Begay said her tribe is fortunate to have recovered the box with its ancestral remnants.

“We reburied the remains in Lake Isabella, close to their original burial site,” Begay said. “It’s impossible to rebury remains in their original place because of the new construction.”

The Tubatulabal Tribe, like many that are non-federally recognized, face greater challenges than federally-recognized tribes when attempting to recover ancestral remains and sacred artifacts, according to Wallace.

“Most of the time these tribes don’t have enough money to travel throughout the state or country for consultation with universities and museums,” Wallace said. “Even if they could afford the trip, most don’t have the land to keep their belongings.”

The Tubatulabal Tribe looked to the Tachi Yokut Tribe, which resides in the Santa Rosa Rancheria and is federally recognized, to speak on its behalf and lead the repatriation process with NAGPRA, Wallace said.

“We have families who intermarried with the Yokut,” Begay said. “So through blood and marriage, we are culturally affiliated. This way they were able to act as the middleman.”

According to Wallace, the national NAGPRA program established that a non-federally recognized tribe must prove cultural affiliation with a federally recognized tribe to participate in repatriation with an institution.

Lalo Franco, director of the tribe’s Cultural and Historic Preservation Department, is among one of the three people who traveled to SF State to claim the Tubatulabal’s ancestral remains.

“We originally came to the University for consultation on a different archeological finding when the coordinator told us about the box from Lake Isabella,” Franco said. “Once we examined it and talked, we were satisfied and walked away believing it belonged to us.”

Franco said the first step in figuring where to potentially hold their ancestral remains is to read archeological reports. This, he said, could also be accomplished when listening to stories from their elders.

Trips for consultation can cost anywhere from $100 to $2,000, he said.

“We are very appreciative of SF State,” Franco said. “It’s refreshing to work with people who are doing the right thing. There are many uncooperative institutions that should follow SF State’s footsteps.”

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