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Two bills signed by California Governor Gavin Newsom on Tuesday, October 10, 2023, will hold California university systems accountable for the proper repatriation of Native American human remains and other cultural items to the appropriate Native American tribes.

The 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPRA) and its 2001 state counterpart, CalNAGPRA, require government entities, including universities, return Native American remains and artifacts be returned to appropriate tribes.

The need for bills signed into law on Tuesday gained attention in June when an auditor’s report cited the CSU system’s lapses and blunders in failing to ensure the timely return of Native American remains and cultural objects. The audit revealed almost 700,000 Native American remains and artifacts were not returned to appropriate tribal descendants in violation of NAGRPRA and CalNAGPRA.

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The two bills, AB 226 and AB 389,  will close the gap in compliance issues. The bills were introduced by Assemblyman James C. Ramos, who is the first and only California Native American serving in the California legislature. Ramos is the former tribal chairman of San Manuel Band of Mission Indians.

“We’re still dealing with a state that has not come to terms with its history — deplorable history and treatment towards California’s first people,” Ramos said.

Newsom, who apologized to California tribes in June 2019, said it is time to reckon with our past and right the wrongs of history.

“I am proud to work with Assemblymember Ramos to expedite the return of Native American ancestors and cultural items to their peoples. While there is still much work to be done, I am hopeful this legislation is a step in the right direction to support tribes and institutions seeking to expedite the healing process of repatriation.” Newsom said.

AB 226 - California Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 2001: University of California: 

The legislation requires two more state audits on University of California (UC) campuses in the wake of slow progress in returning wrongly held Native American human remains and cultural artifacts to the appropriate tribes under a bill

Ramos’s measure also calls upon UC to report each of its campus’s progress toward full repatriation of its collections to the Assembly Higher Education Committee every year starting in June 2024.

Federal and state law required UC to return the human remains and items by 1995.

“It is painfully disturbing that the UC campuses have failed to return the remains of our ancestors after 28 years. UC’s disrespectful and ongoing delays have prevented California’s tribes from fulfilling their sacred duty to rebury our ancestors,” Ramos said. “After almost 30 years, it is long past time for UC to meet this obligation.”

“We appreciate Governor Newsom’s signing AB 226 into law and recognizing that the University of California has a long way to go to fully implement NAGPRA and Cal NAGPRAand that it is imperative that the California State Auditor continue their compliance audits in 2024 and 2026.” Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians Chairman Kenneth Kahn said

AB 389 - California Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 2001: California State University

This bill requires California State University (CSU) campuses to follow State Auditor recommendations for repatriation of Native American human remains and items wrongfully in their possession and prohibited from using Native American remains and cultural artifacts for purposes of teaching or research and to the appropriate tribes under legislation signed

“AB 389 will ensure that decades after a federal and state requirement to repatriate the remains of our ancestors, CSU takes this responsibility seriously. These bones are the remains of our ancestors and deserve respectful reburial,” Ramos said. “It is a fundamental human right to be buried according to the customs of one’s people. I know of no other group denied this right.”

The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians sponsored AB 389 and was introduced and carried by Ramos.

San Manuel Band of Mission Indians Vice Chairman Johnny Hernández who testified in support of the proposal says the fact that little to no progress has been made in repatriating our ancestors, funerary objects, and cultural items over the 33 years since the federal NAGPRA was enacted in 1990 is appalling and unacceptable.

“I want to thank the Governor and the Legislature for supporting this legislation. This is a critical step toward accountability and compliance with NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA by the CSU systems. The ancestral remains and cultural items held in the CSU inventories are critical to preserving Native American cultures and histories, and should be repatriated to tribal nations as existing state and federal laws require.” Hernández said.

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About The Author
Levi Rickert
Author: Levi RickertEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].