Tribal leaders from across the state are expressing frustration over the process by which they're able to claim the human remains of their ancestors who were buried centuries ago, before being disturbed by modern-day construction projects.
Sometimes the remains are immediately returned to the Native American Heritage Commission for proper burial. Unfortunately, tribal leaders say many of the remains are stashed in the archives of state universities, which tribal leaders are accusing of being less than cooperative in helping to facilitate their return.
"It is a fight, a daily fight to get them back where they belong," said Erica Pinto, chairwoman of the Jamul Indian Village of California. "We need consistency now. Our loved ones must be returned."
The issue was the main topic at Thursday's meeting of the State Assembly Select Committee on Native American Affairs in Sacramento. Officials said when AB 275 was signed into law in September 2020, it required all agencies and museums that have control of Native American remains to inventory the items for repatriation with the appropriate tribes.
Tribal leaders say AB 275 required these agencies, mainly state universities, to identify the geographical location of the remains that were found, determine the cultural affiliation and circumstances surrounding their acquisition, and consult with tribes regarding how to handle the items. By statute, this work was required to be completed by April 1, 2022.
But many tribal members say that's not happening as intended.
"That is not okay," said Assemblymember Jose Medina (D-Riverside). "It is not okay for any system of higher education to take that long to get this done."
Others noted that while some universities have been helpful and communicative with the process, others have not. In all, tribal leaders have identified approximately 16,000 collections of human remains that have yet to be returned. But Assemblymember James Ramos (D-Highland) says that's just a small portion of them.
"16,000 remains is a lot," said Ramos. "But that's just the beginning of the remains that are actually in the archives and different places of our ancestors in the state of California."
As the tribes and state leaders work toward a solution, many acknowledged the Native American Heritage Commission is underfunded and needs more support.
"I do believe that they're doing the job as best as can be around the parameters that are there," said Ramos. "We know that we're trying to work together to ensure that these remains do come back to the rightful people rightful, the rightful California Indian people in the state of California."