UC Berkeley tells Senate Indian Affairs Committee to recognize the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe

Carol T. Christ, the Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, is calling on the Senate Indian Affairs Committee to recognize the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe so that the institution can comply with the Native American Graves Protection Act (NAGPRA) and repatriate tens of thousands of ancestral remains and hundreds of thousands of burial objects. Under current law, the University can only repatriate burial remains to federally recognized Tribes.

In a letter to Chairman Brian Schatz (D-HI) and Ranking Member Lisa Murkowski, Christ admits to sharing the Committee’s “frustration at the lack of progress in returning all of the Native American ancestors and cultural objects that have been held by the campus, including in the Pheobe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, for decades.”

“For UC Berkeley, the human remains and cultural items in its possession were predominantly collected from the Bay Area. The majority of Bay Area Tribes are not federally recognized, presenting a significant obstacle…,” the University explains in correspondence dated June 16, 2023, in response to questions posed by the Committee.

“45% of ancestors still listed as culturally unidentifiable are likely Ohlone ancestors, but cannot be ‘culturally affiliated’ under NAGPRA, as none of the Ohlone Tribes have federal recognition (25 USC 3001(7)),” the University explains.

“Federal recognition, or reinstatement of removed recognition in some cases, would expedite the return of these ancestors and belongings, allowing UC Berkeley to repatriate these within one year,” the University writes.

“UC Berkeley is unique within the UC system because of the scope, size, and age of the collections located on our campus. The campus is 155 years old, and for many decades served as California’s only major collecting institution through the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. We are not proud of the fact that the NAGPRA eligible collection at the museum is one of the largest collections in the country and are working to address this injustice,” Chancellor Christ admits.

“We acknowledge and apologize for the wrongs committed by UC Berkeley against Native American people, particularly with respect to how the University has handled its repatriation responsibilities. We recognize and regret that in the past, representatives of the University, and others, removed ancestors and sacred belongings without tribal permission or consultation, and that those ancestral remains and belongings were held for the purpose of research and teaching. We have apologized directly to Tribal representatives, and we are currently engaged in a broad range of efforts to expedite the repatriation process and improve the campus’s relationship with Tribal Nations,” she writes.

“The campus is committed to the complete return of all Native American ancestors and cultural belongings… We realize that so long as the remains of ancestors, sacred objects, and cultural items remain in the University’s possession, justice will not be served, and the healing we seek will not be complete,” Chancellor Christ concludes.

The correspondence can be read in full here.

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