UC Berkeley is repatriating cultural artifacts, including ancestral remains, to indigenous tribes


The University of California, Berkeley is working to repatriate thousands of ancestral remains and sacred property to indigenous tribes who were taken over a century ago.

The Wiyot tribe in northern California is one of hundreds of tribes in the process of reclaiming what was stolen. So far, the tribe has received more than 20 remains of their ancestors, according to tribal chairman Ted Hernandez.

“For those who think this is no big deal or doesn’t matter: Imagine someone goes to your cemetery, digs up your ancestors, puts them in boxes and puts them on a shelf. Our ancestors shouldn’t be in boxes or on shelves, they should be at home with their families,” Hernandez, the tribe’s historic preservation officer, told CNN.

For thousands of years, the Wiyot people were the guardians of Duluwat Island, located in the marshes and estuaries of what is now Humboldt Bay off the coast of northern California. Then, in 1860, a group of white settlers disrupted the tribe’s annual world renewal ceremony and massacred scores of Wiyot women, children, and elders.

“It wasn’t right for past generations to dig up their remains and take them to Berkeley or anywhere else. But people can learn from their mistakes and the new generation has finally been able to see why it was wrong,” said Hernandez, 54.

The repatriation is part of a larger movement by indigenous tribes as they gain more legal and financial resources to return remains and items across the country.

Other universities have created similar roles and processes. Vassar College and the University of Tennessee have repatriated thousands of local remains. Indiana University changed its policies last month to halt research on the remains and to create a commission with tribal leaders to facilitate a permit that would allow research or repatriation of the remains.

UC Berkeley returns the remains through the school’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act committee, which processes claims by tribes claiming artifacts in the school’s possession.

That law was passed in 1990 stating that remains deserve to be “treated with dignity and respect” and that objects removed from tribal lands belong to descendants and must be returned by museums and universities.

“We’ve had a very difficult relationship with Native Americans in the U.S., where institutions and museums took their ancestors and property without their consent for over 100 years,” Sabrina Agarwal, a bio-archaeologist and chair of the UC Berkeley NAGPRA Committee, told CNN.

“This is part of restorative justice across the country. If we want to rebuild these relations, repatriation is the first step. It is not possible to heal or rebuild trust without repatriation,” he 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 home marks a sense of justice and peace long anticipated.

“When our ancestors returned, we held a ceremony for them, which is an important part of our healing process. As Wiyoti people, we are known as people of the world, and that is bringing balance to the world,” said Hernandez.

“Bringing our ancestors home is part of restoring balance, not only to the Wiyot people, but to the whole world. Our ancestors must be at home with their families so that we can continue to dance with the creator and continue to heal the world and the sickness that surrounds us.’

Hernandez said his tribe is in the process of receiving more ancestral remains and artifacts from the university, and hopes the collaboration between Berkeley and indigenous tribes can set a precedent for other institutions.

The University of California system began banning research on all traces of indigenous ancestry in 2018. In 2020, the university created a new NAGPRA committee chaired by Agarwal, following reports that revealed UC Berkeley had backtracked on efforts to repatriate the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

Composed of three university professors 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.

There are currently 9,000 artifacts and more than 200,000 NAGPRA-eligible properties that the university plans to return, Agarwal said.

“Decades of structural racism against native people is a big reason why their artifacts and ancestors were collected in the first place and not returned,” he added. “We intend to bring home all of our Native American possessions, objects and ancestors.”

More than a decade ago, the Wiyot tribe applied for the return of the sacred objects and was denied, says Agarwal. The campus committee found the claim unfairly denied during a review.

“We had our bad days with Berkeley when they didn’t want to work with us, so we were definitely skeptical at first, but today I saw the sincerity of the staff and how much they want to help.” Hernandez said. “They put us through a lot. We were massacred, enslaved and hunted. So confidence is a tough word, but we are slowly getting there. Work is needed.”

However, some tribes in other states continue to face obstacles in returning their artifacts. In Texas, the local Miakan-Garza tribe, which is not federally recognized, has been petitioning the University of Texas for years to return the remains of their Austin ancestors.

“As indigenous people, our ancestors are spread all over the world. Everyone must go home, and that will only happen when the institutions take the lead to return what belongs to us,” said Hernandez. “This is history being made, and we will make sure that everything that belongs to our people is returned.”