California tribal leaders and members of a California Assembly Select Committee on Native American Affairs displayed their ire on Tuesday with California State University (CSU) administrators for their disrespectful handling of Native American human remains and cultural items as revealed in a June audit.

The auditor’s report released in June cites 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 the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGRPRA) and its 2001 state counterpart, CalNAGPRA, 

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On Tuesday, the California Assembly Select Committee on Native American Affairs held a joint informational oversight hearing at the California state capitol. The committee is chaired by Assemblyman James Ramos, a tribal citizen of the San Manuel of Mission Indians and the first Native American ever elected to the California assembly.

“After decades, CSU has failed to return the human remains of our ancestors to the appropriate tribe. These bones are not objects; they are not academic or archeological trophies to secure career gains or research grants. The remains of our ancestors deserve respectful burial. 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,” Ramos said.

“We cannot wait for another law to be passed to hold these institutions accountable. Every institution and their respective leadership needs to actively step up and start making immediate change,” said Raymond C. Hitchcock, executive secretary of the Native American Heritage Commission at the hearing.

Prior to the hearing, several California tribal leaders joined Ramos and other members of the California Assembly Select on Native American Affairs in a news conference to the return of the human remains and cultural items still held at the CSU.

Jack Potter, tribal chairman of the Redding Rancheria, located in Redding, California said it is heartbreaking that the CSU has failed to return the human remains and cultural items.

"This report is sad and heartbreaking as we're still trying to rebuild our nations from the genocide that happened to our people. It is hard when we know the spirits of our ancestors left on a shelf. If you never got the chance to go into those places, go see our people sitting like a book in a library waiting to come home," Potter said.

To find out that this report has 700,000 of our people that we still have to bring home is heartbreaking. As Moses said to Pharaoh a long time ago, I say to the CSU: ‘Let My People Go!’”

Vice Chairman Johnny Hernandez of the San Maneul of Mission Indians, located in San Bernardino, said the failure of CSU to repatriate the human remains and items not only affects his people, but Indian Country as a whole.

"There's been disturbances of grave sites on ancestral lands and remains of loved ones our ancestors being held without the opportunity to eternally rest in peace. Imagine your family, your ancestors and their belongings that you'll hold near and dear, that are owned and used under the guise of an artifact on display for the public's learnings and teachings. What we are discussing today as a matter of matter of humanity, family, culture and traditions, and the respectful treatment of what is most sacred to the identity and preservation of my people" Hernandez said.

Since NAGPRA was enacted in 1990, only six percent of CSU’s nearly 700,000 remains and items have been repatriated, according to the audit. 

Key findings from the audit—which reviewed all 23 CSU campuses and conducted on-site reviews at four sites, Chico State University, Sacramento State University, San Diego State University, and San Jose State University—included:

  • Twelve of the 21 CSU campuses with collections have not finished reviews required by NAGPRA, and 16 campuses have little or no repatriation activities.
  • Two campuses returned remains to tribes without following NAGPRA’s requirements for notifying other tribes, and six campuses violated CalNAGPRA by handling collections without first consulting with tribes.
  • Campuses lack the policies, funding, and staff to support repatriation efforts.

Ramos is considering emergency legislation to codify the state auditor’s recommendations and make them law. Auditor recommendations include annual progress reports to the Legislature regarding progress toward repatriation, campus protocols, and requiring experienced repatriation coordinators at campuses of more than 100 sets of remains or cultural items.

CSU Interim President Sylvia Alva testified at the hearing along with the following CSU campus representatives:

  • Min-Tung “Mike” Lee, president of Sonoma State University, which had the largest number of collections at 185,300 during the audit period, even as the campus review of remains and items has not been completed. Only 0.2 percent of the collection has been repatriated.
  • CSU Chico President Steve Perez, whose campus has the second highest number of collections—150,200—and has returned some remains or items but has not followed the process outlined in NAGPRA.
  • Luke Wood, president of CSU Sacramento, with the third largest collection numbered at 115,900, with only five percent of the remains and artifacts repatriated. Its review has not been completed.
  • Amir Dabirian, provost at CSU Fullerton, a campus with 8,300 collections of which 0.2 percent have been repatriated.

Four CSU campuses – Monterey Bay, Stanislaus, Bakersfield, and Los Angeles – have not yet provided data needed to estimate the size of their NAGPRA collections. The state auditor reported these four campuses showed human remains in their collections and disclosed holding more than 100 boxes still requiring review.

During the hearing, the CSU chancellor’s office committed to implementing the recommendations of the audit


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About The Author
Levi Rickert
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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].