Groups around the country, including some in Southeast Alaska, are protesting the University of California-Berkeley's decision to eliminate the unit that restores Native artifacts to their original owners.
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Native leaders worry the move will delay or prevent the return of artifacts to Southeast tribes or clans. The process of repatriating artifacts, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, is already a cumbersome one, laden with paperwork and claims.
The university's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology boasts the second largest collection of Native American remains and items in the country, including hundreds of Northwest Coast art and Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian objects.
"My impression is that this is one of the few museums where the staff is what we call the 'old guard,'" said Sitka's Bob Sam, an elder and expert in human remains and burial site restoration. "They have very strong feelings that these items shouldn't be turned over to the Native people, but that they should be kept in a safe environment.
"This will put a big obstacle in the process," he said. "It could hold up some repatriation claims for many, many years."
On Tuesday, five Native American leaders announced the formation of the Native American NAGPRA Coalition to protest the university's decision.
The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of America wrote a resolution of protest in June.
"The University of California-Berkeley is known to be in the forefront of the fight for human rights and causes, and the NAGPRA law is one such area for human rights and dignity," reads part of the draft, submitted to the Central Council's executive committee.
Sealaska Heritage Institute plans to write its own resolution, President Rosita Worl said. The Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center in Sitka also is preparing a letter.
"It's unfortunate," said Worl, a member of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Review Committee. "NAGPRA has really brought museums and Native Americans close together, at least to the point where they have a working relationship."
Back in 2005, Sealaska Heritage worked with the Hearst Museum to return a Chilkat brown bear tunic to the Kaagwaantaan Clan in Klukwan. The museum transferred the tunic to the institute on Oct. 4. It arrived in Juneau on Oct. 6 and completed its trip to Klukwan the next day.
Sealaska Heritage ethnologist Kathy Miller saw the tunic while photographing the museum's collection of Southeast Alaska artifacts in Nov. 2004. Joe Hotch, a member of the council and a Kaagwaantaan clan leader, had a 1923 photo of the late Kaagwaantaan clan leader Kudeinahaa wearing the item in Klukwan.
The repatriation process was swift, in part because the university's NAGPRA office worked on the claim.
"NAGPRA facilitates the claims, but more than that, it establishes a working relationship between museums and tribes," Worl said. "It really has proven to be beneficial for them in terms of how a lot of museums are working with Native Americans. They are able to get accurate information and educational exhibitions."
NAGPRA is a federal law passed in 1990. It requires museums such as Hearst, which receive federal funding, to inventory their collections of Native artifacts and repatriate cultural objects when a valid claim has been submitted.
The law does not require museums to have a separate NAGPRA office. But the unit at Hearst allowed the museum to have its own autonomous staff dedicated to upholding the law.
Many scholars and archaeologists believe that items are best maintained in a museum-like setting, where they can be studied. Some were fearful that NAGPRA would create a scenario in which, as Worl said, "Indian tribes were going to be coming with a truck and loading up all the objects from the museums and taking them back."
In fact, inventories have revealed almost 50,000 Southeast Alaska artifacts in museums around the world. About 20 of those have been repatriated since 1990, Worl said.
"It seems like, in places like this, that anthropologists are respectful of the law while archaeologists seem to do everything they can to undermine the law," said Harold Jacobs, cultural resource specialist at the Central Council.
"Archaeologists deal with the past and think we're in the past," he said. "Anthropologists don't think we belong in the past. Anthropologists deal with living cultures and know the importance of these objects to the culture."
Sam, a Sitka resident, worked with NAGPRA staff at the museum in 1999 and 2000. The Hearst and the Smithsonian Institution returned the backbone and brain of Ishi (a YahiYana Indian) to the Yana people of the Redding Rancheria and Pit River Tribe in California.
Sam was present at the ceremony and also spoke during a Berkeley-sponsored conference on the respectful treatment of human remains.
Pro-NAGPRA staff at the Hearst Museum invited him to travel to Berkeley this September to speak with university officials about the decision to disband the unit.
"I'm going to talk to the chancellor and the university about NAGPRA, the law and that tribal people should be respected in the decision-making process," Sam said. "I just want to show that (the museums) can benefit if they work with the tribe. They can find out more information about the object and also the objects come back alive and be used by modern people."
Korry Keeker can bereached at 523-2268 or firstname.lastname@example.org.