UCSD Needs to Stop Dragging Feet, Return Bones

    by Michael Capparelli/Guardian

    For over three decades, the remains of two ancient American
    Indian skeletons unearthed on campus property have been shuffled between
    museums, while UCSD and local Kumeyaay tribe members claiming rightful
    ownership of the bones feud over their final resting place.

    In 1976, archaeologists discovered the 10,000-year-old
    remains in question at University House, the historic UCSD chancellor’s
    residence located in the La Jolla Farms neighborhood directly adjacent to the
    main campus.

    Since then, however, the Kumeyaay tribe has demanded that
    the bones — which were discovered buried as part of a particular ritual in
    which the fingers of one of the skeletons were cut off and placed in the mouth
    — be returned to the tribe. According to tribe member Steve Banegas, the Kumeyaay
    treat human remains as loved ones, and rebury them according to a long, strict
    and intense religious process.

    Banegas and other members, who formed an official
    repatriation committee in 1997, are armed with a federal law in their favor:
    the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which mandates
    that institutions receiving federal funding that are in possession of American
    Indian cultural items or human remains return them to their respective tribes.

    There’s just one nagging obstacle in the tribe’s way: UCSD’s
    NAGPRA Working Group, chaired by anthropology professor Margaret J.
    Schoeninger. In the face of three meetings this academic year alone — during
    the latest of which tribe members presented cultural songs, stories, maps and history
    to emphasize their well-documented ancient ties to the La Jolla
    area — the working group continues to demand more time to review evidence of
    the bones’ relationship to the Kumeyaay.

    Although it is important that the group accurately
    determines the remains’ proper affiliation — an admittedly weighty task,
    considering the historical and cultural significance of the discovery — how
    much more evidence does the tribe, which has lobbied for repatriation for over
    a decade, need to present before the bones are finally returned to their
    rightful owners?

    The working group must recognize that these remains are
    considered sacred by tribe members. By bureaucratically delaying the bones’
    repatriation amid mounds of evidence supporting their ties to the Kumeyaay,
    UCSD is adding yet another humiliating item to the immense list of injustices
    endured by American Indians. The group should stop dragging its feet and return
    the remains to their rightful owners, before they end up accumulating more dust
    in yet another museum’s storage room.

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