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UC Berkeley to repatriate thousands of ancestral remains to Indigenous tribes: 'Restorative justice'

'Our ancestors should not be in boxes or on shelves, they should be home with their families,' said Wiyot tribe chairman Ted Hernandez.

UC Berkeley to repatriate thousands of ancestral remains to Indigenous tribes: 'Restorative justice'
Cover Image Source: People walk by Wheeler Hall on the UC Berkeley campus on March 14, 2022, in Berkeley, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The University of California, Berkeley, is currently in the process of repatriating thousands of ancestral remains and sacred belongings to Indigenous tribes from whom they were taken more than a century ago. The Wiyot tribe in Northern California is among the hundreds of tribes who are now taking back what was stolen from them. Speaking to CNN, tribe chairman Ted Hernandez revealed that the tribe has received more than 20 remains of its ancestors so far. "Those people who think this is not a big deal or doesn't matter: Imagine someone goes to your cemetery, digs up your ancestors, packs them in boxes and puts them on a shelf. Our ancestors should not be in boxes or on shelves, they should be home with their families," said Hernandez, who is also the tribe's historic preservation officer.


The Wiyot people were the stewards of Duluwat Island—situated in the marshes and estuaries of what's now Humboldt Bay along California's northern coast—for thousands of years until 1860 when a group of white settlers interrupted the tribe's annual world renewal ceremony and massacred dozens 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 been able to finally see why this was wrong," Hernandez said.


UC Berkeley is the latest to join efforts to return remains and items to their rightful owners as Indigenous tribes gain more legal and economic resources to seek repatriation. Vassar College and the University of Tennessee have done the same in the past, repatriating thousands of native remains. Similarly, last month, Indiana University revised its policies to stop research on remains and formulate a board with tribal leaders to facilitate consent for research or repatriation of remains. The Wiyots, along with other Indigenous peoples, will get back the remains of their ancestors through UC Berkeley's Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) committee, which processes claims made by tribes requesting artifacts in the school's possession.


The NAGPRA was passed in 1990 to recognize that the remains deserve to be "treated with dignity and respect,” and that objects removed from tribal lands should be returned to their rightful owners. "We have had a very difficult relationship with Native people in the US because institutions and museums took their ancestors and belongings without their consent for more than 100 years," said Sabrina Agarwal, bio-archaeologist and UC Berkeley NAGPRA Committee chair. "This is part of restorative justice across the country. If we want to rebuild those relationships, repatriation is the first step. There can’t be healing or rebuilding trust without repatriation."


According to Hernandez, the ancestral remains that were repatriated to Wiyot people last year are at least 150 years old. "When we bought our ancestors back, we held a ceremony for them, and that’s an important part of our healing process. As Wiyoti people, we are known as the world-people, which is bringing balance into the world," Hernandez said. "By bringing our ancestors home, that's part of bringing back balance, not to just the Wiyot people, but to the rest of the world. Our ancestors need to be home with their families so they can continue their dances up with the creator and continue to heal the world and the sickness that surrounds us. As Indigenous people, our ancestors are spread all over the world. All of them need to come home, and that will only happen when institutions take the lead to return what belongs to us. This is history in the making, and we will make sure everything that belongs to us is returned to our people."

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