The group headed to the chancellor’s office on Feb. 5 with a petition chanting “No debate, repatriate!”
Vice-chancellor Gary Matthews met the students in the courtyard to assure them the administration is working through the process and that he is “optimistic the remains will be repatriated.”
The university’s desire to return the remains to the tribes is not as easy as handing over a few boxes, however.
The university had formed a working group of scholars to determine whether the bones are culturally affiliated with a tribe, as mandated under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
Two anthropologists, an ethnic studies professor and a retired professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography sat on the working group.
The working group has since determined the skeletons are “culturally unidentifiable,” while the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee (KCRC) believes the remains belong to them.
“Although there is evidence from material culture that people have lived in the San Diego region since the late Pleistocene or early Holocene, the linguistic analyses and archaeological evidence indicate that the Kumeyaay moved into the region within the last few thousand years,” stated the UCSD working group report. “The mtDNA profiles of the skeletons under discussion are not known; and there is scant genetic data available for the Kumeyaay.”
The report goes on to say that there could be some genetic continuity between the skeletons and the Kumeyaay if the latter intermixed and then replaced earlier populations linguistically and culturally.
The KCRC, on the other hand, claims that the Viejas Band has inhabited the region for more than 10,000 years, and Sycuan ancestors have lived in the area for 12,000 years.
Last spring, UCSD wrote a letter to the Secretary of Interior to begin the repatriation process, but KCRC asked the university to withdraw the letter.
KCRC does not want to go through the repatriation process if the record signifies the remains are not “culturally affiliated” to the Kumeyaay people, said Steve Banegas, spokesman for KCRC.
KCRC plans to dispute the UCSD scholars’ assertion before the NAGPRA Review Committee in November.
Ross Frank, a UCSD professor of Ethnic Studies, dissented from the majority view of the working group. Frank was the professor who marched with the students on Feb. 5 to demand repatriation.
Frank believes a different philosophical approach should have been taken.
“Kumeyaay use of the area … predates European settler society by a millennium, at the very least,” Frank said. “Kumeyaay avow a deep sense of personal and communal responsibility for the recovery and proper reburial of all human remains of people who predate European settler society, no matter when or under what circumstances the original interment took place.”
Yumul, a junior at UCSD, said the university’s inability to return the remains has blacklisted the university among the Native American community.
Ninety-two Native American students are currently enrolled at the university, which statistically accounts for 0 percent of the student body.
“Ancestral and burial reverence is taken very seriously amongst native communities, and setting foot on this campus is very shameful,” Yumul said. “Additionally, many Native students who do come here feel uncomfortable being on a campus that has disrespected their family and culture.”
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