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UC Berkeley is repatriating cultural artifacts, including ancestral remains, to Indigenous tribes

(CNN) The University of California, Berkeley is working on repatriating thousands of ancestral remains and sacred belongings to the Indigenous tribes they were taken from over a century ago.

The Wiyot tribe in northern California is one of hundreds of tribes now in the process of taking back what was stolen from them. So far, the tribe has received more than 20 remains of their ancestors, according to tribe chairman Ted Hernandez.

"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," Hernandez, who is also the tribe's historic preservation officer, told CNN.

For thousands of years, 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. Then in 1860, a group of White settlers interrupted the tribe's annual world renewal ceremony and massacred scores 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, 54, said.

The repatriation is part of a larger movement of Indigenous tribes getting back remains and items across the country as they gain more legal and economic resources.

Other universities have created similar roles and processes. Vassar College and the University of Tennessee have repatriated thousands of native remains. Indiana University changed its policies last month to stop research on remains and create a board with tribal leaders to facilitate consent that would allow for research or repatriation of remains.

UC Berkeley is returning the remains through the school's Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act committee, which processes claims made by tribes requesting artifacts in the school's possession.

The act was passed in 1990 to recognize that remains deserve to be "treated with dignity and respect," and that objects removed from tribal lands belong to descendants and museums and universities must return them.

"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," Sabrina Agarwal, bio-archaeologist and UC Berkeley NAGPRA Committee chair, told CNN.

"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," she said.

The ancestral remains that were repatriated to Wiyot people in the past year are at least 150 years old, according to Hernandez. Welcoming home their ancestors marks long-anticipated justice and a sense of peace.

"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."

Hernandez said his tribe is in the process of receiving more ancestral remains and objects from the university, and hopes the partnership between Berkeley and Indigenous tribes can set a precedent for other institutions.

Building back trust with the Indigenous community

The University of California system started prohibiting research on all Indigenous ancestral remains in 2018. After reports exposed UC Berkeley's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology of falling behind on repatriation efforts, in 2020 the university created the new NAGPRA committee Agarwal now leads.

Composed of three university faculty members and three tribal community members, the committee has so far returned at least 1,000 ancestral remains and more than 53,000 sacred belongings, according to Agarwal.

Today, there are 9,000 remains and more than 200,000 NAGPRA-eligible belongings the university plans to return, Agarwal said.

"Decades of structural racism towards native people is a big reason why their artifacts and ancestors were collected in the first place and not given back," she added. "We intend to repatriate all our Native American belongings, objects, and ancestors home."

More than a decade ago, the Wiyot tribe made a request for the return of sacred objects and were denied, Agarwal says. The campus committee found their unfairly denied claim during a review.

"We had our bad days with Berkeley when they didn't want to work with us, so we were definitely skeptical in the beginning, but I've seen the honesty coming from the staff today and how much they do want to help," Hernandez said. "We've been put through a lot. We were massacred, enslaved, and hunted. So trust is a hard word, but we're slowly getting there. It takes work."

Yet some tribes in other states still continue to face obstacles to getting their artifacts back. In Texas, the local Miakan-Garza tribe, which is not federally recognized, has been petitioning the University of Texas at Austin to return ancestral remains for years.

"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," Hernandez said. "This is history in the making, and we will make sure everything that belongs to us is returned to our people."