Appeals Court Rules Native American Skeletons Unearthed 38 Years Ago must be Returned to Tribes

Friday, August 29, 2014
(photo: Jan Austin, Santa Monica College)

A group of California Indian tribes have won their fight in federal court to have ancient remains returned to them.


The Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, representing 12 San Diego County tribes, sued the University of California in 2012, claiming the 9,000-year-old skeletons should be repatriated under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The remains were discovered in 1976 at the Chancellor’s House at the University of California, San Diego by a university excavation team. UC San Diego had dragged its feet on giving up the remains, questioning which Native American group was the rightful owner. However, the university in 2012 agreed to return the remains to the Kumeyaay.


But a lawsuit filed against the university by three scientists, Timothy White, Margaret Schoeninger and Robert Bettinger, who wished to study the skeletons, halted the repatriation. Their suit charged that the defendants didn’t make it clear the remains were Native American under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.


U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg ruled against the three on procedural grounds, saying they should have included Kumeyaay as plaintiffs. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals this week refused to overturn Seeborg’s ruling.


The remains have since their discovery been moved to UCLA, the San Diego Museum of Man, the National Museum of Natural History, and the Smithsonian Institution.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

9th Circuit Rules For Repatriating Skeletons (by Matt Reynolds, Courthouse News Service)

Timothy White v. University of California (Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals) (pdf)

Ninth Circuit Briefs in Challenge to Repatriation of “La Jolla Skeletons” to Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee (by Matthew Fletcher, Turtle Talk)


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