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

Tuesday, September 02, 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 Judge Richard Seeborg ruled against the three on procedural grounds, saying they should have included Kumeyaay as plaintiffs. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week refused to overturn Seeborg’s ruling.

The Kumeyaay ranged throughout the San Diego coastal region and were 25,000 to 30,000 strong when Father Junipero Serra built the first mission in the area in 1769. They were one of the most resistant tribes to subjugation and religious conversion by the Spanish Christians. By 1875, they had been kicked out of their ancestral homes and resettled in less promising areas. They are reportedly still around 20,000 Kumeyaay descendants in the area. 

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. The scientists are considering an appeal to the full 11-member appeals court.

–Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

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

Ancient Skeletons Move One Step Closer to Reburial (by Andrew Lawler, Science)

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

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

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