The fate of the nearly 10,000-year-old remains unearthed in 1976 during renovation work at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) chancellor’s house in La Jolla, California are still undecided.
A federal court judge in San Francisco granted a temporary restraining order April 27 that prevents UCSD from giving the remains to the Kumeyaay. That same day, three University of California professors filed a lawsuit seeking to prevent the transfer.
According to ScienceMag.org, the order will remain in effect until May 11 when Judge Richard Seeborg of the United States District Court for the Northern District of California will decide whether to extend it until the case is settled.
Anticipating the professors’ lawsuit, the Kumeyaay filed their own on April 13. The 12 Kumeyaay Indian tribes want the remains returned to them so they can be reburied; the university professors and many in the scientific community think the remains should be further studied.
“Because of their great antiquity, the bones are important for exploring the mystery of the identity of the first people to migrate from the Old World to the New World,” says ScienceMag.org. “They also should be saved for future scientific analysis, the [professors’] lawsuit argues, because new methods are being developed to extract and study ancient DNA and to analyze the diet and lifestyles of ancient people.”
The Kumeyaay say their position is governed by the law. “Under (the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) tribes are to have transferred to them any Native American remains held by federal agencies or any institution that receives federal funds,” Dorothy Alther, an attorney for the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee, which represents the 12 local bands, told UTSanDiego.com. “A lot of the tribes were concerned that their ancestors were lying around in the basements of museums and not being properly interred.”
The professors and their lawyer argue that the remains aren’t Native American based on their diet.
“We’re sure where they’re from. They had primarily a seafood diet, not the diet if any way [sic] of these tribes. They were a seafaring people. They could be traveling Irishman who touched on the continent,” James McManis, the San Jose lawyer for the professors, told UTSanDiego.com. “The idea that we’re going to turn this incredible treasure over to some local tribe because they think it’s grandma’s bones is crazy.”
Alther says the Kumeyaay case is helped by a 2010 addition to NAGPRA saying that even remains that are not “culturally identifiable” with modern tribes should still be transferred to the tribe whose “aboriginal lands” they were found on.
“What we’re saying is that these are Native American remains,” Alther said. “But even if someone says they are not, they were found on aboriginal lands. They go to the Kumeyaay.”
An article titled “Who Owns the Past?” in Scientific American argues that NAGPRA is too favorable to American Indian communities, something Duane Champagne called “A New Attack on Repatriation.”
“Such a statement shows little understanding of the forms and strength of indigenous relations to ancestors and to the requirements of maintaining the spiritual stewardship of the land,” he said.