“You’d think that we’re all guaranteed basic civil rights, but it’s not just true,” Cristina Gonzales, (Chumash) Assistant Director of the museum collection at Table Mountain Rancheria, told a riveted class of graduate museum studies students in Paula Birnbaum’s Museum History & Theory class last week. “We need to speak up. We need to always remind people of our fundamental rights as human beings.” Cristina was part of a panel of distinguished speakers who included Lalo Franco, (Tachi-Yokut), Cultural Department Director at the Santa Rosa Rancheria, and Paulette Hennum, former Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) Coordinator for Archaeology, History and Museums Division, California State Parks. They drove in from Fresno and Sacramento to join us for a day of frank discussion about this law and its continuing implications for both the museum field and Native American tribal communities.
In the morning, Karen Shorofsky’s Museums and the Law class analyzed and reviewed cases in regard to looting and repatriation. Then after lunch, students heard the perspective of practitioners impacted by these legal decisions, especially ones that ruled on the side of scientists’ desires to retain collections of remains and associated funerary objects for study rather than repatriate them to tribes for re-burial. “When I began to teach classes about the procedural aspects of NAGPRA,” Paulette Hennum explained, “I realized that I was unable to convey the depth NAGPRA’s emotional impact. Where were the voices of Native people? That’s when I reached out to community leaders like Lalo. I am very moved by people like Lalo and Cristina and how they are working to preserve the dignity and traditions of their rich culture.”
“I cried tears of joy the day NAGPRA passed in 1990,” Lalo reminisced,”finally our ancestors were coming home [from museums that had housed remains dug up by grave robbers.]” Lalo recalled his days as an activist with the American Indian Movement and how he had later learned to negotiate and work with museums. He especially praised proactive organizations like UCLA’s Fowler Museum and Denver Museum of Nature and History and also addressed museums with Native American objects in their collections that still do not cooperate with Native American communities. California passed a statewide version of NAGPRA in 2002 to mandate repatriation to tribes that are not recognized by the federal government, but the Act wasn’t funded.
When we are in the thick of legalisms, we often forget the spiritual aspects of repatriation work. Carlos Garcia, Jr. a younger member of the Tachi-Yokut tribal community who accompanied Lalo to our class, shared how moving it was for him to participate in reburial of an ancestor. “I didn’t like seeing and dealing with the remains, but I can’t deny how emotional this process was for me and how good it felt to know that this ancestor was now at peace; I’ll never forget that.”
Stay tuned for more posts about the fascinating guest speakers and special sessions from our Fall Semester.