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Indigenous activists address repatriation struggle

Mariah Oliver

Mills community members heard from an indigenous activist panel that discussed struggles of local native peoples to reclaim land, culture and community that have been destroyed and suppressed by generations of genocide, land grabs and denial of protection under U.S. law. The Nov. 13 discussion in the Student Union focused on repatriation, which refers to the return of Native American cultural objects, human remains and sacred land to tribal governments.

The speakers explained tribes’ continuous fight for governments and institutions to enforce the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. This law protects burial sites on federal and tribal lands and creates a process of repatriating cultural items, including artifacts and human remains.

The discussion, which began with performances by the California Intertribal Pomo dancers and singers, was led by Doug Duncan, a member of the Lake County Pomo tribe, and Corrina Gould, a local Ohlone activist and member of Indian People Organizing for Change.

Gould is also an organizer for the Shellmound Peace Walk, a two-week, 250-mile walk around the San Francisco Bay that visits many shell mound sites that were once the locations of thriving indigenous communities. A shell mound is a mound of shells, animal bones, and other refuse that indicate the site of ancient human settlements. They were constructed to bury the dead.

Gould said that while there were more than 400 shell mounds around the Bay Area, none of them have survived intact and many were never even studied prior to being desecrated and buried under cement. The largest known shell mound in the Bay Area-once 30 feet tall and the width of two football fields-is now the site of the Bay Street Shopping Center in Emeryville.

The Peace Walk ends at the Bay Street mall on the day after Thanksgiving. Participants stand outside and tell shoppers they are on an ancient burial and village site. Gould said they act as a voice for their ancestors.

Corrina Gould said there were literally bones sticking out of the ground before the mall’s construction, but most of these could not be saved or reburied, because an earlier paint factory on the site had so contaminated the soil. Throughout the construction, approximately 300 remains were unearthed, she said.

In addition to the destruction of shell mounds by developers, countless items of cultural significance for Native Americans are held in museums and universities, rather than being returned to the tribes from which they originated. UC Berkeley holds 13,000 human remains in storage, said Gould, the second largest holding of indigenous remains in the country.

Mills College Art Museum has a collection of over 200 items, including baskets, masks and dolls from different indigenous tribes, but has so far only notified tribes about the basket collection, according to Tracy Peerson, a member of the Native American Sisterhood Alliance (NASA) at Mills. NASA plans to work with the art museum to make sure that they are fully compliant with NAGPRA.

Peerson said that next semester, NASA may sponsor an event where indigenous basket weavers or experts in cultural items will be able to come and examine the items held in the Mills College Art Museum. They could form a panel that might provide insight to students and museum administrators as to what can be done.

She said, “Many people are not even aware and this would give Mills College the opportunity to be a leader on this issue and how to negotiate relationships with indigenous people.”

According to Peerson, in order to be completely NAGPRA compliant, the Mills Art Museum needs to inventory all of their cultural items, identify their source, and contact the tribes to see if there is any desire for the items to be returned.

The former director of the Mills College Art Museum, Dr. Katherine Crum, said that the Mills College Art Museum is in compliance with NAGPRA.

“The G in NAGPRA stands for ‘graves,'” Crum said. “The collection of baskets is not a part of NAGPRA reporting because they have nothing to do with graves or burials.”

NASA, however, would like local indigenous communities to be involved in determining the cultural meanings of their appropriated objects. As Doug Duncan told the Mills audience, “We cannot change the past, but we can heal the future. We were all close to the Earth at one time. There is room for everyone’s history.”