BERKELEY, Calif. - New federal protections could mean that most of the remains of an estimated 160,000 Native Americans held by universities, museums, and federal government agencies may soon be transferred to tribes.
Under the new regulations, museums and agencies are required to notify tribes whose current or ancestral lands harbored the remains that the tribe is entitled to have them back.
Prestigious institutions from Harvard to the University of California Berkeley have already begun working through storehouses of remains uncovered by archeologists, highway and building contractors, and others since the 19th century. A few are surrendering bones to Native American tribes, and others are evaluating whether to do so.
Tribes have hailed the new federal rules, saying they will help close a long and painful chapter that saw native peoples’ bones stolen by grave robbers, boxed up in dusty storerooms, and disrespected by researchers.
“These are people,’’ said Louis Guassac, a member of the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee. “This isn’t stuff. You don’t do this to people. I don’t care how long they’ve been there. You respect them.’’
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 provided for the return of remains connected to modern-day tribes. But it was not until 2010 that a rule on the disposition of so-called culturally unidentifiable remains was finalized by the Department of the Interior.
Until then, more than 650 universities and other institutions had no clear guidance about how to return those remains, which account for the bones of about 116,000 people in their collections.