UCSB out of compliance with state, federal laws for decades; works to return Native remains
The campus’ years of underfunding and understaffing prompted the Professor overseeing the artifacts collection to resign out of frustration.
When the state of California constructs another orbital launch pad for its Space Force Base or a new railway along the coast, it often unearths artifacts and human remains left behind by California’s Indigenous peoples. Since the 1950s, such objects frequently make their way to UC Santa Barbara, which serves as Santa Barbara County’s official repository of Native items.
The university oversees a massive repository of Indigenous artifacts — including sacred objects and skeletal remains — located in an interwoven series of underground rooms beneath its Humanities and Social Sciences Building (HSSB). The repository is so large that it is not expected to be fully cataloged for several years, faculty members told the Nexus.
The collection has long been out of compliance with aspects of the laws governing it, largely due to underfunding and understaffing, several current UCSB faculty and staff members told the Nexus. They described an operation that’s long been treated as a part-time undertaking by campus administrators to the detriment of its repatriation work.
Faculty members specifically cited the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and its 2001 California counterpart CalNAGPRA as laws UCSB is out of compliance with.
“It is the case that our repository has been out of compliance with federal law for the better part of 30 years,” religious studies professor Greg Johnson, one of the three Academic Senate members serving on the campus’s Repatriation Review Committee, said. “It’s a black mark on this institution that the ancestors have not gone home up to now.”
These shortcomings delayed the reunification of Indigenous remains and artifacts with Indigenous tribes, faculty members told the Nexus. The campus’s history on the issue is “appalling,” religious studies lecturer Gregory Jarrett said in a statement to the Nexus.
Staff and faculty said their outlook has improved, as in 2022 the university finally heeded their requests and committed to increasing funding for repatriation activities. The money will aid the campus’s efforts to come into compliance with the law and return artifacts and remains to tribes.
Ancestors and Sacred Objects
The campus’s collecting of Native artifacts from across the Central Coast dates back decades. Around two-thirds of the materials stored by the university are controlled by other entities including the California Department of Transportation and the National Park Service, according to the repository’s current director and Chicano studies professor Gerardo Aldana.
The development of Vandenberg Air Force Base — rebranded to a Space Force Base in 2021 — resulted in a “significant number” of objects exhumed and transported to UCSB, according to a 1993 technical report prepared by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In June 1992, the campus reached a long-term agreement with the base for the curation of unearthed materials, becoming its primary repository for such objects to this day.
The federal government, in the technical report, said that the campus’s then primary storage space for its archaeological collection — a former classroom in North Hall — did not meet federal requirements for housing such objects, but was still better than the university’s second on-campus repository that met “none of the requirements for a modern repository facility.”
The second location — home to lithics, historic materials and bones — lacked air conditioning, heating, humidity controls and was found to be unlocked during a government inspection, according to the 1993 report.
To fix its storage problem, the campus undertook the construction of HSSB in the mid-1990s and, underneath it, built rooms dedicated to the storage and studying of Native artifacts, the Nexus reported at the time. The repository is officially known as the Repository for Archaeological and Ethnographic Collections.
Among the underground rooms is an ossuary designed and constructed in concert with the Chumash community, considered a sacred space that was blessed by Chumash elders from multiple tribes at its inauguration. The collection has been visited in the decades since by Chumash school children as well as Chumash Elders who journey to the site to perform sacred rituals.
NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA effectively require government entities to complete detailed inventories of their collections and return all artifacts and remains to tribes that request them.
In 1990, an early version of CalNAGPRA was proposed by state legislators to require institutions to repatriate Native remains and items to tribes that requested them. UCSB’s archeologists fought the bill and the prospect of having to return artifacts back to tribes, arguing that it would remove data from their work.
UCSB Department of Anthropology and Graduate Student Association members worked to lobby the UC Student Association to oppose the bill. Their efforts were rewarded; former California Governor George Deukmejian Jr. vetoed the bill, citing the University of California’s concerns and delaying the passage of a California repatriation law for over a decade.
Even when CalNAGPRA passed the state legislature in 2001, the law had no teeth, Aldana said. Without punishment for those out of compliance with state and federal regulations, he said entities such as UCSB continued to run arrears of the law.
In recent years, the legislature sought to change that. California Assemblymembers James Ramos and Lorena Gonzalez and former state Senator Robert Hertzberg co-authored Assembly Bill No. 275 — a bill largely targeting the UC to mandate its compliance with regulations. The governor signed the bill into law on Sept. 25, 2020.
With the new policy in place in 2020, the UC took a renewed interest in drafting policies to ensure campuses would be in line with the law. UCSB had been out of compliance with federal NAGPRA for nearly 30 years at that point.
The campus’s then curator Douglas J. Kennett shared insights with then chair of the campus’s Academic Senate, Henning Bohn, to inform the university’s response to the proposed UC policies.
Kennett strongly advocated for increasing funding for repatriation, writing in a June 10, 2020, letter to Bohn that the campus would need to significantly increase its investment in order to achieve the mandates set by the state.
“The UC policy and state law require that UCSB immediately start the repatriation process and adhere to the guidelines of the policy in a timely manner,” Kennett said in the letter. “What this means in practical terms at UCSB is an investment of MILLIONS of dollars during this interval and a sustained financial commitment moving into the future.”
It was a request that echoed several others made by other faculty members years prior, documents obtained by the Nexus show.
In 2018, the repository’s then Interim Curator Amber VanDerwarker and Assistant Curator Emerita Lynn Gamble communicated to the UC Office of Research the need for more funding and resources to comply with regulations stemming from California law.
Kennett’s insights shaped the campus’s response to the proposed UC policy that was sent a week later to then Chair of the UC Academic Senate Kum-Kum Bhavnani. Bohn expressed the campus’s fear that committing the funding needed to undertake the required repatriation would pose a severe financial burden to the university.
“We are concerned that the required repatriation process will be extremely costly,” Bohn said in the June 17, 2020, letter. “Unless substantial funding is provided systemwide, or provided by the State in recognition that UC is asked to comply with state law, this policy would oblige our campus to divert funds from other critical campus functions that are already facing funding shortfalls.”
Over a year passed after Kennett outlined what was needed, and as important deadlines drew closer, adequate funding from campus leadership was yet to materialize. Kennett’s discontent with UCSB’s administrators ultimately led him to leave the job.
Kennett resigned as curator in October 2021, a move he said was born out of frustration with campus administrators that had turned a deaf ear to the needs of the repository.
“I think my departure kind of shocked people … and honestly that was my intent,” Kennett said. “I was frustrated with the situation.”
Prior to his resignation taking effect, Kennett issued a report detailing what resources and personnel would be needed to properly meet the requirements set by CalNAGPRA and the UC’s policies at the request of the campus prior to his resignation taking effect, with several of his recommendations later enacted by the university.
Pressure stemming from the new UC and state policies that would levy penalties for noncompliance also prompted the university to act, according to Aldana.
“Credit to the tribes and the state legislators who actually held the university to task,” Aldana said. “It’s holding institutions accountable to the population, and finally, the pressure got to the point where it forced the institution to change.”
Kennett, still a professor at UCSB, now serves on UC Riverside’s NAGPRA Advisory Committee.
The campus’s shortcomings in meeting requirements set by both state and federal agencies and the UC itself drew the ire of not just campus faculty, but the California state auditors tasked with reviewing the matter, according to a report issued last year detailing delay and underfunding for reunification of Indigenous remains and artifacts with Native tribes.
The report, submitted by acting California State Auditor Michael S. Tilden to Governor Gavin Newsom and State legislative leadership on Nov. 17, 2022, analyzed the collections of four UC campuses and concluded that “campuses have not satisfactorily prioritized inventorying and returning their collections to tribes.”
State auditors concluded that UCSB has long been out of compliance with aspects of the laws governing its collection of artifacts — NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA — effectively requiring government entities to complete detailed inventories of their collections and return all artifacts and remains to tribes that request them.
UCSB “failed to adequately fund” the return of cultural artifacts to tribes, leaving further obstacles in its repatriation mission, the report said.
The university refused to comment on the report’s findings when the Nexus inquired.
Current and former UCSB staff tasked with overseeing the university’s vast collection told auditors that they requested funding and resources to inventory the artifacts and remains, but that campus leadership continually failed to provide such funds, according to the report.
“Although NAGPRA required campuses to complete inventories of their collections by 1995, Santa Barbara is still reviewing its collection and identifying materials eligible for repatriation nearly 30 years later,” state auditors said in their report.
The auditors said they lack assurances about the volume of the university’s repository and — unlike every other UC campus mentioned in the report — was ultimately unable to make a determination as to the size of the campus’s collection.
“The size of its known collection is growing because the campus only recently committed the resources necessary to review all of the remains and cultural items in its control,” the auditor’s report read.
The university declined to state the volume of its collection or provide details about the repository when asked by the Nexus.
After years of underfunding operations at the repository, UCSB recently committed $350,000 to the repository’s repatriation efforts to reunite Native artifacts and remains with their respective tribes, the California state auditor’s report said.
The university declined to say whether the funding of repatriation activities diverted money away from critical campus functions, as it had warned the UC it would.
The money arrives as the UC — which provided $439,000 to UCSB for repatriation activities between 2021 and 2023 — declined to provide funding beyond this year in a decision criticized by the state auditors in their report.
The campus’s repatriation coordinator and Assistant Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services Mike Miller told the Nexus that it’s been the most rewarding work of his over 20 years at the UC and that he’s proud of how far the project has come in such a short period of time.
“I was born and raised on the Skokomish Indian Reservation in Washington State, and my entire family still resides there, so I care deeply about the Native community,” Miller said in a statement shared with the Nexus by university spokesperson Kiki Reyes. “We have a lot of work ahead of us as we look to return the Native American ancestors and cultural items in UCSB’s possession back to the tribes.”
Several faculty members praised Miller’s leadership of the repatriation process.
“He has been incredible in making sure that folks feel like their voices are heard,” Aldana said of Miller.
Johnson said that he was optimistic that with the university’s recent commitment, the campus’s repatriation efforts had turned a corner.
“This isn’t going to be something that gets fixed overnight, but it is the case that the university — at least in my view — has really turned a corner on this,” Johnson said. “There’s a collective will on campus and with the Chumash communities in the area to do better and to do better now. I can say we are genuinely making headway.”
Aided by the recent funding increases, Aldana expects that the repository will be able to repatriate all of its high priority items — including sacred objects and Native remains — within the next two years or so. He praised the work currently being done by the graduate students, undergraduate interns and a single staff member tasked with bringing the university into compliance with the law and reuniting ancestors with tribes.
“These are folks who are really committed to doing this for ethical reasons, for social justice reasons,” he said. “You have the right team, you stop counting pennies and you focus on the work. I have the highest opinion of the folks who are working in the repository right now.”
A version of this article appeared on p. 1 of the March 2, 2023, print edition of the Daily Nexus.