In a victory for archeologists and historians, Gov. George Deukmejian has vetoed a bill that would have returned thousands of excavated human remains and grave artifacts to American Indians.
The governor’s veto Tuesday was sought by the University of California, which argued that its experts were better equipped to link remains and descendants than the Native American Heritage Commission, the state agency that would have controlled the process.
The university, whose Berkeley campus contains the third-largest collection of Indian bones in the country, told the governor it planned to implement a policy of returning remains when a direct biological or cultural tie to living Indians is proved.
“I share the university’s concerns that this bill would preempt implementation of this policy, recently developed by experts in Native American studies, anthropology and archeology,” the governor wrote in a veto message.
Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Panorama City), the measure’s sponsor, said the veto showed the governor’s insensitivity and University of California’s “tremendous arrogance.”
“What the university is saying is that its researchers know better how to deal with these bones than native Americans do,” Katz said. “I think it’s outrageous and insulting.”
Katz said he would reintroduce the measure in December when the Legislature reconvenes. He also said he was considering a lawsuit challenging the University of California’s right to hold human remains without descendants’ permission.
Introduced in the wake of a heated national debate, the Katz bill would have required museums, universities and other state-funded institutions to inventory their archeological collections and return any human bones or grave artifacts to their “most likely descendant.”
Similar measures are pending in Congress, and the Smithsonian Institution is already under federal orders to negotiate with Indians for the return of its vast collection of skeletal remains.
In California, noncompliance with the Katz bill would have meant the loss of state funding and fines as high as $25,000.
Supporters said the bill recognized the civil and religious rights of native Americans, many of whom believe that disturbing graves can prevent souls from completing their journeys to the spirit world, and most bones returned to descendants are usually reburied. Indian grave excavations have been illegal in California since 1982.
But opponents said it is difficult to link prehistoric finds to living people, and they expressed fear that valuable collections holding clues to the past would be needlessly destroyed.
“We believe these are complicated matters in which you need expertise,” Belle Cole, director of research and public policy for the University of California, said Wednesday. “We believe we have the expertise within the university to make these decisions.”
Larry Myers, the Native American Heritage Commission’s executive secretary, said, “It’s a human rights issue as far as I’m concerned, not a scientific issue.”
The Lowie Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley has about 10,000 skeletal remains, about 8,000 of them Native American. UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History contains the bones of about 1,300 people, while the Davis, Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz campuses have smaller collections.
Clement Meighan, a UCLA anthropologist and chairman of a national group called the American Committee for the Preservation of Archeological Collections, cheered the veto and said he hoped it signaled a weakening of efforts to repatriate Indian bones and artifacts.
“Even if you agree archeology is useless, then how is the lot of Indians going to be improved by dumping these collections?” Meighan said.
“The only thing you’ve done is wipe out a big chunk of potential information we could have on Indian history,” he said. “The Indians are the losers in this.”