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Rites of passage

/UCLA Today Staff

     The pungent scent of burning sage drifted through the air, the smoke billowing upwards in white-gray clouds.

     About 30 people stood in hushed silence around seven small cardboard boxes.

     Rhythmic chanting from a man with flowing, raven hair, the accompanying clacking of wooden sticks and the rattle of maracas were the only sounds to break the stillness. The words were foreign. The song beautiful and strange, but somehow familiar. It was one of several Native American songs heard on this  glorious, balmy Saturday on the east lawn of Haines Hall.

  indian   After the singing ended, each person placed scraps of tobacco in the boxes. Curious campus passersby looked puzzled as they took in the unusual scene.

     Most likely, none would have guessed that the ordinary-looking boxes, which have been gathering dust in the basement of Haines Hall for two decades, contained human remains — the bones of ancestors of many of those present.

     The closure of Haines Hall for renovation and seismic reconstruction required that all departments and occupants vacate the building, including the Fowler Museum of Cultural History's archaeological collection, housed in the basement since the 1950s.

     To prepare for the move to Hershey Hall, temporary home for the collection, Wendy Giddens Teeter, Fowler Museum curator of archaeology, and Dorene E. Red Cloud, a graduate student representing the American Indian Studies Center, contacted Native American groups about the impending move.

     "They're very sensitive about the remains of their ancestors and they should know they're being moved," said Diana Wilson, UCLA assistant research ethnographer. "Some tribes would like to do something special to mark that occasion."

     And they did, along with several American Indian students, Duane Champagne, director of the American Indian Studies Center, Wilson and others. UCLA's invitation brought 15 members of the Juanenos Band of Mission Indians — so named because of their geographic affiliation with Mission San Juan Capistrano — to campus on Jan. 31 to honor and pray for their ancestors. With great reverence, the boxes of remains were lifted and presented to the four points of the compass and to the earth and sky. Sage, used for purification, was burned throughout the rite.

     "If we don't take care of our ancestors, we can't possibly ask them to take care of us," explained Rick Mendez, a principal singer for the Juaneno Indians. "It is our responsibility to honor our ancestors in the most dignified manner that we can."

     The move has highlighted the Native Americans' desire to have their ancestors' remains returned to them, and UCLA's hope that the wishes of the tribe may one day be honored. The Juanenos would like the remains to be moved to a final resting place after they are granted the rights to the artifacts by the federal government.

     "With remains, the only kind of ceremony that needs to take place is reburial," explained Anthony Rivera, the archaeological committee chairman for the Juaneno Band. "The significance of what we're doing is to let these, our ancestors, know that we know where they are and that we're working hard to get them returned.

     "We're anxious to work together with the university to get these remains repatriated," said Rivera. "And we're thankful for the input that we have received and for those who are willing to help us."

     The history of these remains mirrors the ubiquitous problems that have resulted from large-scale development that has reshaped the contours of Southern California.

     In 1978, a Native American burial ground in Orange County was heavily disturbed and nearly destroyed by construction bulldozers. Excavations at the site unearthed human remains and other artifacts dating back to at least the 1800s, but possibly as early as 700-1100 A.D. Eleven human burials were identified. Additional incomplete skeletons, human fragments and other objects were also found. The artifacts were given to UCLA and have been in the possession of the Archaeological Collections Facility of the Fowler Museum of Cultural History ever since.

     Believing that the remains might belong to their ancestors, members of the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians first visited the remains in 1995. In consultation with Glenn Russell, then-Fowler curator of archaeology, and Wilson, it was determined that the remains did indeed belong to the Juane–o Band.

     Not only was the site where the remains were found within traditional Juane–o territory, but the artifacts are consistent with those documented as belonging to the indigenous inhabitants of the area.

     Based on their knowledge of traditional burial practices, tribal members will be returning to campus to further inspect artifacts believed to be grave goods associated with their tribe.

     According to the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, tribes who can prove their cultural affiliation to human remains and associated funerary objects can have the artifacts repatriated, or returned to them, Wilson explained.

However, the Juaneno Band, whose native name is the Acjachemen Nation, is not presently a federally recognized group, and thus cannot get their ancestors' remains repatriated under the act.

     "We see this as a great dishonor that our ancestors were exhumed from a cemetery, then just given to the university and put in boxes for years," said Rivera. "That's just not right. They need to be reburied."

     Added Mendez: "They're not remains, they're not animals. They're human beings, the bones of our ancestors."

     While trying to win federal recognition, the Juanenos are also looking at other avenues for repatriation, such as through the state, regulations, petitions, claims and, as a final resort, the courts, Rivera said.

     While tribal officials work through the legal process, Wilson and Teeter have kept the tribe abreast of the move and assured them of proper security and storage conditions.

     "We would give back the Juaneno remains tomorrow if we could," said Teeter.

     The Fowler plans to hold an open house to give other tribes who could not participate in the move the opportunity to see where their ancestors' remains have been relocated.

     Barring unforeseen delays, departments, personnel and the collections are expected to move back to Haines Hall during the summer of 2001.

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