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Museums Plan to Return Burial Relics

January 20, 1994|JEFF MEYERS

Even though local Chumash are not recognized as a tribe by the federal government, they will probably get their ancestors' remains returned to them under provisions of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

As long as the Chumash file legitimate claims, "We're going to treat them like (recognized) groups," says Southwest Museum Executive Director Tom Wilson.

Regaining their ancestors' skeletons is a satisfying prospect, say local Chumash, but it also creates a problem: Where do they reinter the remains?

"Who's going to give us the ground to bury them?" asks Richard Angulo of Thousand Oaks, chairman of the California Indian Council/Chumash. "We're trying to get private landowners to donate land."

The graves protection act also requires museums to return funerary and burial objects. After doing inventories--hundreds of thousands of objects in some cases--museums had to send summaries of their collections to Native American tribes in November. The Southwest Museum, which is considering relocating to Ventura, mailed a list of its extensive collection to 660 tribal groups.

"It was a considerable investment in time and an expensive process," Wilson says.

Two years from now, when tribes pick the artifacts they want returned, museums such as the Southwest are expected to lose many important pieces, but "there seems to be a lot of room for negotiation," Wilson says.

The Ventura County Museum of History and Art doesn't expect much of a dent in its notable Chumash collection because it has no human remains nor many burial objects, Executive Director Ed Robings says.

The act also prohibits the sale of religious and funerary objects without accompanying documentation proving the objects came from private land. While this restriction was intended to deter looting on public lands and to undermine the black market, it has had a chilling impact on legitimate antiquities dealers.

"Unless there is very, very good documentation, most dealers no longer deal in those artifacts because we don't want any trouble," says Ramona Morris, a Northern California antiquities dealer and board member of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Assn.

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