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A call to action on National Native American Heritage Day

Nazune Menka, JD, Environmental Law Clinic Attorney at Berkeley Law | November 25, 2020

Native American Heritage DayDzaanh Nezoonh or Good Day in Denaakke’ (Koyukon Athabascan). I hope that wherever you may be reading this from, you give thanks and acknowledgement to the Indigenous communities on whose land you reside. For those of us at Berkeley, I recognize we are on the ancestral and unceded homelands of the Ohlone people. This month and day are important to increasing our collective community awareness and inclusiveness. But celebrating a heritage month is not reconciliation and reparation (as a few of our colleagues point out in this article).*

2020 demands more of us. Going into 2021, our basic civic responsibilities include becoming educated on how systems of oppression are part of the lived experiences of members of our communities, learning how to be allies, and understanding what role we all need to play in creating lasting change.

We at Berkeley, and our surrounding communities, have the opportunity to move past recognition and land acknowledgments to achieving reconciliation and reparation for Indigenous communities through community engagement and coalition building. I share this post in the spirit of honoring Native American Heritage Day in the hope that, by uplifting truth, knowledge is indeed power.

Perpetual police brutality against Black and Brown communities and the disparate impacts of COVID-19 have briefly shifted the national and international community’s attention to systemic racism and the systems of oppression that perpetuate that racism. For Indigenous communities (in California and beyond), systemic oppression includes a history of government sanctioned forced removal from ancestral homelands, and an unceasing cultural genocide.

Just as we are at a crossroads with racial injustice in the United States, UC Berkeley is at the crossroads of moving beyond mere land acknowledgements towards meaningful institution-to-government consultation and dialogue with Indigenous communities, towards successful repatriation of ancestral remains and sacred objects, and towards speaking truth to power.

The truth is UC Berkeley has a dark past. The truth is the University was created in the wake of Indigenous genocide. The truth is the University began accumulating Indigenous ancestral remains and sacred objects long before it created a Department of Anthropology. This past, rooted in the looting of Indigenous burial grounds for ancestral remains, was and continues to be, followed by the systematic denial of Indigenous requests for the return of those ancestral remains despite federal and state laws to the contrary.

Graph of Comparative Repatriation between Davis, Berkeley and UCLA

California State Auditor, Report 2019-047, 20 (June 2020).

Many of you may be be aware, and many may not, that the California State Auditor in it’s June 2020 Native American Graves Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) Audit found Berkeley woefully out of compliance with federal and state law, having only repatriated 19% of the Indigenous ancestral remains and sacred objects held by the University. As the Auditor found, the federal NAGPRA, which was passed 30 years ago, and CalNAGPRA, its state counterpart, require more to protect the human rights of Indigenous communities, but many agencies have used the law as a hurdle for repatriation. As you read this ancestors are sitting in boxes on shelves at the Hearst Museum. The lack of repatriation, along with inconsistent commitments to repatriation by University leadership, has exacerbated the already severely damaged relationship UC Berkeley has with Indigenous communities. There cannot be true reconciliation with Indigenous communities without repatriation and respect for basic human rights.

However, positive changes are afoot. A new UC repatriation policy is being finalized. A new NAGPRA Coordinator, Thomas Torma, housed in the Vice Chancellor of Research office, was hired this past summer. A new Executive Director of the Hearst Museum, Dr. Caroline Jean Fernald, was appointed at the end of 2019. A new Faculty Director, Dr. Lauren Kroiz, was also recently hired at the Hearst. Indigenous staff, students, and faculty have hosted events highlighting how the Morrill Act enabled a government sanctioned “Land Grab” of unceded Ohlone homelands while establishing UC Berkeley’s initial landholdings. A Truth & Justice Project was newly established at Berkeley to research the racial foundations and Indigenous history of the University. Buildings are being renamed calling into question whose names, voices, and perspectives we are uplifting and honoring. Lastly, the Tribal Cultural Resources Project was created at Berkeley Law with the goal of assisting California Indigenous communities build their capacity to protect Tribal Cultural Resources.

As the Policy Fellow for this last initiative, the Tribal Cultural Resources Project, I am currently conducting outreach to assess how the Project can support California Indigenous communities as they exercise their sovereignty and build their capacities to advocate for the preservation, protection, and repatriation of sacred sites, homelands, ancestral remains, and cultural heritage. From early conversations with Tribal leaders, it is clear that community engagement between Indigenous communities and Berkeley academic departments and administration is key to achieving the Project’s goals. That engagement will depend on increasing the University’s capacity, including staffing and funding, to respond to community requests for immediate repatriation and respectful consultation, and to affirmatively reach out to establish permanent relationships with California Indigenous communities.

This call to action consists of three demands: 1) to recognize Indigenous voices and legacies in the history of the University; 2) to call upon members of the Berkeley community engaged in research and advocacy to build more meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities; and 3) to call upon University leaders to prioritize and fully fund repatriation efforts. 

The Tribal Cultural Resources Project, and I, seek to build coalitions and support for honoring Indigenous communities, not only in words today, but in actions throughout the year. We as a community must continue to be thought leaders in academia and teach the full history of this country, including the history of UC Berkeley, and lift up Indigenous voices when doing so.

A number of listening and dialogue sessions are being conducted by the Project. The first session, for Indigenous community members and leaders, will be held Tuesday December 1st at 11:00am PST. A session for University staff, faculty, students, and administrators will be held in January. Please reach out to me at for more information about how to get involved in this important work.

Enaa Baasee‘ (Many Thanks) for taking a moment to read, lead, and share.

I am a Koyukon Athabascan and Lumbee attorney excited to be serving as the Tribal Cultural Resources Policy Fellow at Berkeley Law through June 2022. Originally from Anchorage, Alaska I’ve also lived and worked in North Carolina, Arizona, Michigan, Hawaii, and New Mexico. I view myself as an advocate for Indigenous communities, a compassionate negotiator, and a seeker of truth. I also serve as a member of the Truth and Justice Project at UC Berkeley. You can reach me at or on Twitter @NazuneJD.

*See Governor Newsom’s proclamation of November 2020 as Native American Heritage Month issued Tuesday Nov. 24th.