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San Bernardino County Museum Returns Cultural Artifacts To San Manuel Band Of Mission Indians


The San Bernardino County Museum announced this month that it is returning culturally significant objects back to the San Manuel Band of Mission Indians, where they originated from. This process of repatriation could get even easier in 2021, thanks to a new law signed by Governor Gavin Newsom making it easier for California Native American tribes to have cultural artifacts returned to them. 

The approval for the transfer took place at the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors meeting in November, and was announced on Dec. 9.

KVCR is not revealing a physical description of the items because of cultural sensitivities around them, but they are described by San Manuel Chairman Ken Ramirez as “the work of the hands of prominent women in our community” that “have their prayers, songs, and spirits embedded within them.”

Melissa Russo, director of the San Bernardino County Museum, says the repatriation of the objects is part of a shift in how museums view their collections.

“In the last several years, museums have become more and more engaged, I'd say, with the discussion nationally around cultural appropriation. And our collections, because a museum like San Bernardino County has a lot of collections that are indigenous, that are from not only our area but even from other countries, we have had many discussions over the last several years about how we acquired them, what were the conditions under which we've acquired them," Russo says.

Russo says there’s a federal process called NAGPRA – the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act – through which Native American tribes can make claims for artifacts that originated with them. But it didn’t apply in this case, because the objects had a clear lineage and because it’s the museum’s policy to allow for the transfer of material if the organization in question is in a better position to care for the objects.

“This transfer, this repatriation was really more about the relationship that we feel that we've built with San Manuel over the collections that we hold and what's the future of those collections. And kind of looking at it through that lens, what's the right thing to do. How do we best serve our really common missions to teach the public about Serrano culture, Serrano and Cahuilla culture, and how do we best do that and who's the best organization to do that, given our collections," Russo says. 

Johnny Hernandez is a member of San Manuel’s Business Committee. He says it’s healing for the tribe to have these artifacts back in their hands.

“We believe that our ancestors' spirit is connected to these and all artifacts. It's a real big thing to celebrate and it's a point of healing for a lot of us, especially our elders. So we really do appreciate San Bernardino County Museum working with San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors to approve the repatriation of the items," Hernandez says. 

And this repatriation could be followed by more. In September, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed a law, AB 275, which strengthens and clarifies the process for repatriating California Native American remains and artifacts held by institutions in California, that goes into effect January 1.

That bill was written by Assemblymember James Ramos, a Democrat from Highland, who is also the first California Native American to be elected to the State Assembly.

“AB 275, it does three things: starts to lay the groundwork for the Native American Heritage Commission to create a list of California Indian tribes. And second, it elevates the tribal knowledge of elders within the tribal communities that are equal and greater than museum directors and archaeologists that are hired on that are non-Native. The third thing it does is, is different departments in the state of California that have inner workings with tribal governments and tribal communities now will have a liaison within those departments to work with those governments that are there," Ramos tells KVCR. 

According to Ramos, a law like this is long overdue.

“Still in this age, 2020, going into 2021, we're still dealing with the repatriation process of those remains back to the rightful people for proper burial. I think it's been long enough to where now we need to address these issue," Ramos says.

Melissa Russo with the San Bernardino County Museum acknowledges that AB 275 could lead to even more of the museum’s artifacts leaving the museum. But she says that isn’t a problem for them.

"Our major interest is how do we tell the stories? How do we tell the stories in this case specifically about the Serrano people in this area? We can tell that story without the objects, we can always, with good relationships you can always borrow objects, museums do that with each other all the time for various exhibits, so that is always an option. So having the object is not the primary importance to the museum anymore. And another organization can hold that object and we can still tell the story, we can also tell the story through technology, through imagery, there are some museums I know that are actually replicating - with the tribe's approval - they are replicating objects with 3D printing. So there's technological ways that we can also do this, but yeah, it is absolutely possible that we have other things in our collection that we would choose in the future to repatriate to a tribe. Those are discussions that are ongoing, and they're specific to each object, really," Russo says.

According to Russo, this repatriation is part of a shift towards museum practices that are more respectful of Native American cultures.

“We are moving forward in a way that heals practices in the past that may have been acceptable in the past, but today we really embrace the idea that when we're telling the stories of cultures, when we are the stewards of cultural materials, we have to be respectful and sensitive to those cultures and ownership is a part of that conversation. Ownership and authority to tell the story. So we're thrilled that we've gotten to this point over this material and we know we'll be having these conversations in the future.”

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