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Returning sacred items: Santa Barbara museum working to repatriate Native American artifacts

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History officials have closed their Chumash exhibition area as they work to meet updated federal regulations for the repatriation of Native American artifacts.
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History
Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History officials have closed their Chumash exhibition area as they work to meet updated federal regulations for the repatriation of Native American artifacts.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has millions of items, many related to Chumash tribes. Thousands of items have already been returned.

For hundreds of years, it was standard practice for museums around the world to have human remains and funeral related objects in their collections as part of archaeological studies.

"This is inextricably bound up with the history of archaeology in Western culture, said Luke Swetland, who is President, and CEO of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. "Archaeologists were excavating village sites, cemeteries, taking ancestors (human remains) and objects and putting them into museums for research and exhibition"

In the Unites States, a 1990 federal law required that the human remains be repatriated to native American tribes requesting them. The process angered some tribes, because they say it was complex, and some institutions resisted. Then, this January new federal regulations streamlined the use of the law, to make it easier for tribes to recover ancestors, and artifacts.

"The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was a federal law passed in 1990 by Congress to help native communities request ancestors, and associated sacred objects, so they could be brought back home," said Swetland.

He said the Santa Barbara museum has been ahead of most museums, repatriating thousands of items to the Chumash tribe, and hiring a full time specialist to help. But, the museum has closed its Chumash exhibit while it works to ensure its in compliance with the new rules which just took effect.

 "This has been a process over the last 20 or 30 years, and it really accelerated with a major request for repatriation of Chumash ancestors (remains) and associated grave goods by the Santa Ynez tribe back in 2021, which we complied with," said Swetland. "We're still in consultation with them, as we continue to find related objects."

To aid in the process, the museum hired Jonathan Malindine as a full-time specialist to help implement transfers.

"My job as NAGPRA Officer at the museum here is to make sure we are in full compliance with federal and state laws, and to make sure we are repatriating all of the human remains, which we prefer to call ancestors," said Malindine.

Malindine said this is a big issue in the museum world right now. "The new regulations which went into effects on January 12 pretty much represented a big shakeup in the acceleration of NAGPRA across the country," said Malindine. "Exhibits have closed in New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, and other places. We luckily are a little bit ahead of the game."

The nonprofit journalism group ProPublica created a database on museum repatriations, It puts the Santa Barbara Museum is in the 99% tile when it comes to the return of remains. The report showed it has returned a thousand remains.

It says most of the museum's returns occurred in the last four years, and that it worked with 47 tribes.

 Museum officials said their focus now is working with tribes requesting cultural artifacts. That process will also help determine the reopening of the museum’s Chumash exhibit.

"We expect just with a week or two to reopen Chumash Life (the museum's Chumash exhibition area)," said Swetland. "But, we've covered all of the (display) cases, and we're using this as an opportunity to educate our visitors." He said they want people to know about the law, what artifacts it affects, and where are we as a community institution in the process of repatriating those various classes of objects.


Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.