The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in the White et.al. v. University of California et.al. Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee (KCRC) upholding the lower court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ case. At the center of the litigation are two Native American human remains, estimated to be 9,000 years old, discovered in 1976 on the campus of the University of California San Diego (UCSD.) KCRC was formed by the Kumeyaay Tribes of San Diego California in 1997 to protect tribal cultural resources and to ensure proper repatriation of tribal remains. Pursuant to the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), California Indian Legal Services represented KCRC in its efforts for repatriation of the remains from the UCSD, to no avail. Through a lengthy and often bitter battle with the UC’ internal NAGRPA review committees, the committees determined that the remains could not be “culturally affiliated” to the Kumeyaay, a determination that is necessary before repatriation is required under NAGPRA.
In 2010 the National Park Service, the federal agency charged with implementing the NAGPRA, issued long awaited regulations directing federal agencies and certain institutions in possession of Native American remains that were “culturally unaffiliated” to repatriate them to the tribe from whose aboriginal lands the remains were found. It was undisputed that the area where the two Native American remains were discovered are part of the Kumeyaay’s aboriginal lands. Under the new regulations, UCSD agreed that the remains should be repatriated to KCRC and proceeded with the final administrative actions necessary to complete the transfer. On the eve of the expiration of the public notice announcing the repatriation to KCRC, three UC professors: Timothy White from UC Berkeley, Margaret Schoeinger from UCSD and Robert Bettinger, from UC Davis, successfully filed a restraining order to stop the transfer. The UC Board of Regents and CILS, on behalf of KCRC, successfully moved to dismiss the case on grounds of tribal sovereign immunity and that KCRC was an indispensable party.
On appeal the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the plaintiffs’ case affirming: (1) NAGPRA does not provide a congressional waiver of sovereign immunity; (2) KCRC was an “arm of the tribe(s)”; (3) KCRC had not waived its tribal immunity by incorporating under state law or by filing a federal law suit against the UC Board of Regents prior to the plaintiffs’ action; and (4) that KCRC was an indispensable party to the action who could not be joined. The Court’s decision is a great victory for the Kumeyaay Tribes and hopefully an end to the battle for repatriation of the human remains long held by the Tribes to be their native ancestors.