James Ramos, the first member of a California Native American tribe to serve in the state legislature, authored a trio of new laws bolstering the rights of Native Americans in the state.
The measures, signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in September, will go into effect on Jan. 1. One such law will make it easier for tribes in the state to reclaim sacred artifacts and the remains of their ancestors that have been held by museums and other institutions for decades.
"When you look at cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, there's no federally recognized tribe there but yet we know that there's ancestral remains of Indian people in those areas," Ramos, a Democrat, said in an interview with All Things Considered on Wednesday.
"When tribal elders are in disagreement with museum directors over what should be repatriated back to the Californian people, up until this point, all of the weight of that knowledge lies with the museum director. So this bill now strengthens the tribal elders, their voice, to make sure that they have the last say."
In June, a state audit of three campuses within the University of California system found that the universities held close to 500,000 artifacts and remains that had yet to be returned to the respective tribes, a requirement guaranteed under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
"Those are the remains that we need to get back into the hands of the proper people, the proper tribes to be able to do a proper re-burial so then we can start to move forward with the healing," Ramos said.
The assembly member, who's from the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe and lives on the San Manuel Reservation in San Bernardino County, has gone through the tedious repatriation process and spoke about what it took to get back a medicine basketry mortar from a museum in Chicago.
"It took a lot of resources," he said, but many tribes throughout the country "don't have the wherewithal, the resources to be able to provide those resources and those documents that are there."
Ramos' second bill requires the secretary of state to assemble a task force to come up with recommendations on how to increase voter participation among indigenous groups in the state — including ways to recruit Native American poll workers and to improve the accessibility of voter information like registration and election materials.
Native Americans, whose voting rights weren't recognized by every state until 1962, have been dogged by decades of voter disenfranchisement.
The third law authorizes the California Department of Justice to assist local law enforcement in criminal investigations in Native American communities — namely, to reduce the rates of missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
Since Ramos was elected in 2018, it took him two years to push through legislation that addresses issues that have burdened indigenous Californians for decades. He said the reason such protections have only recently begun to gain traction "comes down to being engaged in the political system."
"For once, we do have someone in the legislature that understands the issues and the plight of the California Indian people."
NPR's Jonaki Mehta, Gustavo Contreras and Christopher Intagliata produced and edited the audio version of this story.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
For decades, thousands of artifacts and human remains belonging to Indigenous people have been held by museums and other institutions. On the first day of the new year, that could change for many tribes in California, the state with the largest Indigenous population in the country. A new state law makes it easier for tribes there to reclaim sacred artifacts and the remains of their ancestors. It's one of a trio of new laws addressing Native American rights in the state. All three are authored by Assembly member James Ramos, the first member of a California tribe to serve in the California legislature.
JAMES RAMOS: I think the voice - the true voice of California Indian people, Indian people in general, has been absent here in the state of California, if not other states in the United States, also.
KELLY: I asked Ramos to describe why it has been so hard for so long for California tribes to reclaim artifacts or human remains from museums and what his bill will do to change that.
RAMOS: When you look at cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, there's no federally recognized tribe there, but yet we know that there's ancestral remains of Indian people in those areas. So this bill starts to move forward in identifying California Indian tribes for the purpose of repatriation. It also brings forward the knowledge of tribal elders. So when tribal elders are in disagreement with museum directors over what should be repatriated back to the California Indian people - up until this point, all the weight of that knowledge lies with the museum director. So this bill now strengthens the tribal elders, their voice, to make sure that they have the last say in saying what should be repatriated back.
KELLY: Well, help me feel this. Help make it tangible for us. Is there a particular collection, a particular object, that you would really like to see back in Native American hands?
RAMOS: So there was an audit that was done here in the state of California on the UC system. And during that audit, they uncovered that the UC system still holds over 500,000 Native American remains. Those are bones of people - of people, of ancestors of tribes here in the state of California that are still in some type of a closet being held. Those are the remains that we need to get back into the hands of the proper people, the proper tribes, to be able to do a proper reburial. So then we could start to move forward with a healing.
KELLY: Is this something your tribe has dealt with firsthand?
KELLY: I'll mention you live on the San Manuel Indian reservation in Southern California.
RAMOS: I live on the San Manuel Indian reservation - still reside here. And I do the cultural reburials. I did two just this spring on remains that were found on different projects that were going on. We have worked with different museums. We did get a medicine basketry mortar back from the Chicago - there's a museum in Chicago. But it took a lot of paperwork. It took a lot of resources. And many tribes here in the state of California and across the United States don't have the wherewithal or the resources to be able to provide those resources and those documents that are there.
KELLY: I mentioned this is one of three laws that you authored. There's another one that deals with trying to study ways to increase Native American voter turnout. There's another that's aimed at reducing the rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. You've been working on this a while. Why do you think that you're finally getting traction?
RAMOS: Well, I think it comes down to being engaged in the political system. We are the first California Indian ever elected in the state legislature here in the state of California, and I was elected in 2018. When you talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women, that's been going on for years. I think - why now are these three bills moving forward and signed by the governor? It's because, for once, we do have someone in the legislature that understands the issues and the plight of the California Indian people.
KELLY: That is California Assembly Member James Ramos.
Thank you for joining us.
RAMOS: Thank you so much.
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