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Behind the Scenes with the Fowler Museum Archaeology Collections Facility: Actualizing Land Acknowledgments

By Wendy Teeter, Sedonna Goeman-Shulsky, and Desireé Martinez

The Fowler Museum Archaeology Collections Facility has been in charge of UCLA’s compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) since 1990, which has resulted in many collaborations between local Indigenous tribes, Fowler staff, and the UCLA American Indian Studies Center, among other campus organizations. The projects detailed in this article prioritize endeavors that promote knowledge and respect for Indigenous peoples, especially those whose land we occupy, and lead to the betterment of UCLA.

“As a land grant institution, UCLA acknowledges the Gabrielino/Tongva peoples as the traditional land caretakers of Tovaangar (Los Angeles basin, So. Channel Islands) and are grateful to have the opportunity to work for the taraaxotam (Indigenous peoples) in this place. We pay our respects to Honuukvetam (Ancestors), elders, and ‘Eyoohiinkem (our relatives/relations) past, present and emerging.”

The words of the Land Acknowledgement at UCLA reflect decades of collaborations between Curator of Archaeology, Wendy Teeter, and local Indigenous peoples of Southern California: the Gabrielino/Tongva, Fernandeno/Tataviam, Chumash, Juaneno/Acjachamen, Serrano, Luiseno/Payómkawichum, Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, Paiute/Nuwu, and Kumeyaay. In the fall of 2018, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block created the position of Special Advisor to the Chancellor on Native American and Indigenous Affairs, appointing Mishuana Goeman (Tonawanda Band of Seneca) to the role. In 2019, Professor Goeman and Teeter worked with the Tongva Community to develop this land acknowledgement, which recognizes that UCLA is built on unceded Tongva land. The following article offers a bit of history and updates on this and other initiatives as we acknowledge Native American Heritage Month.

The Fowler Museum Archaeology Collections Facility serves as a custodian of excavated remains of Native Californian villages, cemeteries, and sacred spaces and places that were bulldozed and developed into the roads we travel, the houses we live in, and the places we work. While those crucial Indigenous sites are destroyed, the people, mountains, ocean, animals, plants, and, most importantly, Native Californian ancestors and cultural heritage are still here.

Reflections on Water and Indigeneity Symposium: Sharing on Intercultural Encounters, California Tribal Elders, Artists, and Activists, UCLA, 2014. Planned with the Fowler Museum, American Indian Studies Center, Wendy Teeter, and Mishuana Goeman, with artist Rigo 23’s supporting exhibition at the Fowler Museum.

The recognition of Native American tribal descendants’ rights to protect, care, and reinter their ancestors was codified into Federal law in November 1990 as NAGPRA. This act required museums and entities that receive federal funds to inventory and consult with Tribes on the presence of their ancestral remains, burial offerings, sacred objects, and items of cultural patrimony that should have never been taken from their people or removed from the ground.

NAGPRA often drives the first contact of museums with Indigenous people, but it doesn’t have to stop there. The Fowler has taken this opportunity to engage in conversations about how to take care of and educate the public about Indigenous history and cultural heritage. One important way is to stop thinking about them only in the past, and, instead, connect with the people whose culture is still vibrant. When you enter the Fowler’s permanent collection installation, Intersections (2006), the first video you see includes an interview with Cindi Alvitre (Tongva & Ti’at Society Director). Per Indigenous protocol, visitors are welcomed by the caretakers of the land; thus, it was important that each visitor be greeted by a Tongva leader in honor of this tradition.

Elsewhere on campus, Wendy Teeter, Duane Champagne, Carole Goldberg, Cindi Alvitre, Diana Wilson, Pat Sekaquaptewa, and San Manuel Tribal Member and UCLA Alumni Christopher Duro created the Tribal Learning Community & Educational Exchange (TLCEE) in 2003 through an endowment from San Manuel Band of Serrano Indians to ensure that UCLA develops reciprocal relationships with Tribes. This program supports bringing tribal knowledge bearers to campus to teach as well as connect them with UCLA faculty, staff, and students for assistance with a variety of projects, such as education, legal, linguistic, and museum work.

Paul J. Wellman Photo Archive, Fowler Museum at UCLA. Photo: Wendy Teeter.

Wendy Teeter, Cindi Alvitre (Tongva), Desireé Martinez (Tongva), and Karimah Kennedy Richardson (Autry Museum Associate Curator) started the Pimu Catalina Island Archaeology Project (PCIAP) in 2007 to reinterpret the archaeology of the island from a Tongva perspective using the best scientific and Indigenous methods, while training the next generation of Native and non-native students in Indigenous Archaeology—practiced by, for, and with Indigenous communities. Tongva, Tataviam, Chumash, Acjachamen, and Cahuilla tribal members have been deeply involved in PCIAP; and it was with support of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, the Catalina Island Conservancy, and the Catalina Island Museum that all the ancestors and their belongings at the latter two institutions were reinterred on Catalina in 2016. The Fowler provided logistical and technical support to the Catalina Island Museum to make this happen.

After 30 years of NAGPRA, 98% of the Native American ancestral remains that UCLA is responsible for have been repatriated. A part of our current work focuses on creating collaborations with Indigenous communities to better care for their cultural heritage. For example, two exciting online curated exhibitions have been developed with Professor Goeman: Mapping Indigenous LA (MILA, 2009) and Carrying Our Ancestors Home (CoAH, 2018). MILA is a community-based website devoted to storytelling through cultural geography and map making; it also provides educational resources and curriculum focused on local Tribal communities, approved by the communities themselves. What is unique about MILA is that tribal community members are the ones telling the stories and elucidating their meaning through maps, photos, texts, and videos that document their special spaces and places in the greater Los Angeles area. CoAH tells the long history of repatriation at UCLA and foregrounds Indigenous communities’ perspectives on their experiences of trying to bring their ancestors home for reburial. It is also an educational resource, gathering examples of repatriation best practices. Online exhibitions provide opportunities that traditional exhibitions cannot: long-standing presence without physical constraints; opportunity to add and refine content, and offer new voices and perspectives; accessibility to people who may be unable to get to the museum itself. Virtual presentations also foster greater inclusion of our Native partners’ work through embedded links to webpages and further resources.

We strive to highlight living communities, their stories, voices, and issues they want to share with others, including correcting popular misconceptions, such as that the Tongva are extinct and have no continuous traditions and understanding of their past. The Fowler addressed this topic directly by hosting the 2011 exhibition, Launching A Dream: Reviving Tongva Maritime Traditions, curated by Cindi Alvitre and Wendy Teeter; and explored this subject further in the co-curated 2014 exhibition, Rigo 23: From the Heart of Santa Madera. In the Fowler’s upcoming show, The Map and the Territory: 100 Years of Collecting at UCLA. Tongva artists River Garza and Mercedes Dorame will be examining what it means to have your cultural heritage pulled from the ground, kept by strangers, described by outsiders, and shelved for time immemorial with little chance of access for the descendants.

River Garza (Tongva) explores cultural heritage in the Fowler Archaeology, 2019. Photo: Wendy Teeter.

Each of these projects holds meaningful collaboration as the key priority, which betters UCLA and promotes knowledge and respect for Indigenous people, especially those whose land we occupy. Keeping in mind our past, we will continue to develop projects that enable us to partner with Indigenous people and support their initiatives. We want to see more Native and BIPOC curators creating exhibitions and providing guidance in the traditional care and interpretations of their cultural heritage. With Professor Goeman and the American Indian Studies Center, we will continue to support online exhibition work, including the expansion of Carrying Our Ancestors Home with our national and international Indigenous partners. As stated in the land acknowledgement, we are grateful to work for the ancestors, past, present, and emerging

Cindi Alvitre (Tongva), Director of Ti’at Society discusses the importance of Pimu to the Tongva to the 2015 PCIAP Field School Students. Photo: Desireé Martinez.

Wendy Teeter is Curator of Archaeology, Fowler Museum, and UCLA Repatriation Coordinator
Sedonna Goeman-Shulsky (Tonawanda Band of Seneca) is Archaeology Collections Manager, Fowler Museum
Desireé Martinez (Gabrieliño, Tongva) is President, Cogstone Resource Management

Header image credit: Pimu (Catalina Island). Spring, 2017. Photo: Sedonna Goeman-Shulsky.

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