More than a century after they were stolen from the San Luis Obispo area by a grave robber, a collection of Native American bones was reburied Friday in their homeland.
The Salinan Tribe of Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties said repatriating seven Native American skulls and several jawbones from a museum in England and reinterring them at an undisclosed Central Coast location was an unprecedented move.
“This process has never been accomplished by any tribe, let alone a non-federally recognized tribe,” said tribe spokesman Chris Molina. “Because of all the laws and procedures necessary, this became a government-to-government exchange between the Salinans and the UK, necessitating sensitive and timely treatment.”
The details of the bones’ odyssey are sketchy. They were scavenged from the San Luis Obispo area in the late 1800s by a man named R.W. Summers who sold them, Molina said.
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Eventually, they wound up at the University of Birmingham in England, where they were on display at a medical museum. A year ago, the tribe got word that the bones were available for repatriation.
In cooperation with June Jones of Birmingham University, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, federal customs officials and the Chumash Tribe, the Salinans were able to get permission to bring the remains to the United States.
On Wednesday, the Salinans received the bones from Jones at Los Angeles International Airport. They were brought to San Luis Obispo, where an anthropologist at the county Sheriff-Coroner’s Office positively identified them as Native American, Molina said.
It is unknown whether the remains are Chumash or Salinan, the two tribes that lived in what is now San Luis Obispo County. A DNA test could determine this, but the tribe did not want to go to the expense, Molina said.
The remains were returned to their native soil Friday in a solemn ceremony. The Salinans hope that other tribes will be able to use their experience as an example of how stolen remains can be returned.
“The process brought the Salinans back full circle as the only interested tribe willing to maneuver through all the red tape within the federal, state and local governments necessary to have human remains shipped back to the United States,” Molina said.