On Friday, Sept. 25, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a trio of bills by Assemblymember James C. Ramos (D-Highland) advancing Native American causes on the day celebrating California’s Indian culture and history. All three measures become law on Jan. 1, 2021.
Ramos—elected in 2018 as the state’s first Native American legislator—hails from the Serrano/Cahuilla tribe and is a lifelong member of the San Manuel Indian Reservation in San Bernardino County. He expressed his appreciation to the governor for his approval of AB 275, AB 2314 and AB 3099 on a significant day. “Great news on California Native American Day. Thank you, Gov. Newsom for moving California Indian issues forward,” Ramos said.
REPATRIATION OF NATIVE AMERICAN REMAINS AND ARTIFACTS
AB 275 strengthens and clarifies the process for repatriating California Native American remains and artifacts long held by various institutions such as the University of California system. Last June State Auditor Elaine Howle stated the UC system has provided inadequate oversight and inconsistent administration in repatriating remains in its possession for proper interment. Her audit report also cited delays in meeting legal deadlines and lack of tribal participation in UC committees overseeing the repatriation. Her recommendations included amending state law to allow more tribes to be eligible for inclusion on the Native American Heritage Commission’s list of recognized tribes. AB 275 allows for the increased tribal inclusion.
“This bill will help preserve our tribal culture and ensure Native American tribes have the opportunity to pay honor and respect to our ancestors and elders,” Ramos said. AB 275 will:
- Revise the process of creating inventories and summaries and require consultation with California Indian tribes during the creation of preliminary inventories;
- Revise the process by which a direct lineal descendent or a California Indian tribe can request the return of human remains or cultural items;
- Request that the UC Regents, and every other state agency that has significant interaction with tribal issues, peoples or lands designate one or more liaisons for the purpose of engaging in consultation with California Native American tribes on the contact list maintained by the Native American Heritage Commission.
- Revise various definitions, including that of “California Indian tribe” to include both a tribe that meets the federal definition of an Indian tribe and non-federally recognized tribes that are located in California and are on the Commission’s list.
INCREASING NATIVE AMERICAN VOTER PARTICIPATION
AB 2314 requires the California Secretary of State to convene an advisory task force to recommend strategies for increasing Native American voter participation. Ramos said even after 1924, when Native Americans were granted U.S. citizenship, full voting rights for Indians were not guaranteed. It was not until 1962 that all states allowed Native Americans to enjoy full voting rights.
“Native Americans were denied American citizenship and voting rights until the 20th Century and that history still has a chilling effect on electoral and civic participation,” Ramos said.
The task force will consist of the Secretary of State, his or her designees and additional members he appoints. All members of the panel would be required to have experience with voting rights or be county election officials. Task force members would be asked to make recommendations for recruiting Native American poll workers, improving the availability of election materials such as voter information, public service announcements and other means of increasing Native American voter participation.
California Secretary of State Alex Padilla said, “This new law will strengthen collaboration between California’s elections officials and Native American tribes. California tribes face unique challenges to participating in our elections. I look forward to working together to develop and implement best practices to improve voting access for California’s Native Americans.”
Chrissie Castro (Diné and Chicana), co-founder of the California Native Vote Project, said, “California is the state with the largest Native American population in the whole country. Yet we are disenfranchised from full access to the vote. The passage of this bill is an important step in a long battle towards improving Native American voting rights and access in California. We applaud Assemblymember Ramos and Secretary Padilla for their leadership on this bill. This is why representation matters.”
REDUCING RATES OF MISSING AND MURDERED INDIGENOUS WOMEN AND GIRLS
AB 3099 will assist the California Department of Justice (DOJ), tribal governments and local law enforcement, including tribal justice systems, in improving their data collection and collaboration. It authorizes funding for DOJ to assist tribal police in the reporting of statistics, training, outreach and procedures relating to crime issues on tribal lands and in Native American communities. Aid would include, but not be limited to, missing persons cases involving Native American women and girls. Finally, the bill would require DOJ to coordinate education and outreach between tribal police and state and local law enforcement agencies.
Assemblymember Ramos said about his AB 3099, “Murder rates of Native American women can be ten times the national average on some reservations. These cases are a shameful national tragedy; the cases do not receive the scrutiny and attention they deserve,” Ramos continued. One recent report by the Sovereign Bodies Institute indicated that only nine percent of murders of indigenous women in California have ever been solved. “Many suspects are non-Indian, but confusion over which law enforcement agency has jurisdiction helps perpetrators avoid facing justice.”
Jurisdictional confusion has occurred because of a 1953 federal law, Public Law 280, Ramos added. It removed federal criminal jurisdiction over most major offenses committed on reservations. Public Law 280 also limited state civil jurisdiction in Indian Country to six states, including California. More states were added in later years.
He noted that a critical issue in solving cases is confusion over jurisdiction among tribal, federal, state and local sheriffs or city police departments. “This confusion causes delays and makes it difficult for law enforcement to share information. The result is that these victims and their loved ones do not receive justice,” Ramos observed.