European colonialism, in the course of its centuries-long project to subjugate the Indigenous inhabitants of North America, has so relentlessly persecuted Native peoples that peace has been denied them even in death. In the path of a continental genocide trails a further insult: White archaeologists have ransacked Native graves by the thousands, exhuming bodies and stealing countless items of sacred importance.
The prestigious University of California, Berkeley, for all its progressive sheen, has been a central player in this desecration since its founding — though it is far from alone. Complicity in these disinterment projects is shared by many still-renowned universities. Now, in the modern day, despite widespread condemnation of the Native American genocide and attendant cultural theft, many of these institutions still cling to their ill-gotten artifacts.
“What other ethnic groups have their remains in collections in universities by the thousands?” asked longtime repatriation activist Lorrie Beck, of the Choinumni and Mono tribes of Central California, on a call with Truthout.
It’s a pointed, if rhetorical, question — and Beck, as part of the Native American Advisory Council (NAAC) to UC Berkeley’s restitution efforts, has many other questions for the school administration as well. Thanks to decades of Native activism and consequent legislation, some stolen remains have indeed been returned, in reunions laden with spiritual meaning. Still, progress has been sporadic. Plenty of administrations — UC Berkeley being a standout example — have not only refused to release remains but have actively blocked Native claims.
In recent years, Berkeley administrators have expressed some mild discomfort about the fact that they preside over a vast illicit ossuary containing the remains of genocide victims. But the school’s newly apologetic tone has not come with commensurate action, tribal advocates say. Repatriation is still a halting and frustrating procedure. While the process drags on, living members of affected tribes are left to grieve the macabre and uncertain fate of their ancestors.
This morbid harvest is the byproduct of a world-historical crime: The genocide committed against Native Americans not only allowed for graverobbing but also left remains on battlegrounds and other sites of massacre. Razed settlements made for easy pillaging of all kinds of items, including those of deep religious significance.
In their earnest hunger for prestige, early U.S. museums were incentivized to both conduct archaeological expeditions and encourage amateurs to send in their finds from expropriated Native territory. UC Berkeley’s first stolen bones date to 1872. And of course, the land itself was seized just as eagerly. In fact, in California, proceeds from the sale of the lands of the Ohlone tribe were used to fund the UC system. Berkeley and its Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology would also come to harbor luminaries like Alfred Kroeber, an anthropologist who infamously held a Yahi man captive to display him as a museum exhibit.
The remains held by UC Berkeley have largely been jumbled together indistinguishably, in an affront to the dignity of the deceased. They are strewn throughout the campus in boxes, in storage, in classrooms and closets. (It’s also worth noting that the true extent of desecration far outstrips the collection numbers; it was a common practice to retain only a fragment of remains, while the rest were reburied by the most unceremonious possible means: in pits and mass graves.)
Academic and researcher Tony Platt is the author of Grave Matters and The Scandal of Cal and has long been an advocate for Native interests in the repatriation process. He described archaeologists’ grim procurement and thoughtless disposal of remains to Truthout:
They did this without any consultation with Native ancestors, Native descendants. They did it without any solemnity, without any ritual. Just think about the way that today, when they find remains of American soldiers in Vietnam, all the care and dignity that goes into returning those human remains.
Compounding the offense is that some of these collections were then used to make cranial measurements in service of the racist, eugenicist pseudoscience of phrenology — attempts to establish the inferiority of the Native mind.
In-depth reporting for ProPublica by Mary Hudetz, Logan Jaffe, Ash Ngu and Graham Lee Brewer documented the true extent of historical theft. Hudetz et al. reported that as of January this year, “about 200 institutions … had repatriated none [emphasis added] of the remains of more than 14,000 Native Americans in their collections.”
Half of all unrepatriated remains, per ProPublica, are held in only 10 institutions; of these, Berkeley is the largest. The Berkeley administration reports that remains of over 9,000 individuals still lie in their collections. Platt believes the actual numbers may be significantly higher, as many as 20,000. His review of the records found “shaky math, selective data, arbitrary definitions and unknown unknowns,” as he writes in The Scandal of Cal.
Regardless of the true numbers, the persistence of these collections stands as a continued insult to Native Americans living and deceased, trophies of a genocidal past and a symbolic testament to white supremacy. Posterity, and decency, demand that the collections are dismantled and the dead allowed to rest.
Legislative Progress, University Loopholes
Native activism around repossessing relatives began in the 1970s, spearheaded by notable advocate Maria Pearson, elements of the American Indian Movement (AIM), and other Native allies. A victory came with the 1990 passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The act requires institutions that are awarded federal funding, like universities and museums, to return all remains and cultural items to federally recognized tribes.
But despite a federal mandate, repatriation activists have gained little more than frustration in the three decades since. Even in the face of the law, institutional resistance to returning remains has been stubborn, with many museums and universities seeking loopholes, stalling or refusing outright. Nominally progressive Berkeley is, once again, no exception; on the contrary, it is a standout example of noncompliance.
Because most of Berkeley’s collection came from California tribes, many landless and without federal status, the university retained almost its entire gruesome archive. California tribal members seeking repatriation initially had no recourse but to file challenges with the NAGPRA Review Committee — with, at best, slow and undependable results.
To ameliorate this, advocates lobbied for a state-localized version of the legislation; titled CalNAGPRA, it passed in 2001. CalNAGPRA requires that state agencies and state-funded organizations return remains to specified California tribes, closing the loophole. However, at the outset, the act was weak and underfunded, and only recently did updates allow for better oversight and implementation. Most progress has been achieved in the last five years, aided by an improving public awareness — and, also salient for the Berkeley administration, an impending PR catastrophe.
UC Berkeley lecturer Nazune Menka is an Environmental Law Clinic supervising attorney and a member of the Koyukon Athabascan and Lumbee tribes. In a conversation with Truthout, she shared her opinion as a Native faculty member: “There’s a lack of transparency — and the university does not yet have a proper tribal consultation policy. It doesn’t understand how to develop and build a proper relationship with Native nations in California.” The school, said Menka, has an “inability” to “engage in a respectful and continued and permanent way.”
Berkeley Disavows Its Necropolis
In recent years, the Berkeley administration has appeared to back away from decades of reluctance or outright stonewalling. But the school’s new tone of apologetic promises can ring hollow, or read as strategic, in light of what remains a painfully slow repatriation process. Commented Platt, “I think they’ve evaded [controversy] using corporate strategies to sidestep, to deflect and to minimize controversial issues that might disrupt the narrative.… Berkeley’s mystique, its public relations and [progressive, social justice] branding, has been very successful in warding this off.”
To the university’s credit, some reform has taken place: In 2019, Berkeley forbade the use of remains in teaching and research, and the school has made changes to policy to make it easier to pair tribes with ancestral artifacts. In a statement cited in the ProPublica article, the university acknowledged that it had “mishandled its repatriation responsibilities” and “privileged some kinds of scientific and scholarly evidence over tribal interests and evidence provided by tribes.” The Hearst Museum has also been closed “so that staff can prioritize repatriation.”
While the university has made about 2,600 individual sets of remains eligible for tribes to claim, some of which have at last been repatriated, many Native people have condemned the tectonic pace of their efforts — and the fact that the majority of the collection, some 9,000 or more individuals, remains entombed somewhere on campus.
“They have not done any kind of reflection on the deep sorrow and pain that this behavior caused to hundreds of thousands of people,” Platt stressed. “[Nor have they] looked deeply into why they did this and how they did this. They try to comply in this narrow legalistic way, with NAGPRA, and they don’t even do that effectively.”
In fact, Berkeley’s return process has been so slow that in April of this year, the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which includes multiple prominent senators, sent a letter admonishing the administration and demanding a plan for compliance, stating: “Delayed repatriation is delayed justice for Native peoples.”
The emotional pain, Menka said, derives not only from the historical robbery of land, ancestry and cultural treasure, but especially the deep wounds held open by colleges’ egregious delay. “The reason it’s important is the way it’s connected to these harms that are impacting the contemporary world right now.… I think it comes through in loss of culture, loss of connection to the land. When you are not only losing a culture that is highly identified with the land, and also erasing your ancestors from the land, that’s a sense of erasure that is so profound.”
In 2020, California auditors completed a review of federal and state NAGPRA compliance, in which they singled out UC Berkeley for imposing onerous demands: “Berkeley regularly required tribes to submit additional evidence for affiliation beyond what the tribe provided in its claim, which can extend the time before it returns the remains.” The auditors also contrasted UC campuses, pointing out that UCLA has returned nearly its entire collection — yet Berkeley has relinquished “only about 20 percent.”
“It’s taken a long time for Native people to work their way into a position of influence and [push through] these laws,” Lorrie Beck pointed out. “I think that maybe the university thought they could fight it and win.” As part of the NAAC, Beck has borne the frustration for decades. Time and again, the university, she says, has stalled and waylaid activists, and then congratulated themselves for their diligence.
“They don’t have any emotional buy-in,” Beck said resignedly. “They just move it over to this other department. Then this department gets overwhelmed, having to deal with the laws finally in place in California.… It’s just shuffling us around.” Beck’s experience has been that Native concerns are dismissed or handed off between departments, as if they were forced to spend years navigating a labyrinthine customer service phone tree. “What can I say? I can’t even tell you the stumbling I’ve seen them do.”
Beck neatly summarized the operative question: “How does a university that contains so much intelligence in solving problems struggle so much to solve this one? It’s very curious.”
As Native advocates will attest, Berkeley has its hopeful reformers; some staff are certainly sympathetic and well-meaning. Still, others have reliably defended the collection: A familiar opponent of the tribes is Tim White, an anthropology professor of high status in the field and the collection’s former curator. White, who has been known to use remains as teaching examples in class, has drawn rounds of outrage for defying tribal requests and university administrators alike. He has long touted his right to casually toy with remains and accumulate ancestral artifacts, resisting internal reform and even suing to block repatriation.
As a result, reporting on the issue has often centered on the controversies simmering around White and his cavalier disdain. However, while he makes for an easy villain, this issue is not reducible to White’s notoriety as a foil for Native advocates. However reprehensible his conduct, to make White synonymous with body collecting is to diminish the complicity of hundreds of others at UC Berkeley, to say nothing of the systematic nationwide graverobbing that has so indelibly stained the history of science.
The university’s long obstinacy is instead the product of internal structural incentives, far beyond White’s prerogatives. After its founding, the fledgling Berkeley, first node of the UC system, had a reputation to build; being able to boast a veritable mortuary of “10,000 Indian skeletons,” as an October 1948 issue of LIFE Magazine put it in a glowing article on the UC system, was a selling point. There is a legacy of pride and prestige in the balance, however tarnished.
Perhaps more impactful, there may be financial enticements: ProPublica reported that Chicago’s Field Museum accepted a $400,000 grant to preserve its collection, which was also obtained by grave desecration. Platt goes further, claiming that the museum’s thousands of bodies are of minimal scientific value, perhaps none at all. Rather, he likens the Hearst to a trophy room — or a hoarder’s residence. Others have had the same question: How could 9,000-plus disarticulated, disorganized skeletons be of any real use?
Beck, who has an anthropology degree, is also dubious: “I want to give people the benefit of the doubt … but I don’t know how an anthropology department could convince [the administration] there is so much value here that they’ve got to do everything in their power to keep it.”
Berkeley academics would likely point to some instances where knowledge was gleaned, but the collection’s scientific utility is unclear. More to the point, any academic value that the remains may carry is immaterial; they were obtained unethically, and the priorities of their rightful return preempt any claims to use in research. Scientific, legitimate, or otherwise, ultimately, we can only speculate on the real motives in play: they are ineffable, perhaps unknowable, distributed over different times and different staff. What is clear from its systematic recalcitrance is that the reluctance of Berkeley to give up its prestigious collection is deeply rooted.
The University of California, Berkeley administration did not reply to requests for comment.
Equally unknowable, equally unquantifiable, is the sum of the suffering that its crimes have inflicted. “Every single Native community has their own distinct beliefs,” said Menka, and the ways in which desecration “violat[es] religious practices will naturally vary across tribes.” But, she continued, “I can speak comfortably from my singular identity. One of the things that I think is really key to me, in recognition of my culture and the way that I’ve been brought up, is to have a respect for your elders. That’s something that the general public can understand. Many communities have a level of respect for their elders — but in Native communities, it’s above and beyond.”
Beck said as much, emphasizing that “respect for your ancestors and elders [is] integral in keeping families and people together.” When repatriation does happen, as she described, “There is so much relief. People will come out to see the remains being reburied, and go through the pain of seeing it happen and relive it in their mind. But they know that it ends on a good note. And that’s the end goal.”
A Long-Awaited Rest
Though their relatives clamor for their homecoming, the bodies of Native ancestors still lay strewn throughout museums, skeletons left to gather dust in cabinets, their afterlives caught up in the gears of a hidebound bureaucracy. Lorrie Beck’s ancestors of the Choinumni and Mono tribes may very well be among them. Sustaining the indignity is UC Berkeley’s moribund institutional response, which might hint at some ulterior interest. Despite an administrative position that seems indefensible, advocates, say, audacity and stunning disrespect are still on display.
“It’s a hard thing for Indian people to have to deal with,” Beck sighs. At 78, she is only now winding down her participation in the cause. “It’s been such long going, and so dehumanizing, to deal with this power structure. I’ve heard [Berkeley staff] say, ‘We know more about you people than you do!’ How insulting is that!”
It’s hard to fathom; the contempt and the loss are unimaginable. But there are hopes that the gathering momentum of repatriation might mean that resolution is not far off. UCLA’s near-total return of remains to relatives is proof of feasibility. Previously impossible identifications can now be made by DNA analysis, and the potential, someday, for “a reckoning,” as Platt put it, is growing. “Berkeley would also have to provide land for reburials, if they were really serious about repatriation,” he added. For exemplary models of reconciliation, we might “look to what East Coast universities have done about coming to terms with their involvement in the slave trade.”
“If it wasn’t for my ancestors, their resilience and their survival, I wouldn’t be here,” Nazune Menka said. “That’s what’s so powerful about Indigenous connections to our community, to our ancestors: the acknowledgment that we are our ancestors, and we are the future ancestors.… That’s something that Indigenous communities take very seriously: our responsibility to honor our ancestors by making our best choices now.”
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