Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Oct. 8, 2007, issue of The Daily Californian. Ten years later, the vast majority of these remains and artifacts are still in UC Berkeley’s possession.
By Lilya Mitelman
American Indian groups gathered Friday to protest Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s refusal to meet with them to discuss the return of thousands of American Indian remains housed in a campus museum.
The Native American NAGPRA Coalition began the protest on the Mario Savio steps on Sproul Plaza and marched to California Hall demanding to meet with Birgeneau.
The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at UC Berkeley houses the second-largest collection of American Indian remains in the nation, said campus spokesperson Marie Felde.
The coalition is asking that the remains be returned to their respective tribes to be reburied.
“UC Berkeley has 13,000 native remains in a drawer in the bottom of a museum,” said Mark LeBeau, a member of the Pit River tribe.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law passed in 1990, mandates the return of certain American Indian items, including human remains and funerary objects, to lineal descendants.
Associate Chancellor John Cummins and Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Robert Price have been made available to the group, Felde said.
However, Birgeneau decided not to meet with the group personally after a number of e-mail exchanges between group members and administrators included “rather accusatory language,” Felde said.
Speakers during the protest said that as an American Indian descendant himself, Birgeneau should show them respect and meet with them. Birgeneau is a descendant of the Metis Nation, a Canadian tribe, Felde said.
“Wake up and be an Indian again because that’s what he’s supposed to be,” said Reno Franklin, a member of the Kashia Pomo tribe.
Assistant Vice Chancellor Charles Upshaw and Assistant Chancellor Beata Fitzpatrick addressed the crowd outside California Hall and said the campus is in compliance with the act and is committed to working with tribes. She added that they will relay the protesters’ concerns to Birgeneau.
The protest follows a move in July to disband a unit at the anthropology museum that handled American Indian repatriation claims in order to integrate its work with the museum’s main operations.
Campus officials said the reorganization was intended to improve relations with tribes and is more in line with the structure of other museums with similar collections.
However, coalition members say the changes may worsen relations with tribes and are concerned over the lack of consultation with American Indian tribes over the change.
Felde said tribal groups were not consulted because the change was a managerial decision regarding administrative changes.
“The was just literally reorganizing the organizational character,” she said.