Building unnaming, heritage month cannot be all CA does to respect Indigenous communities

STATE AFFAIRS: Unnaming, Native American Heritage Month are just the start of heeding Indigenous calls for actionable change

Illustration of an Indigenous student offering up a number of proposals for the institution to make reparations, instead being offered a building re-naming in exchange.
Jericho Tang/Staff

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On Thursday, California Gov. Gavin Newsom declared November 2020 Native American Heritage Month. Coincidentally, this month UC Berkeley finally unnamed Barrows Hall and LeConte Hall after years of advocacy. Both the heritage month and unnaming represent small steps forward in fully acknowledging Indigenous communities and their harrowing relationships with the campus and American society. But if these simply symbolic steps took so long to implement, how much time will it take for California to take real action?

The United States, California and UC Berkeley all have long histories of treating Indigenous nations with disrespect. On campus, this is exemplified by the lagging repatriation of Indigenous artifacts and human remains at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology. For tribes that are not federally recognized, it is almost impossible to reclaim sacred objects and artifacts; UC Berkeley in particular has made it extremely difficult for tribes seeking repatriation.

A new bill, AB 275, presents a possibility for tribes to request repatriation from bodies that receive state funding, including the UC system. But the state and UC Berkeley must own up to their historical wrongs and approach issues such as repatriation proactively by heeding modern Indigenous activists and calls for change.

The UC Office of the President has noted that it is shaping a more accessible repatriation policy in conjunction with Indigenous tribes. But to speed repatriation efforts, UC Berkeley should go beyond waiting for tribes to approach the campus and instead utilize university and museum resources to uncover which artifacts belong to which tribes. Marginalized communities should not have to do the bulk of the work in recovering what is rightfully theirs. 

Furthermore, UC Berkeley cannot stop at unnaming Barrows and LeConte. Kroeber Hall must also be unnamed to end the honoring of Alfred Kroeber, an anthropologist who studied Indigenous Californians using a starkly racist ideology — to the point of penning up an Indigenous man named Ishi and studying him until his death. 

Native students have called for the building’s unnaming, and administrators must listen. In addition to unnaming, renaming processes must be accelerated — we don’t want another five-year wait. The committee should also seek out and directly involve Indigenous students, local tribes and activists to ensure that this awful history is no longer glorified. 

UC Berkeley’s Ohlone land acknowledgment reminds the campus community that our university only exists because of the expropriation of Indigenous land. Our outright vicious history with tribes cannot be mitigated with just a land acknowledgment, just a heritage month, just the unnaming of two lecture halls. We must view these symbolic steps as cataclysmic points in improving relationships with Indigenous communities. Next, symbolism must become action.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the fall 2020 opinion editor, Katherine Shok.