Grave robbing at UC Berkeley: A history of failed repatriation

Photo of the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology
Amanda Ramirez/File

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UC Berkeley, through decades of systematic looting, has one of the largest collections of human remains in the country. There are more than 8,000 individuals currently held in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, along with hundreds of thousands of burial objects, adding up to more than 490,000 artifacts federally classified as protected under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, in 1990.

These sacred objects and ancestors were, for most of UC Berkeley’s history, studied by the university without permission from the descendants, and now, under NAGPRA, federal agencies such as UC Berkeley are required to repatriate their collections. Yet, for 30 years, campus has not done so. A state audit from earlier this year reports that UC Berkeley had repatriated only 19% of its NAGPRA collection. Why has the campus dragged its feet?

The more I talked to people about this, the more I realized how much of UC Berkeley’s past is entwined with western expansion. I spoke with Phenocia Bauerle, director of Native American Student Development at UC Berkeley, and they told me about some of the current ramifications from the foundations of UC Berkeley’s anthropology department. Alfred Kroeber, one of the founders of the anthropology department at UC Berkeley, was consulted in the earlier years of the 20th century as the expert on the status of tribes, although he was white and had no connection to any Native American tribe. His assessment was that people native to California were dying out. Of course, this was not the case, and Bauerle said the impacts of Krober’s work still affect people to this day. “There are several unrecognized tribes that were not recognized largely because Kroeber said they’re culturally extinct,” Bauerle explained. Included in this category are many of the people native to what is now called Berkeley. “All of the tribes who are of the Ohlone group, none of them are federally recognized,” Bauerle said, adding that many of the artifacts and remains in the Hearst collection are from those Native groups.

Shell mounds, which serve as burial and ceremonial sites for many groups, are distributed around the Bay Area and were a major source for UC Berkeley’s current collection. Bauerle explained that the campus encouraged grave robbing to collect these artifacts. “Kroeber and the university weren’t necessarily actively looting gravesites, but they were encouraging collectors, like amateur collectors, to bring them whatever they could.” Today, UC Berkeley has to reckon with this past and, ultimately, repatriate everything stolen.

Yet, progress is slow. In June, the state of California performed an incriminating audit of the UC system’s repatriation process. Part of the failure stems from bureaucratic classification. Linda Rugg, associate vice chancellor for research at UC Berkeley, decides when ancestors and burial objects are repatriated to California tribes alongside a NAGPRA committee. I called her to better understand why UC Berkeley has been noncompliant for so long.

Rugg told me that, using NAGPRA classification, about two-thirds of the collection — 5,700 remains — were categorized as “culturally unidentifiable,” or CUI. This allowed researchers and faculty to continue to use these people as objects for study and even teach students with them. According to Rugg, “It’s not like these people don’t have any relatives. It’s because they’re not federally recognized.” In other words, due in large part to Kroeber’s assessment that Native American tribes were dying out, the campus doesn’t have to repatriate key cultural artifacts and remains because many local tribes are not federally recognized.

What’s more, the campus has been criticized for this before. In 2007, UC Berkeley removed a NAGPRA committee that included Native Americans, thus silencing all Native voices involved in the repatriation process. As a result, a coalition of Native Californians came together to protest. “People have protested the Hearst, stood outside for days,” Bauerle explained. “It always managed to be swept under the rug after a while.”

The state audit of the UC system provides a comparison that could be the key to UC Berkeley’s future. UCLA has repatriated 96% of its NAGPRA collection, compared to UC Berkeley’s 19%. I spoke to Kathy Bancroft, the tribal historic preservation officer of the Lone Paine Paiute, who has worked with UCLA in repatriating. She told me that UCLA secured a grant to bring tribes from the Owens Valley to its collection. “We’ve got every piece that was there,” she explained. She described the process as easy and told me that UCLA contacted them when they later found objects previously unreported. Crucially, UCLA proactively contacted the groups. UCLA was establishing trust. When I asked her about UC Berkeley, she told me, “I don’t have time to deal with somebody who’s not willing to work with me.” The audit mentions that, in one instance, UC Berkeley allowed a claim to sit idle for 17 months without follow-up.

Western research has prioritized the quest for knowledge above all else, and in doing so, human bodies have been treated as research subjects, as objects to extract data from.

Tony Platt, author and campus distinguished affiliated scholar, formed the Truth and Justice Project earlier this year. This research project is documenting the violent history of UC Berkeley, largely by exploring the archives. Platt told me that the UC Berkeley repatriation process is “very difficult for tribes because you need investigators, you need legal units, you need technical specialists to carry out these claims. The burden has always been on the tribes.” This is reflected in the 2020 audit: UC Berkeley was the only campus reviewed that asked for additional documentation and evidence from tribes. In some cases, the campus did not weigh oral histories and geographical data as much as evidence from technical specialists. Therefore, in order to “prove” that the tribe has a right to the artifacts, tribes have to fund technical specialists to navigate UC Berkeley databases and evaluate the sites and collections.

What’s more, Platt explains, the fact that “the human remains that were brought to the campus were broken up into different body parts and stuck into boxes makes it very difficult to reintegrate a whole skeleton.” He went on to say that many of the remains have been treated with different kinds of chemicals to preserve them, thus “morally and spiritually (contaminating)” the traditional burial practices. White settlers saw Native graves as less human and so were not concerned with the traditional and emotional significance of burial. Bancroft put it bluntly, “Those bones you just dug up might be my grandmother, and that’s the difference. These are our families who live here, who always have lived here.” What anthropologists at UC Berkeley seemingly didn’t — or couldn’t — process was the fact that those “remains” have living descendants.

The lens through which we see research dictates how we view UC Berkeley’s history. Western research has prioritized the quest for knowledge above all else, and in doing so, human bodies have been treated as research subjects, as objects to extract data from. The use of human bodies, in this way, is an ethical failure. All the people I interviewed discussed the mistrust many California tribes have for UC Berkeley, in great part because of its history with human remains.

On the rare occasions when the campus has changed, it was sparked independently from the institution. Those I spoke to who are familiar with this issue pointed to the lobbying efforts of California tribes as one force for change. “I don’t think that anything would change, really, if the tribes had not gone in and lobbied and worked and got that legislation passed,” Rugg said

Due to the lobbying efforts of California tribes, in 2018, California’s NAGPRA was amended to put additional pressure on the UC system and fill the gaps in the federal NAGPRA. The committee who oversaw tribal requests to repatriate before 2017 was made up of curators from the Hearst Museum who, Rugg added, had a vested interest in maintaining the collection and slowing repatriation. Following the 2020 audit, a new policy is being drafted to standardize the process of repatriation across the UC system, set to be finalized Dec. 31. Rugg told me that “policy forbids research and teaching on any Native American ancestors without the permission of the tribe,” and that “where the federal law only recognizes federal tribes, Cal NAGPRA asks us to work with nonfederally recognized tribes.” Another of these changes includes a requirement that Native Americans’ voices be present in the NAGPRA committee, at least one being from a federally unrecognized tribe. As of this year’s audit, the committee does not have Native Californian representatives, but does include some with tribal affiliation from outside the state, as well as anthropologists committed to repatriation.

The newly appointed faculty director of the Hearst Museum, Lauren Kroiz, comes from an art history background, as opposed to anthropology, and has done a lot of scholarly work surrounding the effects of colonialism in museums. Rugg and her supervisor, Randy Katz, are both recent hires trying to push repatriation further along.

But does appointing cognizant faculty and shuffling around committees amount to structural changes at the campus? Bauerle told me that UC Davis, an institution whose holdings are about one-tenth the size of UC Berkeley’s NAGPRA inventory, has three people working on NAGPRA issues. UC Berkeley has a single NAGPRA liaison, Thomas Torma. “Good intentions will only go so far,” Rugg explained to me. “We have to have people in the trenches and people who are really working on these issues to bring things forward.” After she described the need for funding for these positions, she let out a sigh.

Lobbying efforts of the California tribes have forced a framework on UC Berkeley that finally has the potential for concerted repatriation. I would like to believe that the technocratic approach of appointing capable faculty with ideological commitment to repatriation can save the day. At the same time, I dwell on the decades of foot-dragging and the lack of resources allotted for repatriation today. Thousands of people marked as CUI are locked up in the Hearst Museum today, with only Torma actively working to remedy it. The tribes have forced the institution’s first steps, but is that all we can expect today, 30 years after NAGPRA, 20 years after California’s NAGPRA?

In the face of an issue as personal and significant as human burial, a practice common across human cultures for thousands of years, it shouldn’t take decades of legislation to do something as morally unambiguous as returning remains and artifacts to their descendants.

Contact Sage Alexander at [email protected].

A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe as the Lone Paine Paiute.