UC Berkeley professor, activist Joseph Myers dies at age 80

Photo of Joseph Myers
Nicole Lim/Courtesy
Jospeh Myers was a professor in UC Berkeley's department of ethnic studies, known for his commitment to education, work promoting justice in Native communities and fighting for the preservation of California Native history.

Joseph Myers, who taught at UC Berkeley’s ethnic studies department for nearly 30 years, died due to heart complications Dec. 29, 2020, at age 80.

A leader in the Native American community both on campus and across the state of California, Myers was known for his work promoting justice in Native communities and fighting for the preservation of California Native history. As a lecturer, Myers introduced courses specifically tailored to Native American issues to the ethnic studies curriculum, leading courses on tribal governments and federal Native law.

Myers, a Pomo Native American, was born in Cloverdale, California on Jan. 16, 1940. After completing his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, Myers began his career working as a California Highway Patrol officer in Oakland.

Myers’ daughter, Nicole Lim, said witnessing inequality in the police profession made her father want to study the law. He was also influenced by his experience working as one of a small number of Native Americans in the department, Lim added.

“Knowing that structurally there was a lot of racism, and being one of the few Native Americans in the profession, he experienced that firsthand and wanted to be part of the solution, not the problem,” Lim said.

After receiving his Juris Doctor from UC Berkeley School of Law in 1975, Myers used his legal background to serve the Native community.

From 1976 to 1983, Myers served as associate director of the American Indian Lawyer Training Program, where he developed and led a program supporting advocates learning tribal law. During this time, Myers collaborated on a lawsuit against the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which succeeded in reversing the termination of 17 California Native Rancheria communities.

In 1983, Myers went on to found the National Indian Justice Center, a nonprofit that provides training and resources to Native country. The center also supports tribes in forming their own governments.

Myers believed telling history from a Native American point of view was crucial for legal justice and served as president of the California Indian Museum and Cultural Center, according to Lim.

“He was really focused on the idea that, if we truly want to bring justice to California (Native) communities, we really have to have truth and authenticity in acknowledging our past,” Lim said.

Myers also advocated for justice on the campus level, where colleagues said he played a crucial role in beginning the ongoing process of repatriation of Native American remains.  Myers worked closely with UC Berkeley to advocate for both human remains and cultural artifacts, collected by the campus for research, to be returned to Native communities for a traditional, proper burial.

Lim said Myers loved teaching and continued to teach classes for UC Berkeley’s ethnic studies department despite facing health complications.

As a part of the ethnic studies faculty, Myers dedicated himself to supporting Native students on campus, acting as the master of ceremonies for the Native Graduation every year.

“He was supportive, he was encouraging and he was very excited about the possibilities of what these young people could provide, both for the communities of the United States and for the communities of their various reservations,” said Martin Sánchez-Jankowski, co-founder and chair of the Center for Research on Native American Issues, which is named in Myers’ honor.

Lim described Myers as “one of a handful” of California Native Americans who dedicated his career to serving the UC system.

She said she hopes UC Berkeley honors his legacy by inviting more California Native American students and faculty into the UC system.

“He loved Berkeley on many levels, he instilled within us that Berkeley had this legacy of education for us and that education was an opportunity to make Native communities a better place,” Lim said. “He was very committed to the idea of education opening doors for Native people.”

Contact Ruby Sutton at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rubysutton_.