‘Not so one-sided’: Campus community reacts to unnaming of Kroeber Hall

Photo of Kroeber Hall
Karen Chow/File
The Proposal to Un-name Kroeber Hall has elicited more praise than criticism from the UC Berkeley community. Out of 595 comments on the proposal made to the Building Name Review Committee, 85% were in favor of denaming the hall.

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The complicated legacy of Alfred Kroeber will no longer be honored on a campus building after UC Berkeley unnamed Kroeber Hall, a decision that has drawn more praise than criticism.

According to the Proposal to Un-name Kroeber Hall, Kroeber was a founding member of UC Berkeley’s anthropology department and began teaching in 1902. Though he was a pioneer in the field, Kroeber took custody of a Native American man known as Ishi and had him perform as a living exhibit on campus, something the proposal cites as one of the main reasons to dename the hall. The hall will temporarily be referred to as the Anthropology and Art Practice building.

“The very fact that a building was named after them speaks to that they made important contributions, but we are in a different historical moment, so what does keeping the name mean?” said UC Berkeley Building Name Review Committee member and campus professor Frank Worrell. “We are no longer having his name here because his name is disrespectful to Native Americans.”

Kroeber claimed that the Ohlone people were culturally extinct, which contributed to the tribe being excluded from federal recognition and consequently from holding land or political power, according to the committee’s recommendation. Additionally, Kroeber collected the remains of Native American ancestors from gravesites to be used in research, the recommendation states. Though the practice is now illegal, it was not at the time.

Kroeber was, however, credited with salvaging Native American history and culture through his fieldwork and ethnographic recordings of indigenous language and music.

The Building Name Review Committee received 595 comments on the proposal, 85% of which were in favor of denaming the hall, according to Worrell.

Despite the substantial contributions Kroeber made to anthropology, Worrell said denaming the hall is an important part of being an inclusive campus. The committee was not “banishing” the name from campus and suggested installing a plaque explaining the history of Kroeber and the hall, Worrell added.

While anthropology professor Mariane Ferme supported the denaming of the building, she said the criticism of Kroeber can be excessive.

“What we know about his relationship with Ishi, with native communities, suggests that he was much more caring than many anthropologists of his generation,” Ferme said. “He was human, and he was a product of his time. He’s not so one-sided.”

While the majority of campus students, staff and faculty supported the proposal to dename Kroeber Hall, several disagreed.

Campus senior Alexander Zerkle said he believes Kroeber was an “honorable man” by the standards of his time and noted his contributions to anthropology and the university.

“I think that stripping his name from a building can’t be interpreted as anything but a condemnation of him and his legacy,” Zerkle said in an email. “No one has yet explained why this is justified.”

Campus professor of anthropology Kent Lightfoot said in a public comment that he supported keeping the name and argued the proposal’s critique of Kroeber was one-sided but acknowledged that Kroeber has a complicated history and made mistakes with unintended consequences.

Lightfoot added campus should be taking tangible steps, such as supporting the COVID-19 Relief Fund for Muwkema Ohlone families and the Sogorea Te Land Trust, in addition to finding a place on campus for Cafe Ohlone, which used to operate behind the recently-closed University Press Books.

Campus graduate student and campus Building Name Review Committee member Alex Mabanta said the committee recommended investing in a renaming working group by the end of the semester with impacted Native American and Berkeley stakeholders.

“There are all sorts of impacts to consider. Some are unintended. Other impacts may harm or involve many stakeholders who may not receive visibility in scholarship or in media,” Mabanta said. “Those impacts are also part of someone’s legacy.”

Ferme said she hopes the building will be given an indigenous name as a gesture to those who brought the proposal forward and to honor the legitimately acquired indigenous artifacts.

She added, however, that many artifacts in campus’ extensive collection were not respectfully acquired, and campus’ repatriation of these objects has moved at a “glacial” speed.

There is more to be done to become a truly inclusive campus for Native American students and that denaming the building is one step of many, Worrell said. 

“If we were to rename every building on campus, there’s still discrimination in society,” Worrell said. “This is a gesture in a part of a larger framework of social justice and equity for all Americans, all individuals in the world.”

Contact Maya Akkaraju at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maya_akkaraju.