UC Berkeley discusses past, present treatment of Native American people

photo of the outside of the Kroeber Hall building
Karen Chow/File
At a campus event titled "America’s Unfinished Work: UC’s Repatriation and Un-Naming Efforts,” the UC Berkeley Osher Lifelong Learning Institute discussed campus's treatment of Native American people.

Related Posts

UC Berkeley’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, or OLLI, discussed campus’s past treatment of California’s Native American population in an event Friday.

During the event, called “America’s Unfinished Work: UC’s Repatriation and Un-Naming Efforts,” OLLI director Susan Hoffman introduced Linda Haverty Rugg, campus associate vice chancellor for research, as the speaker.

Rugg began by acknowledging the land as belonging to the Ohlone people, as Strawberry Creek was the site of their settlement. Rugg said campus’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, or the Hearst Museum, holds ancestral remains of 9,594 Native American individuals but noted this number as a likely “significant undercount.”

Rugg added that Native American people were previously treated as a “dying race,” and the development of anthropology as a discipline added to the desire to collect and study Native American remains. This notion and the trend of curating collections are both reasons why UC Berkeley became one of the country’s largest collections of Native American remains and sacred artifacts, according to Rugg.

“The essential point here is that the development of the collection was a response to the belief in the scientific value of Native American bodies and artifacts without regard to the feelings of Native American surviving people, and it was part of the university’s culture and academic practice,” Rugg said during the event.

From the 1870s to the 1930s, collection of Native American artifacts during this “collection mania” was encouraged by the UC system, according to Rugg. Alfred Louis Kroeber, the former namesake for what is now the Anthropology and Art Practice building, became the Hearst Museum director and planned to search the entire state for remains and artifacts, Rugg added.

Rugg said it was not until the 1960s to 1980s that large activism started pressing for change; the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, required inventories of ancestors and belongings to be sent to tribes and the federal government.

However, the Hearst Museum did not submit the inventories until 2000 due to its understaffing and its records being in “terrible shape,” according to Rugg.

When going through the inventory, NAGPRA required the categorization of each item as “culturally affiliated” or “culturally unidentified” to establish rights to a federally recognized tribe, Rugg noted. The NAGPRA Advisory Committee, which was made up of museum curators until 2017, would look over the list and allow time for tribes to submit more supporting evidence.

Rugg said she saw a case where a tribe submitted a case 14 years ago and felt they were being stalled as they were asked to continuously submit more information.

“There was a very clear tendency to favor scientific or academic arguments over those of Native Americans who had traditional knowledge, for example, or who would bring their own historical knowledge,” Rugg said during the event.

According to Rugg, in 2018, California passed a measure that established more oversight for NAGPRA follow-through, including consultations with the tribes that were not federally recognized. A committee with strong Native American representation was appointed to write a UC-wide policy focusing on repatriation, supported by former UC president Janet Napolitano and Chancellor Carol Christ, Rugg said.

While discussing the unnaming of Kroeber Hall, Rugg said memorialization of a person in a building name represents an idea symbolized by that person. Rugg acknowledged those who say that Kroeber did important linguistic research, but she reiterated that he urged the collection and measurement of Native American ancestors.

According to Rugg, the goal is not to paint Kroeber as a villain but rather to acknowledge history as a shared responsibility.

“Unnaming becomes an act of naming. We’re naming the racist underpinings of what motivated the amassing of a collection of ancestral remains of people who had been disrespected, disregarded, disenfranchised — that’s what we’re naming,” Rugg said during the event.

Contact Dina Katgara at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @dinakatgara.