UC Berkeley Hearst Museum repatriates 20 remains to Wiyot tribe

photo of Anthropology and Art Practice Building, UC Berkeley Campus
William Webster/Staff
The UC Berkeley Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, with facilitation from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, repatriated 20 remains and 136 cultural artifacts to the Wiyot tribe.

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The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facilitated the repatriation of 20 remains and 136 cultural artifacts to the Wiyot tribe from UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

The 20 remains were some of the 150 to 250 Wiyot lives lost in the 1860 Indian Island Massacre, according to John Dougherty, campus lecturer in Native American studies. The remains were unearthed in 1953 during the development of a waterway in the Humboldt region and later taken to UC Berkeley, where they were held at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology for the past 70 years.

“The Wiyot remains are part of a long and complicated and uncomfortable history of the early days of California genocide,” Dougherty said. 

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, requires museums and federal agencies to compose inventories of Indigenous remains and assess repatriation requests.

In the past, UC Berkeley lacked proactivity in its repatriation efforts, according to Thomas Torma, campus NAGPRA liaison.

“Tribal claims were often rejected even when tribes produced evidence that should have been accepted as sufficient proof,” Torma said in an email.

The former campus NAGPRA committee initially rejected the Wiyot claim in 2016 but reevaluated the case when it was reintroduced in 2021, according to Torma. He accredits the change in decision to the NAGPRA committee’s restructuring in 2018, a UC Office of the President policy change and an overall shift in philosophy from campus.

Tribal liaison for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sarafina Maraschino described procedural setbacks when determining the cultural affiliation of the remains. These included “moving parts” between three agencies and a yearlong repatriation notice to allow other Indigenous tribes time to respond. Cultural affiliation for the Wiyot tribe was determined by Kathleen Ungvarsky in 2008, according to Maraschino.

“As a museum we want to acknowledge the pain our institution has caused and work to offer a meaningful apology,” said Lauren Kroiz, faculty curator at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, in an email.

Dougherty noted the ongoing dispute between the scientific and cultural value of the 10,000 Indigenous remains in UC Berkeley’s collection.

Although the present repatriation is a “step in the right direction,” Dougherty added many other Indigenous communities are still trying to gain access to their remains, and a lot more work needs to be done.

“The fact that these are community members, family members, and relatives — that certainly outweighs the alleged scientific value that they have,” Dougherty said. 

Kroiz recognized the museum’s collections were made possible by genocide.

Moving forward, Kroiz said the museum hopes to foster collaboration with Indigenous peoples by creating a site for inclusivity, justice and education. 

“These are the remains of the Wiyot people and they belong with the tribe,” Maraschino said.

Contact Lily Button at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @lilybutton27.