Update 9/18/22: This article has been updated to reflect information provided by UC Berkeley professors and scholars.
UC Berkeley has repatriated 1,000 of approximately 10,000 Indigenous remains 32 years after the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA.
According to Tony Platt, a scholar at the UC Berkeley Center for the Study of Law and Society, NAGPRA requires institutions such as UC Berkeley to conduct an inventory of its Indigenous remains and artifacts and publish it in the Federal Register so Native tribes can request a repatriation.
“California has been very central to this process of digging up the native dead without permission so this legislation was a very big deal when it was passed,” Platt said.
Although NAGPRA was passed in 1990 by Congress, Platt said the legislation did not permit nonfederally recognized tribes to file for repatriation until 2020 with the passage of Assembly Bill 275.
The original legislation also put most of the responsibility on Native tribes to initiate the process of repatriation, according to campus law professor Jonathan Simon.
“Like a lot of laws, NAGPRA puts too much burden on the injured class to initiate and drive the process,” Simon said.
The repatriation process requires resources, including specialists and lawyers, that nonfederally recognized tribes lack, Platt noted.
As a result of these limitations, the Native American Heritage Commission issued a 16-page report on the university’s proposed revisions of its repatriation policies, calling for compliance with AB 275, full consultation with tribes and adequate staffing of the campus’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
The museum was established in 1901, but the museum’s faculty curator of art and photography Lauren Kroiz noted that it inherited collections of Native American ancestors and artifacts that had been collected on campus beginning in the 1870s. Under NAGPRA, Hearst Museum no longer receives new collections of Native American artifacts, but it can still receive contemporary artistic items, according to Kroiz.
“The museum is no longer managing repatriation of Native American artifacts, although we are supporting (UC Berkeley’s) office of Government and Community Relations to move forward the important work of repatriation,” Kroiz said.
Although many of the obstacles from the old policy have been removed, campus spokesperson Dan Mogulof said in an email that the repatriation process is still “slow.”
It may take a couple of months to process one claim since the campus has to collaborate with Native tribes to ensure they are making the correct determinations and giving them the opportunity to examine the objects and human remains, Mogulof added.
“The campus respects these differences and is thus supporting a NAGPRA process that is tribally led, and defers to each tribe’s preferred timetable,” Mogulof said in the email.
Despite these initiatives, many challenges still remain in the process of repatriation. This includes determining an accurate inventory count of Indigenous remains and artifacts due to the “negligent” way in which they were originally sourced, according to Platt.
A 2020 state audit revealed that campus holds approximately 10,000 Indigenous remains, but Platt’s research suggests the number could be at least double that.
When Indigenous remains were removed from their original burial site and brought to campus, the body parts of different individuals were separated by category which made it difficult for campus to determine an accurate count, according to Platt.
“I also found that for every human remain that they removed from the grave and brought back to Berkeley, they dumped at least two other human remains back into pits where they died,” Platt alleged.
While Simon alleged the inventory records of Indigenous remains were not “meticulously kept,” he suggested that there needs to be efforts to identify the origins of each person and a greater effort by campus to memorialize them.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers facilitated the repatriation of 20 of about 200 remains from the lives lost in the 1860 Indian Island massacre, along with 136 cultural artifacts repatriated to the Wiyot tribe from the Hearst Museum.
“The evidence is pretty clear that it was not just an empty space on which our campus could be built,” Simon said. “It was one of the more desirable spots for Native Americans living here.”
Besides repatriation, campus has sought to repair its relationship with Indigenous tribes by hiring several new faculty members in the Native American Studies Department, among other disciplines, as well as establishing the Native Community Center on campus last year.
“The Chancellor has identified repatriation – that is, the return of Native American ancestors and sacred objects to tribes – as a critical priority for campus, allocating significant resources to that effort,” Mogulof said in the email.
When UC Berkeley was established, it sought to distinguish itself as a globally recognized school through the collection of Indigenous remains and artifacts in competition with institutions such as the British Museum and the Smithsonian, according to Simon.
It was also part of an effort to understand the supposed biological differences between Native Americans and white settlers, something Platt describes as “scientific racism.”
“The argument was that people of color, Africans and Indigenous people and so on, were somehow biologically different and inferior to white civilization,” Platt said. “There has been no deep reflection about why this happened or how it happened.”
Since 2020, campus has completed approximately 35 repatriations, including ones that were previously stalled or delayed, that includes the transfer of approximately 1,000 ancestors and 50,000 sacred objects, according to Mogulof.
For students interested in the repatriation of Indigenous remains and artifacts, Kroiz said they can check the Hearst Museum’s website for volunteer opportunities.
“We have to have a dignified place of return to the earth,” Simon said. “Nobody wants the haunting of the UC Berkeley campus by unjustly uprooted remains.”