BERKELEY — In a dimly lit UC Berkeley basement, a trove of 9,000 human skeletons has sparked a battle between two professors that is so bitter it has soured the campus' relations with California Indians and raised questions about its compliance with federal law.
"I haven't seen this level of viciousness before, and you should remember that I was working in the Clinton White House," said Jay Stowsky, UC's director of research and policy.
For more than three years, Stowsky has vainly struggled to make peace between Timothy D. White, a world-renowned anthropologist, and archeologist Rosemary Joyce, director of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
Their battle has reverberated beyond the campus to universities across the nation struggling to balance the needs of science against the legal and moral claims of Native American tribes to their ancestral remains and religious objects.
To the outrage of several California tribes, White uses a large collection of human bones, many of them Native American, as teaching tools in his classes.
For years, Native Americans have fought to remove their ancestors' bones from classrooms, and few universities still allow their use. After Congress passed a 1990 repatriation act, most universities withdrew Native American bones from classrooms and restricted research on the bones, although the act did not forbid such uses.
But White, one of the world's premier scholars on human origins, has refused to give up the collection he checked out years ago from the campus museum.
To do so, he said, would be to shortchange the people of California, especially students of osteology, the study of bone structure and function.
"If Native American remains are made unavailable for the program, I can't teach anybody about those Native Americans, because those remains are gone. Then my students are robbed of an ability to learn," said White, who made a name in anthropology by participating in the discovery of Lucy, the ancient hominid found in Ethiopia in the 1970s.
The professor has resisted a demand by Joyce that the bones--both Indian and non-Indian--be returned to the Hearst. He has filed a complaint with Berkeley's Academic Senate, alleging that she is infringing on his academic freedom.
Settlement Leaves No One Pleased
Pending a full hearing, the senate has brokered an agreement among White, Joyce and the administration that lets him keep the bones and gives the museum access to them several hours a day. The arrangement satisfies neither White, Joyce nor Native Americans.
"Berkeley has decided that they will care less about the religious beliefs, the cultural beliefs of Native Americans and about how they got hold of these remains than they do this professor," said Larry Myers, executive secretary of California's Native American Heritage Commission.
White's insistence on keeping the bones, Joyce and Berkeley administrators say, has damaged the museum's efforts to build good relations with tribes that federal law now gives final say in disposition of remains.
Joyce said her colleague also has complicated the museum's efforts to keep its unique collection of remains and Indian objects intact, dimming chances that the university might negotiate a compromise with tribes.
"The great tragedy of this for me is that in the end, we may end up losing more than we otherwise might have," she said.
Many scholars share White's concerns that universities--fearful of the political fallout of confronting the tribes--have been too quick to hand over remains since the repatriation law was passed. But few have been as dogged as White.
"Good for him," said Robson Bonnichsen, head of Oregon State University's Center for the Study of the First Americans. "Most universities have a politically correct agenda. Most do not want to affect Native American enrollment. And most professors have the backbone of a jellyfish. So they don't fight this."
Bonnichsen is one of eight prominent anthropologists suing to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from turning over to the Umatilla tribe a 9,300-year-old skeleton that was discovered two years ago near the Washington town of Kennewick. The corps controls the site where the so-called Kennewick Man was discovered. The Umatilla, of northeastern Oregon, have claimed the skeleton for reburial.
No other scholar has sued the government over the issue, but anthropologists say that the law has caused controversy on many campuses.
"What is going on at Berkeley is unique, but only in the sense of how far it has gone," said Lynne Goldstein, chairwoman of the anthropology department at Michigan State University, who investigated the dispute between Joyce and White last year at the UC president's request. "It is not unique in the sense that there are many other universities--probably most--where there are big disagreements about how [repatriation] is done."