The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was Congress's attempt to reach a compromise between scientists and Native Americans over the fate of about 200,000 remains believed to be held in museums and by federal agencies.
The act stirs passions because so much is at stake. It set a 1995 deadline for more than 1,000 museums receiving federal funding and federal agencies with Native American collections to inventory remains and funerary objects in consultation with federally recognized tribes. Once materials were found to be affiliated with a modern tribe, it was left up to the tribe to decide their fate. Many have chosen simply to rebury the materials.
About 10,000 remains have been handed over to tribes nationwide. But the vast majority are still in collections, said Tim McKeown, team leader for the National Park Service's unit charged with overseeing compliance with the law.
Although there have been disputes, McKeown said, the act generally has achieved its goal of promoting cooperation among academics, curators and Native Americans. In many instances, tribes have chosen to leave remains with museums or federal agencies rather than rebury them.
Berkeley's the Hot Spot
Within the UC system, no campus has as much trouble as Berkeley in applying the law. UCLA's anthropology faculty voted unanimously to turn over its entire teaching collection of bones to the university's anthropology museum, although the bones could not be traced to any tribe. Some anthropologists criticized the move, saying that it forced the department to drop osteology courses.
UCLA's anthropologists "were clearly reacting to the political sensitivity of using human remains and of having them be handled by undergraduates in a classroom context," said Glenn Russell, head of UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
UC Santa Barbara spent seven years negotiating an agreement with the Chumash tribe that allows the university to keep most of its collection of 2,500 Chumash remains in an underground storage room and use them for research. The Chumash retain the right to claim the bones, said professor Phillip Walker.
A Rancorous History
But few collections in the nation are as large and as complex as the Hearst's. Founded in 1901, the museum has long had difficult relations with California Indians.
"It has been, for the Indian community, more than any other museum, the center of controversy, conflict and intense interest for years," said Malcolm Margolin, who publishes News From Native California, a quarterly magazine.
"Indian culture was in the process of destruction and these guys were collecting and collecting. For years, they also had a policy that Indians were not really given access to the collections. They were the domain of academics."
Joyce, a respected archeologist of Mesoamerican civilization, was hired from Harvard University as museum director in 1994. Berkeley's administrators say that her mandate was to improve relations with Native American tribes, to more broadly consult with them on the museum's collection and to ensure that the museum complied with the repatriation act.
Immediately, Joyce said, she ran into resistance from professors who had curated the museum as though it were their private club. Chief among her detractors was White, the curator of osteology.
Joyce said she is devastated by White's relentless assault on her credibility. "When I came here, I had an excellent professional reputation. He has accused me of committing federal crimes."
Before Joyce recalled the bones from White, he accused her of falsely applying for an extension of the museum's inventory deadline, of improperly expanding consultations on the museum's collection to non-federally recognized tribes, and of misspending more than $1 million to redo an inventory he said he completed in the 1980s.
White complained to the university, then to the UC president's office and to the federal government. Although his accusations were found to be baseless, he lodged a complaint with the Academic Senate, contending in part that Joyce recalled the teaching collection as retaliation.
"He sees himself in the role of the only one willing to fight for these collections," said Linda Fabbri, Berkeley's assistant vice chancellor for research.
The protracted battle has been too much for Reba Fuller, a Sierra Me-Wuk Indian who for 11 months helped the Hearst inventory its collection.
Fuller left the museum last year, disgusted by the standoff with White. The former intern says that she still hopes the university will reclaim the teaching collection, and that she will resume her work in the museum's annex, where human remains are stored in wooden trays, stacked inside 8-foot-high steel lockers.
"It was terribly shocking, the first time I saw that annex, and I never got used to it," said Fuller. Hardest to accept, she said, was the fact that single skeletons were often divided among different trays and that bones were still used for teaching.