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Native Americans say Berkeley is no place for their ancestors

January 13, 2008|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

berkeley -- There is a legend at UC Berkeley that human bones are stored in the landmark Campanile tower. But university officials say that's not true.

The human bones are actually stored beneath the Hearst Gymnasium swimming pool.

The remains of about 12,000 Native Americans lie in drawers and cabinets in the gym's basement. Most of them were dug up by university archaeologists and have been stored under the pool since at least the early 1960s.

Now the bones are at the center of a dispute between Native Americans, who want to rebury their ancestors, and university officials, who have been slow to hand over the remains. Some tribal leaders contend that the university is violating a federal law that governs the repatriation of artifacts and remains.

"We don't appreciate them keeping our ancestors locked up in a drawer," said Ted Howard, cultural resources director of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes. "This is a human rights issue to the tribes. All we're asking for is to be treated fairly."

Similar disputes have played out elsewhere, but Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement, is widely regarded as a bastion of liberalism. Since 1992, the city of Berkeley has celebrated Indigenous People's Day instead of Columbus Day. But at UC Berkeley, the debate over the bones has turned ugly.

The bones, along with 400,000 Native American artifacts, are held by UC's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, which has a small exhibit space on campus but one of the largest collections of human remains in the U.S. outside a cemetery.

Under the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the museum is required to identify the tribal origins of its bones and artifacts and return them to federally recognized tribes that request them. So far, the museum has repatriated the bones of about 260 individuals.

The museum's possession of so many remains troubles Indians who believe that the spirits of their ancestors cannot rest until their bones are properly buried. Lalo Franco, cultural heritage director of the Tachi Yokut tribe, calls the bones' current resting place "a dungeon" and the scientists who took them "grave robbers with a license."

Controversy over the remains has been fueled by the museum's decision in June to disband the small unit that handled the job of reuniting the remains with their tribes and to incorporate that task into overall museum operations.

UC officials say the reorganization was necessary because the unit was "dysfunctional" and plagued by personnel problems. But some tribal representatives contend that the museum got rid of the unit because its interim coordinator, Native American anthropologist Larri Fredericks, was too helpful to the tribes.

Berkeley administrators deny that they are improperly keeping the bones and say they are moving to repatriate them as quickly as the complex law allows. They also say that the museum reorganization will benefit the tribes by involving all museum staff in the repatriation process.

"We have followed the law and will follow the law," UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau said.

Birgeneau, who is of mixed native and Canadian ancestry, says Berkeley is the victim of a "campaign of vilification" by a small group of critics. He fears that the uproar will damage its effort to increase Native American enrollment and attract donations from wealthier tribes.

"It's going to take us some time to recover from this, and I really am concerned about the damage done to possible educational opportunities for Native American people," he said.

Campus protest

Representatives of dozens of tribes demonstrated on campus in October to protest the museum reorganization and what they consider a lack of respect shown to the tribes.

"Why are the ancestors here? Why aren't they coming home?" Ron Alec, a Haslett Basin spiritual leader, asked as he stood on the steps of Sproul Hall and addressed hundreds of supporters. "We come from many tribes to be here, but in our heart we have the same sorrow. We want to take our ancestors home."

Some archaeologists find it difficult to accept the reburial of bones from their collections, especially specimens that are thousands of years old and might provide insights into human history.

But for many Native Americans, no scientific knowledge is worth the price of denying them burial.

The 1990 law, known by the acronym NAGPRA, was designed to bring the two sides together to consult on the remains case by case. But at UC, the scientists have the power to decide whether items held by the university are returned.

California had hundreds of tribes when Europeans arrived. But the 1849 Gold Rush triggered a slaughter that reduced the native population from 300,000 to 20,000 in about 50 years. Many tribes had so few survivors that they have been unable to win federal recognition.

Preserving a culture

The Hearst museum was founded in 1901 by Phoebe A. Hearst, UC's first female regent and mother of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst.

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