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Native Americans say Berkeley is no place for their ancestors

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

"We didn't go out and seek a Native American because what we were trying to study, Native American tribes would have had no knowledge or expertise to bring to the table," he said. "They don't know how museums are organized or how our staff relates to each other or many of those questions."

The two-professor committee recommended abolishing the unit, which the university did a few weeks later.

Since then, relations between the tribes and school have deteriorated.

Fredericks and her husband, Corbin Collins, have organized a coalition of tribes opposed to the museum reorganization. Berkeley officials accuse Collins, who is not Native American, of masterminding a smear campaign against the university, a contention he denies.

Strife damages relations

Chancellor Birgeneau has refused to meet with tribal leaders, something they regard as an insult.

In November, the National Congress of American Indians, the largest national organization of Native Americans, called for an investigation into whether Berkeley has violated federal law in its handling of the remains.

Recognizing in September that the controversy was damaging relations with the Native American community, Berkeley brought in a heavyweight, former UC Provost C. Judson King, as interim museum director.

King acknowledges that Berkeley has mishandled the reorganization. "The native community with some justification is very prone to feeling itself left out and not being given participation," he said.

King said he hopes to make the repatriation law "user friendly" and overcome the animosity between the two sides. "You can't have people sending such harsh things back and forth without resentment building up," he said.

In the small Central Valley town of Lemoore, the Tachi Yokut tribe has received the remains of about 1,000 individuals from various collectors, including UCLA and San Francisco State. Franco, the tribe's cultural heritage director, said the California Department of Parks and Recreation returned one skeleton believed to be thousands of years old. The Hearst has returned the bones of about 80 individuals, but the tribe is seeking about 600 more.

At the town cemetery, the tribe has set aside a small, dusty parcel as a new burial ground for the recovered remains. Franco says there is no need for science to study their ancestors' bones to prove that their people originally walked across a land bridge from Asia. The Tachi Yokut know from their tribal creation story where they come from: the San Joaquin Valley.

"They dismiss our stories and say that what we believe are myths, but for us they are the truths of how we came about," he said. "If they want to know who we are, they can ask us."

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richard.paddock@latimes.com

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Back story

Native American tribes hoping to obtain remains of their ancestors from UC Berkeley's Phoebe A. Hearst Museum face a long and complicated process, often conducted out of public view. When a tribe makes a claim, it must summarize the tribal and scholarly evidence. Once the claim is filed, it goes to the UC Berkeley Repatriation Committee, which is made up primarily of academics and has no Native American representative. If the committee approves a claim, it goes to a systemwide eight-member panel that includes representatives from six UC campuses that have Native American collections. That panel has two Native American members. Typically, members of both panels meet in private without public notice or confer by telephone and e-mail.

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