UC Berkeley campus (via Kevin Gong on Flickr)

OAKLAND, Calif. — The University of California and campuses, including Berkeley, failed to comply with laws for returning Native American human remains and artifacts, according to a new California auditor report. As a result, the schools have delayed the repatriation of ancestors and objects stolen from indigenous gravesites.

The audit assessed the school system’s compliance with the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and its state counterpart, laws that require government agencies and museums to repatriate remains and cultural objects to related tribes. 

UC Berkeley and its Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, which stores one of the country’s largest collections of Native American remains and funerary objects, has returned only 20% of some 500,000 artifacts, the lowest percentage of the audited campuses. For comparison, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has returned almost all of its artifacts.

Berkeley also regularly required tribes to submit evidence beyond geographic evidence and oral history to prove tribal affiliation, the audit found, one of the UC system’s inconsistent practices slowing repatriation. Committees created to oversee the process also lack the tribal representation required by law. 

NAGPRA, enacted in 1990, recognizes tribal ownership of materials excavated with blatant disregard for native customs and preferences, and sometimes used to promote racist pseudoscience, yet the audit suggests some major institutions remain hesitant to comply.  

Phenocia Bauerle, director of Native American Student Development at UC Berkeley, is not surprised by the report’s findings. In an interview, she said American society continues to confine indigenous people to the past, rendering them invisible in a sort of “collective amnesia.” Hence universities invest more in Native American artifacts than living Native Americans. 

“Non-native people are always shocked to learn it was standard to loot graves,” Bauerle said, referring to the origins of institutional collections such as the Hearst Museum of Anthropology.

“What people in museums don’t understand is NAGPRA is really a human rights law, giving tribal communities the right to ask for their people back — it’s about people who were taken.”  

The report echoes other longstanding frustrations of Native Americans, Bauerle said. Requiring tribes to submit additional evidence with their claims, for example, delegitimizes native culture. “It’s insulting to tribal communities because it places research by academics over the traditional knowledge of the people they’re talking about just because they didn’t write it down,” she said.   

Linda Rugg, associate vice chancellor of research and deputy NAGPRA officer at UC Berkeley, acknowledged some of the report’s criticisms in her statement to Hyperallergic. Asking tribes to supplement geographic or traditional knowledge with evidence that the campus committee considered “more scientific” was “disrespectful of the tribe’s own beliefs and traditional history and unnecessarily slowed the campus repatriation process,” she said.

According to Rugg, the University of California is completing a new policy to facilitate repatriation in collaboration with tribal stakeholders. Berkeley will also hire a NAGPRA liaison by this summer, she said, and form a new committee with representatives from California tribes by November. 

NAGPRA only applies to federally recognized tribes, which excludes many in California, including the Ohlone people of the Bay Area. State legislation passed in 2001 and 2018 aims to extend NAGPRA to all California tribes, and Rugg said the UC’s new systemwide policy will recognize the need to return “ancestors and sacred objects to non-federally recognized tribes.” 

Even if Berkeley fully complied with the letter of NAGPRA, Bauerle said, work would still remain for the university to repair relations with and right historic wrongs against Native Americans. (Representatives of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, whose unceded territory encompasses modern Berkeley, did not respond to an interview request.)

The Hearst Museum of Anthropology’s original San Francisco location was the place where Ishi, a Native American man from the Yahi tribe who was arrested in Northern California, lived from 1911 until his death in 1916 as a tourist attraction, demonstrating native crafts for visitors. Although the museum’s website describes Ishi as an employee and a collaborator of anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, noting it “still cares for the objects he made during his residency,” critics say Ishi’s zoo-like captivity casts a long, dark shadow on Berkeley’s indigenous relations.

Sam Lefebvre (@Lefebvre_Sam) is a freelance writer in Oakland whose journalism and criticism have appeared in publications including the Guardian, the New York Times, the Wire, Pitchfork, the Believer,...

One reply on “UC Berkeley Has Only Returned 20% of Its Native American Artifacts and Remains”

  1. I was a member of the legislative committee of the American association of museums when Dan Monroe headed a committee to study the issue. At the time. he was director of the Oregon historical society. He has been ceo of the Essex museum where he revolutionized the museum.

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