UC Berkeley rests on Ohlone land and the remains of more than 10,000 Native Americans forcibly exhumed in the name of science. The campus has not fully recognized its harmful role in a long history of indigenous erasure.
In the early 1900s, UC Berkeley anthropologist Alfred Kroeber displayed a Native American man from the Yahi tribe in the Museum of Anthropology, and named him “Ishi.” Ishi died just five years later, after which his brain was used for eugenics-based research.
When the state legislature attempted to push through a bill that would begin the process of returning the artifacts to Native American tribes, the University of California lobbied against it, saying it would obstruct its research.
Now, repatriation only occurs through a federal law with far less teeth than the state law would have had.
As of 2013, UC Berkeley had repatriated a dismal 3 percent of its collection of 10,000 remains — that for years were stored in a dingy space beneath Hearst Gym since at least the early 1960s. Lalo Franco, cultural heritage director of the Tachi Yokut tribe, called their resting place “a dungeon” in the LA Times.
In 2007, the campus disbanded a special unit charged with mediating between tribes and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, a move meant to improve collaboration with tribes. But the move, made without consulting tribes or Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act representatives, was criticized for having the opposite effect, and stoked protests
Robert Price, former associate vice chancellor for research, said in 2008 that tribes were excluded from the review process because they lacked experience in museum operations.
The dismissive, insensitive remarks and actions by UC Berkeley administrators does not bode well for future repentance.
The campus has issued a few apologies, but that isn’t enough. UC Berkeley cannot even begin to work to repair the damage it has done without paying due attention to its history of racist practices. Tony Platt, a professor of justice studies at San Jose State University, wrote in an LA Times op-ed that the university “owes at the very least 10,000 more apologies.”
Beyond apologies, the campus must make real effort to speed up and financially support the repatriation process. It must fight for native peoples’ representation in the bodies that oversee repatriation, and in the student and faculty bodies at large. But instead, it has slashed institutional support for indigenous students, cutting the Native American Student Development office’s budget from $27,000 to $14,000 for the 2017-18 academic year.
There are few indigenous students on UC Berkeley’s campus, and looking back at its dark history, it’s no surprise. UC Berkeley senior Ron Spencer told The Daily Californian he and other Native American students struggle constantly just to ensure their narratives are not completely excluded from conversations.
The campus and the UC must make a concerted effort to seek out and listen to indigenous students, faculty and community members as a first step. They have a long way to go.