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Ironies of Memorial Stadium: Memorializing Indigenous history this month

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NOVEMBER 09, 2022

UC Berkeley football game days are a time where students, faculty and sport fans alike gather together at California Memorial Stadium to celebrate the campus in all of its glory. Situated within a public institution infamous for its prestige and continuous innovation, the so-called “progressive culture” that is UC Berkeley’s hallmark is contested by shocking historical information concerning the school’s disregarding of Indigenous peoples during the creation of the stadium. The name “California Memorial Stadium” implies the commemoration of individuals, but the question seems to be: the commemoration of whom? 

In 1923, UC comptroller Robert Gordon Sproul set the intentions of the naming of the stadium proceeding its completion, saying, “Deep rooted in the eternal hills, this memorial to the honored dead, here devoted to the service of the living, raises its noble crown into the clear California sky and stands in simple dignity, beauty and strength.” A website on the history of the stadium dedicates it “to University of California, Berkeley students, alumni and other Californians who lost their lives in World War I.” In spite of such virtuous remembrance, during the planning of the stadium’s construction of the Student Athlete High Performance Center, or SAHPC,  and earthquake retrofitting, protests as recent as 2008 urged for the school and Berkeley community to recognize Memorial Oak Grove as a sacred place for Indigenous people, even documented by campus’s own anthropology department. Such stark contrasts between Sproul’s eloquent statement compared to protester perspectives show there is more to the story than meets the eye. 

Memorial Stadium stands as an emblem of the campus’s extractivist, demoralizing tradition of disregarding Indigenous peoples and taking their land. Ultimately, UC Berkeley’s complete awareness of the sacred burial site in the making of Memorial Stadium convicts it of actively contributing to the erasure of Indigenous peoples. What is crucial moving forward is the recent call by Indigenous peoples for campus accountability to these communities and repatriation of their ancestral remains by the school.

In order to understand the significance of the land in which Memorial Stadium sits on, it is important to first revisit the makings of the stadium. During the construction of the stadium in January 1923, ancestral remains of an Indigenous person were found  Despite this, campus simply brushed over the fact that there were Indigenous remains present and continued to build the stadium. This is a clear indication the campus has not respected and cared for Indigenous peoples historically or presently. The fact of the matter is that the campus stopped at nothing to continue construction of the stadium, likely in the hopes it would serve as a moneymaker. Such abhorrent actions by UC Berkeley display that their priorities truly lie with making profits rather than memorializing individuals.

Further exploration of the stadium also points to how the campus invalidated the perspectives of Indigenous peoples. An assessment of the Memorial Stadium site by a purportedly independent archaeologist, James W. Allen, concludes there is no verifiable evidence for a burial ground at the site of the stadium and that such burial site is likely to be an isolated case. The conclusions of Allen are in complete juxtaposition to the reporting by the San Francisco Examiner in 1925, which said “several more” ancestral remains were found during the building of the stadium.  There is ample evidence revealing how the site and the area surrounding are sacred places for Indigenous peoples.

Although there is only one recorded burial of a Native American at the location, the campus has yet, in 2022, to fully acknowledge the damage it has done to Indigenous peoples through its building of the stadium. UC Berkeley’s explicit negligence of Indigenous rights showcases settler colonialism has never ceased to exist and continues to plague tribal communities such as the Ohlone people, on whose ancestral lands we reside. As we reflect on this continued attempt of erasure, Wounded Knee Deocampo from the Vallejo Intertribal Council encapsulates a Miwok perspective stating, “It is time to put a halt to digging up sacred sites. We would never dig up your cemeteries. These are sacred places as much as the pyramids of Egypt.”

​UC Berkeley is not as progressive as one might think. Instead, the making of California Memorial Stadium is a symbol of extractivism, environmental racism and erasure continuing to harm Indigenous communities. Looking to the future, it is with great hope that UC Berkeley students become more aware of such history and hold the campus accountable for their actions. As Corinna Gould — the spokesperson for the Confederated Villages of Lisjan, states, “These are sacred sites for the Ohlone. We are still living. We are not in the past.” 

May such Indigenous narratives be at the forefront of this continued movement and let us not stray from acknowledging the land in which we are on. Perhaps this Native American Heritage Month, UC Berkeley will finally issue a formal apology and begin recognizing the land on which we stand as Indigenous and sacred.

Corrections: A previous version of this article incorrectly said Indigenous remains were found in 2009 when UC Berkeley contracted William Self Associates, Inc. to conduct geoarchaeological testing. In fact, the remains were found in 1923 during construction of the stadium.
Arabela Cabebe is a UC Berkeley senior studying political science with a minor in human rights. Contact the opinion desk at [email protected] or follow us on Twitter.

NOVEMBER 12, 2022