Senators accuse UC – Berkeley of discrimination and secrecy over ancestral remains

In a powerful show of support, state senators are rebuking the University of California – Berkeley for refusing to return thousands of Native human remains held in storage, calling the actions of university officials discriminatory.

Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, chairman of the Senate Committee on Governmental Organization, said in a Feb. 27 letter addressed to UC – Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau that he had been inclined to give university officials ”the benefit of the doubt,” but he was ”appalled” after testimonies at a hearing at the state Capitol Feb. 26.

University officials ”systematically” excluded Natives from ”having any involvement” in a decision to eliminate a unit at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology – which houses the second-largest Native collection in the nation – that had helped tribes reclaim ancestral items under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

”UC – Berkeley officials have acted secretly and without transparency to circumvent the mandates and the spirit of federal and state NAGPRA laws,” Florez wrote in the letter, provided to Indian Country Today by a protest coalition representing 400,000 tribal members.

Florez is urging Birgeneau to meet with tribal leaders within 30 days. During the hearing, he had questioned why university officials have repeatedly refused to work directly with tribes and to meet with tribal leaders (even after they marched to his office this past fall).

Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said at the hearing the university was discriminating against Natives by keeping more than 12,000 human remains in drawers and cabinets under the swimming pool of the Hearst Gymnasium. Steinberg, who is not a committee member but participated in the hearing, said the university is not respecting repatriation procedures under the federal NAGPRA and a similar state law he wrote in 2001.

”If there were remains of my ancestors, European Americans, in the Hearst Museum at one of the most respected universities in the country, there would be an absolute outcry from people, and I guarantee you something would be done about it quickly,” Steinberg said, the Los Angeles Times reported. ”But because they’re Native American remains, somehow it is different.”

The Hearst Museum houses more than 200,000 Native ancestral items. It is required under NAGPRA to identify the Native items in its collection and return them to tribes. There are more than 620,000 Natives in California, according to the 2000 U.S. Census, and more than 107 California tribes.

But the university has claimed for decades that a majority of its collection cannot be linked to modern tribes. It has so far returned only the bones of about 260 individuals since submitting an initial, incomplete inventory of its Native collections in 1996.

After the federal NAGPRA review committee expressed concern in 1999 about difficulties Natives were having regarding UC – Berkeley’s compliance, a unique five-member museum unit was set up, with three Native members, to help facilitate the return of remains.

Claims under NAGPRA are ultimately determined by the campus repatriation committee (which Natives complain is dominated by research scientists). Lalo Franco, the cultural heritage director for the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut Tribe, testified that UC – Berkeley has fallen short of complying with NAGPRA in numerous cases, because university scientists ”hold a professional stake in keeping these ancestors at the university for their own research purposes.”

Franco accused museum staff of ”intentionally dragging their feet,” in a written testimony provided to ICT.

He and other Natives were outraged when the university eliminated the museum’s NAGPRA unit this past summer during reorganization efforts – without consulting tribes – basing its decision on a review by two non-Native archaeologists.

Former interim NAGPRA unit director Larri Fredericks said the review ”was a set-up, intended to give legitimacy to a decision that had already been made. Tribes were excluded because they would have seen that decision for what it was: a coup by museum scientists.”

Before the review had begun, Fredericks had asked UC administrators to include a Native on the panel. In response, Vice Chancellor Beth Burnside, who oversaw the reorganization, wrote a memo to a subordinate suggesting that ”in a worst-case scenario” he could ask for a list of tribal visits and take a random sample by phone.

”That would give them input but not go near the idea they should be on the review committee,” she wrote in a May 17, 2007, e-mail provided to ICT by coalition members. ”That’s an absolute no. Maybe better to stonewall altogether but I see blackmail here that she’s threatening to stir them up if we do do what she wants. We should definitely not go there.”

Burnside, who testified at the hearing on behalf of the university, was questioned about the memo, which she mistakenly also sent to Fredericks. She admitted writing it but said some people have ”misinterpreted” the e-mail as insensitive, while she ”meant no disrespect for the Native American community,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

But few tribal leaders and coalition members believe that, using words like ”racism” and ”discrimination” during their testimonies. Archaeologist Mark Hall, a former member of the NAGPRA unit, testified that the process the UC system has put into place for Native tribes to file a claim is ”a source of disgust” – a much more formal and complex written application than those required by federal agencies.

Hall also said a report by a former NAGPRA coordinator found 48 percent of the museum’s inventories were done without full review of documents available, adding, ”While technically legal, is it really ethical and moral?”

University officials maintain the elimination of the museum unit in June was an administrative decision. The museum now plans to follow the model of other universities by incorporating NAGPRA responsibilities within the duties of the entire museum staff.

But Natives here immediately organized a concerted protest effort that this week reached the state Capitol. They are requesting a complete reversal of the decision.

Of the 60 tribal leaders at the hearing, several testified about solutions to future such problems including a formal consultation process between the UC system and tribal governments that would require tribal input on programs or initiatives that affect tribes.

”NAGPRA is a human rights issue – not a ‘museum efficiency issue,”’ said Otis Parrish, a Kashia Pomo elder and NAGPRA Cultural Attache at UC – Berkeley for nine years.

Florez said in his letter that he is awaiting a reply within the next two weeks from Birgeneau regarding how the university plans to proceed.

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