Current Affairs



       A recent year-long investigation by ProPublica and NBC News confirmed what is widely known on the UC Berkeley campus: Cal is the least compliant with the 1990 federal law that ordered the university to speedily repatriate these remains to their biological and cultural descendants. In response to this in-depth reporting, university administrators declined an interview and instead issued an unsigned, callously unreflective statement promising to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) by 2033 ­ – forty-three years after passage of the federal legislation.

For the past three years I have been doing research for the Berkeley Truth and Justice Project, trying to understand how a university that brands itself an advocate of social justice sidesteps any controversial issues that might disrupt inspirational narratives marketed to prospective students and alumni. Its public relations strategy relies on tactics honed in corporate boardrooms and political think tanks – damage control, procrastination, and diversion of system-wide issues into bureaucratic silos.

The university justified the plunder of Native patrimony in the name of scientific racism and preserving the culture of a “disappearing race,” while it ignored the survivors of genocide and their descendants who organized stubborn resistance, ranging from polite petitions to rambunctious confrontations.  As early as 1906, the Yokayo Rancheria in northern California hired a high-powered law firm to threaten charges against the University of California if they did not return their ancestors’ remains excavated by Berkeley anthropologists. When a local newspaper reported that “Grave Robbers May Have to Answer for Crime,” Cal quickly complied. Today, Tribes continue to speak out against what Sam Cohen of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians characterizes as “the number one bad actor” in the state: UC Berkeley.

Academia, I’ve learned, functions not just in the service of power but as a powerful institution in its own right. This is what has permitted the university – despite multiple State audits excoriating Berkeley’s noncompliance with NAGPRA –  to continue to sit on the largest collection of unrepatriated Native American remains in the United States, possibly the largest in the world. Cal’s refusal to honor the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is one of many examples of its callous disregard for the human cost of knowledge.

As I recently walked through the Berkeley campus – past buildings, statues, and plaques that celebrate the appropriation of Native homelands to finance the University of California; that dignify entrepreneurs who built their fortunes from the plunder of war and conquest; that erase Cal’s significant role in usurping tribal lands in New Mexico in order to build and deploy the first weapon of mass destruction against Japanese civilians; and that enshrine academics who polished their careers by making white supremacy respectable – I was reminded of Yurok Judge Abby Abinanti’s admonition that “the hardest mistakes to correct are those that are ingrained.”

March inaugurated Cal Berkeley’s Big Give campaign to raise millions of dollars in donations to a university dedicated to “making the world a better place.” How about a Big Give Back campaign also, starting with compensating the Tribes and Native organizations whose land, blood, ancestors, cultural heritage, and traditional knowledge are inseparably tied to the university’s origins and rise to global prominence? Returning thousands of human cadavers and hundreds of thousands ceremonial artifacts – pillaged from Indigenous burial grounds from Egypt to the San Francisco Bay Area – would be a good place to begin a process of apology, justice, and reparations.

In addition to a Big Give Back campaign that compensates the victims of the university’s success, we also must do everything we can, in the words of civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, to “bring this thing out to the light.” Cal Berkeley cultivates a culture of forgetfulness reminiscent of Turkey’s officially mandated amnesia about the genocide of Armenians in the early 20th century and Spain’s “collective pact of forgetting” after the death of Franco. It applies its slogan “Fiat Lux” — let there be light — everywhere but to itself.  The “greatest public university in the world” needs to illuminate its own dark past.

To paraphrase Langston Hughes, our challenge is to make the university into a place “that never has been yet/And yet must be.” Whatever steps are taken to do justice to history, the process must involve the active, substantial, and equitable involvement of Tribes and Native organizations whose ancestors’ lives and deaths constitute the university’s material and cultural foundations.


Originally published, in a shorter vision as “It’s Time for Cal to Return Native American Remains,” in Berkeleyside, March 28, 2023.

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