Indian Remains Are Bones of Contention at Berkeley
In a dimly lit UC Berkeley basement, a trove of 9,000 human skeletons has sparked a battle between two professors that is so bitter it has soured the campus’ relations with California Indians and raised questions about its compliance with federal law.
“I haven’t seen this level of viciousness before, and you should remember that I was working in the Clinton White House,” said Jay Stowsky, UC’s director of research and policy.
For more than three years, Stowsky has vainly struggled to make peace between Timothy D. White, a world-renowned anthropologist, and archeologist Rosemary Joyce, director of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Museum of Anthropology.
Their battle has reverberated beyond the campus to universities across the nation struggling to balance the needs of science against the legal and moral claims of Native American tribes to their ancestral remains and religious objects.
To the outrage of several California tribes, White uses a large collection of human bones, many of them Native American, as teaching tools in his classes.
For years, Native Americans have fought to remove their ancestors’ bones from classrooms, and few universities still allow their use. After Congress passed a 1990 repatriation act, most universities withdrew Native American bones from classrooms and restricted research on the bones, although the act did not forbid such uses.
But White, one of the world’s premier scholars on human origins, has refused to give up the collection he checked out years ago from the campus museum.
To do so, he said, would be to shortchange the people of California, especially students of osteology, the study of bone structure and function.
“If Native American remains are made unavailable for the program, I can’t teach anybody about those Native Americans, because those remains are gone. Then my students are robbed of an ability to learn,” said White, who made a name in anthropology by participating in the discovery of Lucy, the ancient hominid found in Ethiopia in the 1970s.
The professor has resisted a demand by Joyce that the bones--both Indian and non-Indian--be returned to the Hearst. He has filed a complaint with Berkeley’s Academic Senate, alleging that she is infringing on his academic freedom.
Settlement Leaves No One Pleased
Pending a full hearing, the senate has brokered an agreement among White, Joyce and the administration that lets him keep the bones and gives the museum access to them several hours a day. The arrangement satisfies neither White, Joyce nor Native Americans.
“Berkeley has decided that they will care less about the religious beliefs, the cultural beliefs of Native Americans and about how they got hold of these remains than they do this professor,” said Larry Myers, executive secretary of California’s Native American Heritage Commission.
White’s insistence on keeping the bones, Joyce and Berkeley administrators say, has damaged the museum’s efforts to build good relations with tribes that federal law now gives final say in disposition of remains.
Joyce said her colleague also has complicated the museum’s efforts to keep its unique collection of remains and Indian objects intact, dimming chances that the university might negotiate a compromise with tribes.
“The great tragedy of this for me is that in the end, we may end up losing more than we otherwise might have,” she said.
Many scholars share White’s concerns that universities--fearful of the political fallout of confronting the tribes--have been too quick to hand over remains since the repatriation law was passed. But few have been as dogged as White.
“Good for him,” said Robson Bonnichsen, head of Oregon State University’s Center for the Study of the First Americans. “Most universities have a politically correct agenda. Most do not want to affect Native American enrollment. And most professors have the backbone of a jellyfish. So they don’t fight this.”
Bonnichsen is one of eight prominent anthropologists suing to prevent the Army Corps of Engineers from turning over to the Umatilla tribe a 9,300-year-old skeleton that was discovered two years ago near the Washington town of Kennewick. The corps controls the site where the so-called Kennewick Man was discovered. The Umatilla, of northeastern Oregon, have claimed the skeleton for reburial.
No other scholar has sued the government over the issue, but anthropologists say that the law has caused controversy on many campuses.
“What is going on at Berkeley is unique, but only in the sense of how far it has gone,” said Lynne Goldstein, chairwoman of the anthropology department at Michigan State University, who investigated the dispute between Joyce and White last year at the UC president’s request. “It is not unique in the sense that there are many other universities--probably most--where there are big disagreements about how [repatriation] is done.”
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was Congress’s attempt to reach a compromise between scientists and Native Americans over the fate of about 200,000 remains believed to be held in museums and by federal agencies.
The act stirs passions because so much is at stake. It set a 1995 deadline for more than 1,000 museums receiving federal funding and federal agencies with Native American collections to inventory remains and funerary objects in consultation with federally recognized tribes. Once materials were found to be affiliated with a modern tribe, it was left up to the tribe to decide their fate. Many have chosen simply to rebury the materials.
About 10,000 remains have been handed over to tribes nationwide. But the vast majority are still in collections, said Tim McKeown, team leader for the National Park Service’s unit charged with overseeing compliance with the law.
Although there have been disputes, McKeown said, the act generally has achieved its goal of promoting cooperation among academics, curators and Native Americans. In many instances, tribes have chosen to leave remains with museums or federal agencies rather than rebury them.
Berkeley’s the Hot Spot
Within the UC system, no campus has as much trouble as Berkeley in applying the law. UCLA’s anthropology faculty voted unanimously to turn over its entire teaching collection of bones to the university’s anthropology museum, although the bones could not be traced to any tribe. Some anthropologists criticized the move, saying that it forced the department to drop osteology courses.
UCLA’s anthropologists “were clearly reacting to the political sensitivity of using human remains and of having them be handled by undergraduates in a classroom context,” said Glenn Russell, head of UCLA’s Fowler Museum of Cultural History.
UC Santa Barbara spent seven years negotiating an agreement with the Chumash tribe that allows the university to keep most of its collection of 2,500 Chumash remains in an underground storage room and use them for research. The Chumash retain the right to claim the bones, said professor Phillip Walker.
A Rancorous History
But few collections in the nation are as large and as complex as the Hearst’s. Founded in 1901, the museum has long had difficult relations with California Indians.
“It has been, for the Indian community, more than any other museum, the center of controversy, conflict and intense interest for years,” said Malcolm Margolin, who publishes News From Native California, a quarterly magazine.
“Indian culture was in the process of destruction and these guys were collecting and collecting. For years, they also had a policy that Indians were not really given access to the collections. They were the domain of academics.”
Joyce, a respected archeologist of Mesoamerican civilization, was hired from Harvard University as museum director in 1994. Berkeley’s administrators say that her mandate was to improve relations with Native American tribes, to more broadly consult with them on the museum’s collection and to ensure that the museum complied with the repatriation act.
Immediately, Joyce said, she ran into resistance from professors who had curated the museum as though it were their private club. Chief among her detractors was White, the curator of osteology.
Joyce said she is devastated by White’s relentless assault on her credibility. “When I came here, I had an excellent professional reputation. He has accused me of committing federal crimes.”
Before Joyce recalled the bones from White, he accused her of falsely applying for an extension of the museum’s inventory deadline, of improperly expanding consultations on the museum’s collection to non-federally recognized tribes, and of misspending more than $1 million to redo an inventory he said he completed in the 1980s.
White complained to the university, then to the UC president’s office and to the federal government. Although his accusations were found to be baseless, he lodged a complaint with the Academic Senate, contending in part that Joyce recalled the teaching collection as retaliation.
“He sees himself in the role of the only one willing to fight for these collections,” said Linda Fabbri, Berkeley’s assistant vice chancellor for research.
The protracted battle has been too much for Reba Fuller, a Sierra Me-Wuk Indian who for 11 months helped the Hearst inventory its collection.
Fuller left the museum last year, disgusted by the standoff with White. The former intern says that she still hopes the university will reclaim the teaching collection, and that she will resume her work in the museum’s annex, where human remains are stored in wooden trays, stacked inside 8-foot-high steel lockers.
“It was terribly shocking, the first time I saw that annex, and I never got used to it,” said Fuller. Hardest to accept, she said, was the fact that single skeletons were often divided among different trays and that bones were still used for teaching.
“These are not just a bunch of bones,” she said. “They are remains from our ancestors and we have to treat them with dignity and respect.”
White said that he has been unfairly portrayed as attempting to block repatriation. He believes in a strict interpretation of the law and speedy repatriation of any bones affiliated with federal tribes. He said he objects to handing over bones with no clear tribal affiliation, a move that he says could devastate the museum’s collection and end his teaching.
“Perhaps I understand the value of these remains in a way that nobody else does,” he said. “There are very few skeletal collections in the world representing hunting and gathering people. Ours is one of the largest. This tiny fraction of the Native Americans that were in California before contact with Europeans represents the major window which we have on the past in California.”
Different Paths to Same Objective
The UC president’s office and Berkeley’s administration say that they feel caught between two impassioned academics fighting for the same goal--preservation of a priceless anthropological collection.
“Both Tim and Rosemary’s views are perfectly legal,” Stowsky said. “Tim says that a minimalist approach will satisfy the requirements of the law. Rosemary probably is closer to satisfying the spirit of the law. We disagree with Tim’s contention that what the museum is doing is at all nefarious.”
Joyce conceded that some knowledge will be lost to students if White cannot use Native American remains in the classroom. But every scientist, she said, must work within the confines of the law and in accordance with cultural norms.
“The notion of complete academic freedom is not realistic,” she said. “It doesn’t really exist. We always have to balance our academic freedom against various restrictions.”