DECOLONIZING YOUR NEWSFEED
A worker at UC Berkeley removes the name “Kroeber Hall” from the exterior of the campus building in January 2021.
Irene Yi, UC Berkeley
REPATRIATION RISING | 06.26.22
During my first year as a grad student last year at UC Berkeley, my journalism class met for a mandatory week of "Boot Camp" before the school year began. On the second day, a professor gave a land acknowledgment, reading from a piece of paper about the unceded ancestral lands of the
Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people – a territory known as xučyun (Huichin). But like so many of these acknowledgments, there was an understatement as to why this particular community, the Ohlone, were displaced to begin with – a backstory with relevance that has only intensified at Berkeley as institutions worldwide confront legacy colonization and white supremacy.
A few years earlier in 2019 as a Berkeley undergrad, headlines began swirling around an audit of the university’s anthropology collection of some 495,000 Indigenous artifacts, and more gruesomely, of
Indigenous remains – the largest collection of its kind in the United States. The California State Auditor, Elaine M. Howle made it clear, these were items that fell under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which legally mandates their return to the Indigenous Peoples of whom they belong. But there was one bureaucratic catch, a big one: "federal
recognition". Only Native nations that are “recognized” by the United States have the requisite sovereign status for entitlement to the return of their ancestors’ remains under NAGPRA. This loaded concept has worked to Berkeley’s benefit. Today, roughly two-thirds of UC Berkeley’s
Indigenous collections are cataloged as “culturally unidentifiable” – the bones and holy objects that fail to draw a link to one of today’s 574 federally-recognized tribes. When the audit was released, it revealed that only about 20% of the university’s collection had been repatriated under NAGPRA compared
to UCLA and UC Davis which had returned or was in the process of returning about 90% of their collections to tribes. “We find Berkeley's approach to be overly cautious,” said Howle, adding that the university failed to give tribal oral history and tradition the same weight as scientific evidence.
Comparative analysis of the University of California's NAGPRA repatriation inventories as of 2019 which ranks Berkeley's 496,500
Indigenous artifacts against UCLA and UC Davis, including a note that the UC Davis collection was in the process of returning roughly 40,500 items to an area tribe while will see that they have repatriated approximately 89 percent of its NAGPRA inventory. California State Auditor Report, NAGPRA, 2019-047
No one understands the burdens of Berkeley’s bureaucracy regarding federal recognition more than the Muwekma Ohlone, the Indigenous Peoples who live at the heart of the university’s official land acknowledgment. Since 1989, the Muwekma Ohlone Tribal Council has petitioned the federal government for recognition status, arguing that its 500 members are today’s surviving descendants who are aboriginal to the San Francisco Bay region. Ironically, UC Berkeley is a huge reason why the Ohlone people are fighting against notions that they are “extinct.” The university’s leading anthropologist at the turn of the 20th
century, Alfred Kroeber, relied on Muwekma items in his growing collection to pronounce the Ohlone victims of genocide – those who have all but disappeared. The label stuck, but DNA analysis could help reverse this misconception once and for all.
Earlier this year, a new study found a genetic link between 2,000-year-old skeletons found in California and today’s Muwekma descendants. “Despite a large period of time, they share a
distinctive ancestry,” wrote the researchers, reaffirming that the Muwekma Ohlone have deep ties to the Bay Area that are flourishing, even today. It could set the stage for another ironic twist at UC Berkeley, forcing the school to accept Muwekma continuity, which could ultimately lead to the return of their relative's bones.
This was an issue I knew I wanted to consider writing about when I began my internship with Indigenously – to unpack the contradictions that often live at the heart of institutional reckoning with racism. While my studies have met a progressive curriculum, in the backdrop,
there has seemingly been more to learn than what my education was teaching me. Since my time on campus, I can count at least four halls that have been renamed, including Kroeber Hall whose name was removed after attention was drawn to the anthropologist's massive Indigenous collection, but also to the fact that he held captive on campus a Yahi man known as Ishi. Described in the press as the “last wild
Indian,” Ishi was on display like a caged animal at the zoo. When he died in 1916 of tuberculosis his body was autopsied at the university, going against his Yahi tradition.
At a celebration of the first official Indigenous Peoples' Day in San Francisco in October 2018, members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe stand alongside Mayor London Breed, Board of Supervisors president Malia Cohen, and Board of Supervisors member Vallie Brown. Pax Ahimsa Gethen
Earlier this month, more headlines about Indigenous repatriation efforts surfaced, this time from the Swedish National Museums of World Cultures. After nearly two decades, the museum finally agreed to return sacred artifacts, including a Maaso Kova, a ceremonial deer’s head, to the Yaqui Nation in
Mexico. A Yaqui tribal chief requested the return of the items after the Maaso Kova was spotted in the museum’s display case in 2003. Swedish officials didn’t respond for 11 years. And it took an additional eight more for the museum to agree to return the items.
Andrea Carmen, a Yaqui descendent and one of today’s leading Indigenous rights experts with the International Indian Treaty Council was the one who first spotted the Maaso Kova when she was invited by the Sámi Council and Sámi Parliament to the museum
in Sweden. The holiness of the deer head used in Yaqui dances is so revered that photographs of any kind are forbidden. It’s why it was so jarring, Ms. Carmen said, to see it featured in an exhibit thousands of miles away from the families it had originally been gifted to. “Once it’s been consecrated and used in a ceremony it becomes a living being for us. It’s a person with a very special role in our culture,” she said.
Like the Muwekma, recognition was a major hurdle for Yaqui repatriation efforts. Across the world, colonizing countries have historically discounted the sovereignty of Indigenous Peoples. The Yaqui faced similar resistance when petitioning for the repatriation of their holy objects, a
negotiation that ultimately involved the Mexican and Swedish governments, the Yaqui Nation, and the United Nations. Despite the Yaqui maintaining the only treaty signed with the Mexican government, a country that largely does not recognize the autonomies of Indigenous Peoples there, the Yaqui were forced to prove their rights to the Maaso Kova to Swedish officials.
Yaqui and IITC delegates with Mexican Ambassador and Sami Parliament representative at the Ambassador’s residence after the signing
ceremony in Stockholm, June 3rd. International Indian Treaty Council
A coalition of support
built up for the return – a global community advancing the decades-long Indigenous rights agenda at the UN. To be sure, the Yaqui repatriation represents the first time the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007, has been used to
enforce repatriation based on Articles 11 and 12 – so, it’s precedent-setting. More than anything, it gives other Indigenous Peoples like the Muwekma hope.
Ms. Carmen suggests that people must remain vigilant. “We have to hold the line,” she said – a line that has been crossed one too many times in colonial history. ♠️
- The one-hour film about Alfred Kroeber's obsession with the Yahi man he called "Ishi" is worth a watch. Produced by Jed Riffee and Pamela Roberts, and written by Anne Makepeace, Ishi: The Last Yahi is an early '90s gem that was confronting America's colonial legacy long before today's racial
- Here's the 2020 State of California Auditor's report on the University of California's NAGPRA track record.
- And here's the DNA study about the Muwekma.
Another development involving grave-robbing and the hoarding of Indigenous objects took place around the sacred site known as Bears Ears in southeastern Utah. You might have seen, for the first time ever, a coalition of Indigenous Peoples who these lands sacred are now official co-stewards of the national monument as ordered this week by the Department of Interior. More progress.
Next week, Jenni returns to the newsletter, but I'll still be here helping out.
"A Voice for Indigenous Peoples"
Fresh off the 71-day occupation at Wounded Knee on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the International Indian Treaty Council was founded in June 1974. More than 5,000 representatives from 98 Indigenous Nations descended on the nearby Standing Rock Reservation joined by their
common bond to defend their spiritual and sacred traditional relationships with the land.
Elders helped promote a unifying symbol to mark the union, a sacred pipe which today is the IITCs logo, helping to carry the voices of Indigenous Peoples of the Americas to the United Nations in 1977. Today, the IITC is at the forefront of the global Indigenous rights movement
in using international human rights processes to respond to threats to Indigenous land and life and to hold countries and corporations accountable for violations.
“Truth telling can be so hard sometimes. I admire your perseverance
and authenticity. Thanks for continuing to uncover real stories about real people and their places.”
Liz, The Internet
Thanks to all of you who were so kind and patient in receiving last week's edition, "Interviewing Jenni" where I produced a podcast with Jenni in honor of Indigenously's two-year anniversary. There were some hiccups getting the pod out to all of you, but in the end, it made its way.
ICYMI: Here's the interview.
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