The return of Ishi to his Indian homeland 80 years after University of California scientists cut out his brain in the interests of science has drawn new attention to the quest to retrieve ancestral bones from museum basements.
Ishi, it turns out, is an exception. Ten years after Congress ordered the return of Native American remains, only 10 percent of the up to 200,000 remains estimated to be in public collections are officially accounted for, federal records show.
With more than 8,000 Indian remains, Berkeley is third only to the Smithsonian and Harvard in its collection. Berkeley’s total American Indian repatriations so far: an amulet and an earthenware jar.
While a variety of factors lie behind the delays, two stand out: Institutions have been slow to reveal their holdings to Indians as they try to match bones to tribes, and federal officials have been slow to do something about the data that have been turned in.
Underlying the logistical logjam is a clash of science and sacrament reverberating across the archaeological world — how to balance the study of the rites of man with the rights of men.
“It really comes down to a distinction between thinking that you own remains or sacred objects versus understanding that you are custodians or stewards for them,” said Martin Sullivan, a historian who recently completed eight years on the national advisory committee overseeing the repatriation law.
Steve Banegas, who has worked on reclaiming remains for the Kumeyaay Cultural Repatriation Committee representing 12 Southern California tribes, puts it more bluntly.
“They all have an excuse. The bottom line is they just don’t want to do it,” he said. “They see it as losing something where we see it as righting a wrong.”
One of the most famous repatriation cases is that of Ishi.
Found in remote Northern California in 1911, Ishi was taken up by UC anthropologist Alfred Kroeber and treated as an original aboriginal, ending his days living at a museum where he demonstrated ancient skills for curious crowds. He would become part of California folklore, ending up in fourth-grade lesson plans as an example of the “last of the Yahi.”
On his death in 1916, scientists ignored Ishi’s request not to be autopsied — Kroeber opposed this but was out of town — and removed his brain. Kroeber later sent the brain to the Smithsonian where it remained in storage, largely forgotten until 1997 when a group of California Indians began the search that ended with Ishi being flown home to the shadow of Mount Lassen this month.
Ishi’s return was one of more than 4,000 repatriations conducted by the Smithsonian from its collection of 18,000 sets of Indian remains.
The Smithsonian repatriations are governed by the National Museum of the American Indian Act. All other federally funded agencies and museums were ordered to return remains of American Indians and Native Hawaiians in the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA).
“You are going to find some institutions out there who use the letter of the law to drag their feet and then you will find a lot of institutions out there who basically embrace the spirit of the law and the spirit of the law is about human rights,” said Jason Harding of the American Indian Ritual Object Repatriation Foundation in New York.
The law says remains will be returned to federally recognized tribes, a troublesome issue in California where many tribes lost their federal status, a legacy of broken treaties and decimated numbers. Some estimates put the pre-European Indian population as high as 300,000, dropping to half that by the Gold Rush and fewer than 16,000 by the 1900 census.
Berkeley was among 58 institutions that got an extension from the original inventory deadline of November 1995. The school missed its second deadline, in 1998, became one of six institutions threatened with fines if an inventory was not forthcoming.
Last spring, Chancellor Robert Berdahl kicked in $1.2 million from discretionary funds and the inventory was completed June 30, said Edward M. Luby, Hearst repatriation coordinator. He blamed the delay on lack of funding and the complexity of the task of matching bones to tribes.
About 17 percent of Berkeley’s remains have been determined to be affiliated to a particular tribe, meaning they can be claimed. Only three requests are pending, mainly because the inventory is only just now being completed.
On the federal level, the National Parks Service, the overseeing agency, has been overwhelmed. John Robbins, assistant director for cultural resources for the parks service, acknowledged there is a two-year backlog on publishing the legal notices required before some items can be returned.
The parks service doesn’t keep track of remains returned, only of remains inventoried. As of mid-July, 355 notices of completed inventories accounting for 19,104 human remains and 321,377 associated burial objects had been published, said Timothy McKeown, repatriation team leader for the parks service.
Many more inventories have been submitted, but not yet entered into the database.
In 1990, the Congressional Budget Office estimated there were between 100,000 and 200,000 Native American remains in federally funded collections.
Sullivan testified at a July Senate hearing that the spirit of urgency that once characterized the repatriation law is being “seriously compromised,” by the paperwork backlog. He, along with the rest of the advisory committee, recommended shifting oversight of the law out of the National Parks Service, noting that some remains are held by national parks, a potential conflict of interest.
Overall, though, Sullivan thinks the law is working.
“The problems that we’re seeing now are real headaches but they have to do more with procedures,” Sullivan said in a telephone interview. “On a higher scale, what’s happened is there’s finally a national standard that recognizes these human rights.”
Larry Myers, executive secretary of the California Native American Heritage Commission, has a problem with how long repatriation is taking. But he agrees NAGPRA spells progress.
“One of the best things I think that NAGPRA has really done — it’s made all these institutions figure out what they had,” he said.
Myers recalls taking a tour of the Hearst some years ago and being unnerved by a row of grinning skulls, separated from their skeletons in defiance of native tradition.
“Indians feel that’s just atrocious,” said Myers. “It was something that you don’t want to get real close to.”
UC says the Hearst has since tried to reunite remains.
The struggle over who owns the past isn’t relegated to old collections; American Indians and scientists are now fighting over the remains of Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton found in a Washington State river in 1996.
Anthropologists say they need the old bones for new research.
But scientists who consider repatriation a lost opportunity for scholarship are wrong, said G. Peter Jemison, repatriation coordinator for the Seneca Nation of Indians in New York State.
“They’re going to come in contact with the living people and they’re going to learn so much more than they’re ever going to learn by using a ruler,” he said.