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Coalition Protests Museum Changes

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday August 14, 2007

Reorganization Hurts Native American Repatriation Efforts, Critics Say 


To Lalo Franco of the Tachi Yokut Tribe, the fragments of human remains collected at the UC Berkeley anthropology museum are ancestors and deserve a burial “so that they can continue their journey and be part of the earth again.” 

But some scientists at UC Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Anthropology Museum consider the biological remains and artifacts as scientific matter, material for the study of the earliest people of the nation. 

“These remains at the Phoebe Hearst Museum are remnants of ancient ancestors, the very people that gave me life,” said Franco, director of the Cultural and Historic Preservation Department of the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut Tribe.  

“They have been uprooted from their eternal rest,” he said. “To me, they are my ancestors, to the scientists, they are bones.” 

A five-person unit at the museum charged with helping to return sacred and significant objects to their Native American owners — and required by the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA)—was disbanded in June, according to Franco and other members of a coalition calling for the reinstatement of the museum’s NAGPRA unit. 

Not disbanded, Museum Director Kent Lightfoot told the Planet, “It was reorganized.” 

Lightfoot said the unit was restructured because the museum’s work to inventory Native American artifacts and remains has been completed. When continuing NAGPRA-related work becomes necessary, members of the former unit and others will be called upon, he said. 

Corbin Collins, spokesperson for the coalition calling for reinstating the unit as it had been, said the inventory is far from complete. The museum possesses the second-largest collection of Native American objects, second only to the Smithsonian Institute, with more than 300,000 pieces, among them 12,253 biological individuals. Objects come from 100 California tribes and others across the nation. 

When the inventory was done, 80 percent of the collection was “dumped” into a category called “unidentifiable,” Collins said.  

Franco explained that happened because the university was “under the gun” to comply with the law and hurriedly categorized the remains and the artifacts. 

“Now we’re asking to go back to consult with them,” reviewing some of the remains and artifacts in the “unidentifiable” category, he said, adding that the way Native American objects and remains are treated stems from the invasion of the Spanish, the Russians and others that oppressed the Indians and attempted to obliterate their culture and language. 

“Because we are a conquered people, they think they can do anything,” Franco said. 

“It is crucial to understand that many inventories fall under [the rubric “culturally unidentifiable”] simply because the museum would have been out of compliance with the federal mandate to have the collection inventories for NAGPRA completed by June 2000,” wrote former Interim NAGPRA Coordinator Larri Fredericks in a letter to UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau. Fredericks, who was reassigned to other tasks at the museum, was on vacation and not available for comment on Monday. 

An Athabascan from Alaska, Fredericks holds a master’s degree in public health and a doctorate in medical anthropology. 

Her letter to the chancellor goes on to say there was insufficient time for the museum to perform a complete review of the museum collections; “hence, large portions of the collection were categorized as culturally unidentifiable, with the expectation that many tribes would contest these classifications and present evidence…to support claims of cultural affiliation,” Fredericks wrote. 

Relics still need to be considered “on a case-by-case basis,” Collins said, arguing that at issue are “people who want to keep the collection intact,” and not return it to the tribes where the human remains or artifacts originated. 

Lightfoot told the Planet that he understood the tribes would want to evaluate some of the “unidentifiable” objects and remains and that former members of the NAGPRA unit and others would be available to help them. 

He also said he understood the tension between the way Native Americans and scientists view the objects and remains. “We try to look at all different sides,” he said. “We try to be as balanced as possible.” 

Calling the reorganization “a betrayal of trust,” Fredericks condemned the decision made by Vice Chancellor Beth Burnside, arguing that it was “based on a report written by two archeologists who represent research interests that often conflict with tribal claims on the museum’s collection of Native American ancestral remains.”  

Fredericks further wrote, “The review was conducted with a few days notice— before the tribes could be notified and respond—and Native Americans were completely and deliberately excluded from the process, despite my vigorous insistence that they be represented.”  

In an Aug. 6 letter to Birgeneau, the coalition asks for the museum to stop the reorganization, reopen the review process and include Native Americans in the review process.  

If the chancellor does not answer in a satisfactory way, “We will be escalating our protests with peaceful demonstrations,” Collins said.  

“It’s a very complicated and complex issue, with a lot of emotions,” Lightfoot said. 



• From the coalition: 

• Coalition phone number: (510) 652-1567 

• The U.S. Department of the Interior also has an FAQ on NAGPRA at 

• Museum: