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Native Americans Rally for Return of Ancestral Remains

By Judith Scherr
Tuesday October 09, 2007

Native Americans and their supporters rallied on the UC Berkeley campus Friday, demanding that the university return the remains of Indian ancestors so that they can be buried according to custom. 

“This is a human rights issue; this is a social justice issue,” Mark LeBeau, a Pitt River tribal member told the noontime crowd that swelled to about 300 people in front of Sproul Hall.  

“Our ancestors are sitting in boxes. They’re treated like lab rats,” Douglas Mullen from the Greenville Rancheria told the rally. 

At issue are the remains of some 13,000 humans currently at Phoebe Hearst Anthropology Museum on the UC Berkeley campus, the second largest collection in the country of remains believed to come from Native Americans. The largest collection is at the Smithsonian Museum. 

The museum staff formerly included a semi-autonomous unit led by Native Americans, which helped tribes prepare claims to these remains and artifacts under federal law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA). 

The university recently integrated the museum’s NAGPRA unit into the regular functions of the museum, displacing Native American scholars who had supported the efforts of the tribes to establish their claims. This created an outcry among Native Americans and led to the formation of the NAGPRA Coalition that sponsored the rally. 

University spokesperson Marie Felde told the Planet last week that the reorganization improved efficiency of the process and was patterned on the way other museums evaluate claims under NAGPRA. 

But the Native American protesters say the non-native anthropologists the university has now charged with carrying out NAGPRA want to keep the remains at the museum for research purposes. 

“They have the scientific curiosity that has made them do this—robbing our ancestors’ graves for scientific study,” Lalo Franco, of the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut tribe said, speaking at the rally.  

The protesters said they have asked several times to meet with Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, who is Canadian-born and of French and Native American descent.  

“The Indian man refuses to meet with us,” said Reno Franklin of the Kashia Pomo tribe, speaking at the rally. “We’re not the ones being disrespectful … Tell the chancellor to wake up and be an Indian again.” 

Carrying signs that included messages such as, “Want research—use your own granny,” and “Berkeley—what part of sacred don’t you understand,” the protesters left Sproul Hall and marched to California Hall, where the chancellor’s office is located, to ask for a meeting.  

The coalition has been asking to meet with Birgeneau since July. Associate Chancellor John Cummins responded that he would meet with individual tribal representatives, but not with the coalition representatives of eight tribes as a group. 

Assistant Chancellor Beata Fitzpatrick stepped outside California Hall, listened to Mark LeBeau speak and addressed the crowd, saying that the chancellor has “great respect” for the issue of the ancestral remains.  

“He is himself a native person from Canada,” she said, going on to say, however, “We believe the university is in compliance with the law.” 

Responding to Fitzpatrick, LeBeau said if the chancellor continues to refuse to meet with the coalition and to resolve the issue, the next step could be to bring a lawsuit against the university for violating NAGPRA.