According to the National Park Service, UC Berkeley has the largest collection of Native American cultural artifacts and human remains in the country with more than 9,000 ancestors and more than 113,000 cultural objects.
While UC Berkeley’s history is dotted with social justice movements and activism, campus's custody of thousands of cultural artifacts and human remains may tell a different story.
Factors that built UC Berkeley’s extensive collection include a slew of Bay Area Native American tribes not being federally recognized, an interest in using objects and human remains for research opportunities and the encouragement of grave robbings — a common belief in salvage anthropology, which is the practice of collecting and documenting Native American artifacts before their presumed extinction.
Number of cultural objects and human remains held by five UC campuses separated by origin
The bar chart above visualizes the total number of artifacts five UC campuses hold in their collections based on whether the artifact was found in California. This number includes both cultural items as well as human remains acquired by unearthing gravesites.
According to the data, UC Berkeley has the largest collection among these five UC campuses, with UC Davis following far behind. UCLA has only one artifact left in its possession.
The drastic differences between each school are indicative of the processes and efficiency of each campus’s respective repatriation efforts.
The original 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, constituted the protection and preservation of Native American gravesites and required institutions in possession of human remains or cultural objects to begin the process of repatriation. This policy required each institution in possession of Native American artifacts to compile a written inventory and return the artifacts and remains to representatives of the tribes from which they originate.
However, not all repatriation processes were made equally. Data collected by the California state auditor in 2020 indicates that UC Berkeley failed to comply with the requirements of the original NAGPRA policy.
According to a California state audit published in 2019, UC Berkeley’s “overly cautious" repatriation process was the main driving force that hindered the return of thousands of cultural items. In comparison to UCLA and UC Davis, which were able to process claims faster, UC Berkeley’s request for additional evidence from tribes submitting repatriation claims undermined the existing oral history and traditions that were used as evidence in the initial claims.
The audit also revealed that UC Berkeley did not have sufficient Native American representation on its NAGPRA implementation committee, which handles repatriation claims made by Native American tribes and returns cultural items and remains.
According to the state law CalNAGPRA, which was passed with the intent to remedy the inadequacies within the original NAGPRA policies, the committee should have at least three campus officials and three tribal members. Two of those members should be from a federally recognized California tribe and one should be from a California tribe that is not federally recognized.
In 2019, the UC Berkeley Campus NAGPRA Implementation Committee failed to meet these guidelines; there were no members from a California tribe unaffiliated with UC Berkeley, nor any tribe members who were from a California tribe that is not federally recognized. In response to the audit, UC Berkeley has since updated its committee and now meets the guidelines that are outlined in CalNAGPRA.
The state auditor also concluded in a June 2020 report to Gov. Gavin Newsom that “the University of California is not adequately overseeing its return of Native American remains and artifacts.” This claim is backed by the thousands of artifacts that UC Berkeley still holds in its collections, compared to other UC schools which have repatriated the vast majority of artifacts in their possession.
With hopes of changing the bleakness of the repatriation process, a policy was introduced in 2021 for organizations controlled by the Regents of the University of California.
Sabrina Agarwal, chair of the UC Berkeley Campus NAGPRA Implementation Committee, provided more insight into UC Berkeley’s repatriation processes and history. In an email interview, Agarwal stated that the goal of the committee is to “review claims and make recommendations/decisions on claims for the Chancellor and also make recommendations on all NAGPRA related policy on campus.”
When asked about the changes made following the 2021 University of California policy, Agarwal said “NAGPRA is now a tribally led process with a clearly stated goal of repatriation.” Making significant efforts to improve from past mistakes, Agarwal also stated that she now finds the committee has a “real partnership to repatriate holdings on the campus with the guidance of the NAHC (Native American Heritage Commission) and California Native American Tribes.”
Minimum number of individuals (MNI) and associated funerary objects (AFO) held by UC Davis and UC Berkeley
The Fowler Museum at UCLA, the UC Santa Barbara department of anthropology and UC Riverside have been omitted from this visualization.
In addition to underrepresentation of Native Americans in the NAGPRA committee, other setbacks and contexts for UC Berkeley’s repatriation process exist.
Lauren Kroiz, faculty director of the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, pointed out UC Berkeley’s history as a factor in its large collection as well.
“Berkeley is the oldest campus in the UC system. I think folks at Berkeley, we think about that, and we’re very proud, but at the same time, we can refer to it as the colonial core of the UC,” Kroiz said. She noted that while other campuses started amassing artifacts and remains in the 1940s and 1950s, UC Berkeley started as early as the 1870s.
Moreover, she said “a lot of tribes in the Bay Area are not federally recognized, because of how early colonization happened here,” and explained that lack of federal recognition makes the process of repatriation much more difficult.
When asked why UC Berkeley has failed to meet the requirements of the NAGPRA policy, Kroiz responded that UC Berkeley has held the greatest amount of artifacts since the beginning in comparison to other campuses in the UC system. She also revealed that those who collected the artifacts and remains operated under the false assumption that Native Americans would all eventually “die out,” and, therefore, their remains and objects should be preserved by California’s new European inhabitants.
Kroiz also explained that moving forward, UC Berkeley does not intend to conduct any research on Native American artifacts or belongings without “the expressed interest of Native Tribes.”
Despite its efforts to progress in processes of repatriation, a key fact remains: UC Berkeley possesses more cultural belongings and ancestral remains than any other organization on the National Park Service’s database, including more than any other UC campus.
Until every artifact and ancestor has been returned to their respective communities, UC Berkeley’s repatriation will remain incomplete.
This project was developed by the Projects Department at The Daily Californian.
Data for this project come from the National Park Service. Museums and federal agencies with collections subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act must submit inventories of human remains and objects.
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Code, data and text are open-source on GitHub.
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