Rescuing Native Remains From the Traditions of Golden State Plunder

Rescuing Native Remains From the Traditions of Golden State Plunder

Rescuing Native Remains From the Traditions of Golden State Plunder

The California legislature hears painful testimony about how state universities have looted Indigenous body parts and culture.


Jack Potter Jr. was on the University of California at Berkeley campus to pick up the bones of a grandmother and five of her grandchildren. He said he could hear noises: “like white noises, but even stronger.” He stared at a structure in the distance when a representative of the university asked him, “What do you keep looking at over there?”

“I said, ‘I hear noises coming from down under that building.’”

“Oh, that’s where they’re stored,” Potter recalled the man saying.

Potter, who is the tribal chairman of the Redding Rancheria of Wintu Indians, said he could hear the different languages of the Native peoples stored on the shelves in the belly of the building. He said it sounded like a crowded room where dozens of conversations were all happening at once. “And as I went down in there, I needed a moment to myself,” he said.

Potter then asked the representative to step out; he told him he needed a moment alone among his long-departed relatives as well as the remains of the thousands of Indigenous peoples from across the continent stored in that basement. “It reminded me of a library—but instead of books on the shelves, they had skulls. They sit there waiting to go home.”

When he picked up the skull of the grandmother, he noticed a gaping hole in her head, and he said he could tell how she died. “As she was preparing acorn mush for her grandchildren for supper, someone came along and bashed her head and broke her tool over her head,” he said. Next to the grandmother’s remains were those of her grandchildren. These remains “had no skulls,” he recalls, “There was only little leg bones and feet bones.”

On Tuesday, Potter, along with several other tribal leaders from California, attended a hearing at the California State Legislature. There, frustrated lawmakers grilled California State University administrators about their failure to return approximately 700,000 Indigenous human remains, funerary items, and artifacts back to their tribes.

This failure reflects a long-standing and sordid history of neglect. According to a scathing report by the state auditor’s office, the university has long ignored federal and states law that require the return of Indigenous remains to their lineal nations and tribes.

In 1990, the US Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, mandating the return of Native American remains and cultural items. In 2001, the California State Legislature passed a similar law, dubbed CalNAGPRA, requiring state-funded agencies and museums to restore this looted heritage to California-based tribes.

The gradual progress of repatriation stands in stark contrast to the aggressive grave-robbing legacies of American universities, including Harvard, the University of North Dakota, and the University of Alabama. This denial of the fundamental cultural and spiritual right to honor and preserve the legacies of ancestors is rooted in the country’s long and ugly history of despising and brutalizing Indigenous peoples.

Exterminationist views of the Native American people are literally grounded in the nation’s founding; Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, wrote that “this unfortunate race, whom we had been taking so much pains to save and to civilize, have…justified extermination.” This same sentiment fueled the idea of Manifest Destiny: the ideology shared among white European settlers that God had delivered them to the land to not only build a new life but also to remove the Natives—the “savages”—through conquest and genocide. Later, the same belief system justified the brutal assimilationist regimes of the Native American boarding school system, which has also long housed stolen Native American remains.

The course of Manifest Destiny was a long roll call of massacres: the Bear River Massacre in 1863, the Sand Creek Massacre in 1864, and the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, to name just a few. In their wake, US soldiers and civilians would collect items, such as blankets, bows and arrows, and even body parts as grotesque trophies to sell on the open market in the United States, Canada, and across Europe.

The practice was so common that it received boosterish news coverage. On October 12, 1885, for example, The New York Times published a piece headlined money for indian scalps. arizona and new mexico settlers propose to destroy the savages. The accompanying text explained that any white person who presented the scalp of a dead Indian would receive a $250 reward. The days earlier, The Atchison Daily Champion in Atchison, Kan., referred to dead Indians and their scalps as “redskins.”

After the peak of this genocidal campaign, universities and museums began to curate Native American remains and cultural artifacts. The University of California at Berkeley alone possesses approximately 9,000 Indigenous human remains, with many other institutions amassing similar storehouses of body parts and artifacts. In many cases, these institutions had literally plundered graves and other sacred Indigenous sites for profit.

And now they remain stubbornly reluctant to oversee the return of these stolen legacies. Earlier this year, California Auditor Grant Park surveyed 23 California State University campuses and personally visited four. In his report, he wrote that many university administrators were in direct violation of federal and state repatriation laws.

“We found that of the 21 campuses with NAGPRA collections, more than half have not repatriated any remains or cultural items to tribes and that two campuses that returned remains or cultural items did not follow NAGPRA requirements when doing so,” he wrote.

In a letter to California Governor Gavin Newsom, Park wrote that the administrators at California State University had sidestepped NAGPRA requirements. As a result, he noted, just 6 percent of its collections have been returned to tribes. Sonoma State, one of the smallest campuses in the California State University system, has the largest collection of Indigenous remains and artifacts, with 185,300 body parts and other effects.

Assembly member James C. Ramos, who lives on the San Manuel Indian Reservation in San Bernardino County and who is a member of the Serrano Tribe, spoke at the hearing, denouncing the university system’s legacy of plunder. Thousands of Indigenous remains within the university’s collection “rightfully” and “morally” belong with the tribes, he said.

“It is very concerning that decades after federal and state laws were enacted to repatriate remains and cultural objects almost nothing has been done to fulfill that obligation,” he said. After the hearing, Ramos explained that California State University administrators did not see the return of Indigenous bodies back to the tribes as a priority, but they will now.

“Few duties are more important or more sacred than the burial or reburial of our loved ones according to one’s traditions and culture,” he said. “Yet Native Americans have been denied this right as the remains of our ancestors are deemed the property of an institution. Our ancestors’ remains are not objects, but the spirits of loved ones and part of whom we are.”

At the end of his own public statement before the committee, Tribal Chairman Potter said that this issue is uniquely Indigenous. “We have to go through this, and we shouldn’t. Our people should be left lying to rest where they were put to rest,” he said.

“Like Moses said to the pharaohs, I say to [you], ‘Let my people go.’”

Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy