SACRAMENTO—State Senate leaders chastised UC Berkeley administrators Tuesday for trampling on the civil rights of Native Americans by not returning the remains of thousands of their ancestors held in storage at a campus museum.
Sen. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), the incoming Senate leader, accused the university of discriminating against Native Americans by keeping the bones and artifacts at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology despite federal and state laws that established procedures for returning them years ago.
“If there were remains of my ancestors, European Americans, in the Hearst museum at one of the most respected universities in the country, there would be an absolute outcry from people, and I guarantee you something would be done about it quickly,” Steinberg told university officials at a hearing of the Senate Governmental Organization Committee. “But because they’re Native American remains, somehow it is different.”
For more than 40 years, the bones of about 12,000 Native Americans have been kept in drawers and cabinets under the swimming pool of the Hearst Gymnasium, next door to the museum. Most of the bones were dug up by university archaeologists in the first half of the 20th century.
Under the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and a similar 2001 state law written by Steinberg, the museum is required to identify the origins of bones and artifacts in its collection and return them to the tribes they came from. So far the museum has repatriated the bones of about 260 individuals.
UC Berkeley triggered new controversy over the bones in June when it eliminated the staff unit within the museum that was responsible for working with tribes and facilitating the return of the remains.
Steinberg, who is not a committee member but participated in the hearing, said that some university academics opposed the return of the remains because the loss of the collection would reduce the university’s standing. “The real reason why there was not a more aggressive posture by the university to repatriate is because there is a whole lot of pressure from the academic side,” he said. “They don’t want all these remains or artifacts returned because that would impugn, in their view, the research capability of the university.”