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‘Decolonization’ and ‘repatriation’: a look behind the scenes

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Elizabeth Weiss
Written by Elizabeth Weiss

When a reputable university anthropology museum closes itself down; when a bottle of shampoo is treated as a sacred object; when a 16th century Spanish breastplate is classed as belonging to another culture; and when this is being done in secret, something bizarre is happening. An anthropologist seeks some answers.

What do a 16th Century Spanish breastplate, Ming dynasty ceramics, and a bottle of Hire’s root beer have in common? They are all on the list of items to be repatriated from the University of California at Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology to the Graton Rancheria tribe, who claim to be descendants of the Coast Miwok. Looking through the catalog of deaccessioned materials from Marin County archaeological sites, one will find a surprising array of materials that are set to be repatriated to the Graton Rancheria tribe. Yet, if you have hopes of seeing these items before they are buried or destroyed, you will have to do some digging elsewhere, because the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum has removed the images in their e-catalog and replaced them with jpegs that say: “Image restricted due to its potentially sensitive nature. Contact Museum to request access.” What is sensitive about a broken Ming dynasty bowl or an empty early 1900 bottle of dandruff shampoo is beyond my comprehension.

The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum is currently shuttered – likely until Spring of 2023 – for perhaps the largest effort of repatriation in California’s history. There are about 500 human remains and over 17,000 artifacts that have being deaccessioned ahead of the repatriation that will occur sometime between now and Springtime. Yet, although this is being done through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) and California’s state repatriation law, which is called CalNAGPRA, many of the artifacts are not, in fact, indigenous. These include: glass bottles, scissors, ceramic tiles, crockery, and Ming dynasty artifacts. Perhaps most surprising is the request for modern refuse from an anthropology class taught in 1967!

The claim which has been put forth in academic journals by archaeologists is that the artifacts do indeed make up a part of Native American history. They claim that these artifacts, some of which were found in the ground, were buried with Native Americans who had incorporated these items into their cultural practice of burying the deceased with goods. This may be true in some cases; after all, Native Americans in the Bay Area lived among Anglo-American settlers, Spanish and Mexican missionaries, Alaskan Natives and Russians who were there for the fur trade. The earliest contact was in 1579 from Sir Frances Drake, but connections with foreigners started to take hold in the 1770s with Spanish missionaries. Russians and Alaskans arrived in the early 1800s, while the Anglo-American settlers arrived around 1846.

The Coast Miwok, themselves, may have only arrived in the Bay Area after 1775. Written records from 1775 consisting of a dozen and a half words, reveal that the tribes in Marin County spoke the Coastanoan language rather than the language of the Coast Miwok. Also, the human remains are mostly intact, and the Coast Miwok had practiced cremation. California – especially the Bay Area – consisted of many tribes who were very mobile, engaging in territorial warfare, interbreeding, and replacing one another. For these reasons, it is hard to link any one tribe to a site and consequently to the artifacts and human remains found at that site.

The Coast Miwok also intermarried and started families with the foreigners, which may be why they were in possession of and buried with non-indigenous artifacts. After all, when Europeans arrived in California, the indigenous populations they encountered were still practically Stone Age cultures with artifacts such as obsidian arrowheads, stone mortars and pestles; their finest works were often woven baskets.

By the 1930s there were only a handful of individuals who were predominantly Coast Miwok. One reason was, as stated above, that there was a lot of intermarriage. But another reason is that the Coast Miwok never had a large population – they peaked at 2,000 people before contact. Their low population size may have been the result of a cultural practice that involved infanticide after the third child, at a time when child mortality was already high. The practice of strangling newborns through the use of a stick was told to ethnographers in the 1920s by some of the last members of the Coast Miwok tribe.

Does the possibility that these artifacts were buried with the Native Americans or at least found in Native American sites justify their repatriation? NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA, both of which use the same definitions, were intended for the repatriation of human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. Funerary objects are defined as having been placed with the buried individual as part of the death rite or ceremony of a culture. Sacred objects are ceremonial objects needed by traditional Native American religious leaders for the practice of traditional Native American religions by their present day adherents. Objects of cultural patrimony are objects that have ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself, rather than property owned by an individual Native American. In all these cases, there is an assumption that the objects were part of Native American cultural traditions – funerary practices or religious ceremonies. Being generous, one can make the claim that the objects found in the burial grounds associated with a body can be considered funerary objects, even if they are from a different culture. That is, the objects may have been appropriated as grave goods. This is the strongest case for the repatriation of the materials that are not indigenous.

However, another possibility is that these artifacts ended up near graves, since the sites were used over long periods of time, by multiple cultures, coupled with the tumultuous turnover of the ground that is common in Bay Area geology. Many of these artifacts were found on the beaches, in creek beds, near cliff edges, and on the surface of the archaeological sites. Some of these artifacts too are now listed as funerary objects and are slated for repatriation. In one case, ceramics discovered in a creek bed were originally associated with the nearby factory rather than the archaeological site. At another site, artifacts found on the beach, including an ink bottle, were said to be close to the fish wharf where ships would dock. And, it was noted that some of the Ming dynasty artifacts were likely from the cargo of the Portugese galleon San Agustín, which was shipwrecked in November 1595 in Drakes Bay, Point Reyes, California, on its return trip from Manila. It’s highly unlikely that these artifacts were used in funerary practices or in sacred rituals of any sort! And, if the Native Americans used the materials – perhaps they too sometimes enjoyed a root beer or had stomach ailments that they tried to cure with “Sanford’s radical cure” – that should not make the objects subject to repatriation, since everyday objects are not included in repatriation laws.

Yet, the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum collections coordinators and curators have decided that all must be repatriated to the Graton Rancheria tribe. The likely reason for this concession is that they want to avoid bad publicity; the New York Times has already had some articles that cast shame on the museum for lagging in repatriations. The anthropologists may also believe that it is best to appease the Native Americans, perhaps to atone for the perceived sins of colonialists. Or, they may not understand the law. CalNAGPRA, as I have written before, is like NAGPRA on steroids, since it states that when there is a disagreement between scientists and the Native Americans, the Native American opinion supersedes the scientific evidence. Yet, this should not be taken to mean that anything that the Native Americans want, they are entitled to, since CalNAGPRA, like NAGPRA, only applies to those items from Native American cultures. In no way should the Native Americans be able to claim items that are clearly from other cultures, when they are not clearly buried with Native American human remains. For instance, the Spanish breastplate was dated to the 16th century and made of metal. Although it was found near a Native American site, it was not buried with any Native American remains. Native Americans, as I have said before, did not have metals; their protection was made of reeds, not metals. This item’s repatriation makes a mockery of repatriation.

In addition, the Native Americans have requested the repatriation of modern refuse from an anthropology class. This refuse has no connection to the prehistoric or historic past of the Native Americans; I can only think that they’ve asked for this to make the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum staff jump through yet another hoop.

Upon conducting my research, I reached out to the collections and repatriation coordinators listed on the NAGPRA federal register, on the Museum website, and on the University website. It took seven emails and four contacts to get a reply. When asking about the non-Native materials slated for repatriation and specifically querying the deaccession of the Spanish breastplate, I received this response:

Per Sec 5, 8012 (e) of the California Health and Safety code, 43 CFR 10.9(3)(5)(ii), Executive Order No. 13007 Section 1(a)(2), and other relevant legal authorities respecting tribal confidentiality, we are unable to provide information beyond what is published on the federal register or is already available on other public venues.

The first part (Sec 5, 8012 (e) of the California Health and Safety code) refers to the CalNAGPRA statement that “Consultation also shall recognize the tribes’ potential need for confidentiality with respect to tribal traditional knowledge and all tribal information shared during the consultation.” The second part, 43 CFR 10.9(3)(5)(ii), refers to NAGPRA’s statement that NAGPRA inventories and notices are exempt from freedom of information acts. And, Executive Order No. 13007 Section 1(a)(2) pertains to the Department of the Interior’s order on sacred sites, which states that “Where appropriate, agencies shall maintain the confidentiality of sacred sites.”

In an effort to get a more conclusive answer, I reached out to Dan Mogulof, an assistant vice chancellor at UC Berkeley, and asked whether he could confirm or deny that that the Spanish breastplate is being repatriated to the Graton Rancheria tribe. His response was equally opaque: “Out of respect for Tribal privacy, we have no comment other than to note that, pursuant to NAGPRA, some of our records are publicly available through an online Federal register.”

It is interesting that both of the responses cited privacy concerns, rather than give me a simple answer that the breastplate was or was not being repatriated to the Graton Rancheria tribe. It could be that it is being deaccessioned and passed onto some other group for some other purpose. This answer would not reveal anything about Native American sites and would not reveal “tribal knowledge”. Yet, it appears that university officials involved with curation and repatriation efforts are engaging in a dereliction of duty by falling back on the simplest tactics: allow everything to be reburied and ask no questions.

Which brings me to why the Native Americans would want materials that are irrelevant to them culturally and religiously. Previously I held the position that Native Americans who engaged in repatriation held sincere religious beliefs, which is why they used their indigenous creation myths to make repatriation claims. This perspective was problematic in my view because it abandoned the science of anthropology in favor of Native American religious beliefs – a clear religion over science issue. However, the Native Americans’ position was also understandable from this perspective since many people hold strong religious convictions. I had accepted that Native Americans who engaged in repatriation were being sincere when they put forth their religious objections to the study of the past.

Yet, more recently, I’ve come to see things differently. I think that there are those who are active in the repatriation for greed, whether it is to help them with land claims that will eventually garner large sums of money, or through receiving money through grants for repatriation and reburial. But greed is not the only motivator. I think that there is a power dynamic in which they want to turn the tables: they say they believe they once were victims of Western Civilization and now they wish to make white Euro-Americans pay for these past ‘transgressions’. This anti-Western agenda, often couched in terms of “decolonization”, is one that is common in anthropology today. This is perhaps why Native Americans engage in the chicanery of pretending that the mundane is sacred, claiming materials that they have no interest in, and making anthropologists engage in ritual activities from barring menstruating women from touching the artifacts, to holding prayer dances and smudging rituals at the transfer of materials. To attain their desired goals, these Native Americans have decided to deceive anthropologists and politicians by arguing that this is about sovereignty and religious freedom. In reality, it’s all about money, and a sort of petty revenge, designed to put anthropologists out of business. The tragic irony is that because of the woke, politically-correct view that Native Americans cannot be questioned, anthropologists are complicit in all of this, enabling the destruction of their own field of study.

About the author

Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss

Elizabeth Weiss is Professor of Anthropology, San José State University. Her most recent book, co-authored with James W. Springer, is Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020).