UC Berkeley professor taught with human remains, angering Native American tribes

White filed a complaint against the university in 1997 accusing the museum, under Joyce’s leadership, of seeking an unnecessary extension of the NAGPRA reporting deadline. (Campus investigators found no inappropriate activity, according to White.)

Joyce said she was just trying to account for all the remains that should be reported under NAGPRA. “It’s really crazy to have to say, I did what the law said I had to do,” he told ProPublica and NBC News. Joyce said the complaints were found to be “meritless”.

White then filed an internal complaint against Joyce with the school’s Academic Senate, claiming that by asking him to give up the human remains she had violated his “academic privileges.”

The university brokered a deal: White could keep the ancestral remains, provided museum staff and the tribes could access them to conduct an inventory and report them under NAGPRA.

Joyce said the deal was untenable and she felt it was not supported by university leadership. White continued to teach with the relics.

A decade after NAGPRA

Myra Masiel-Zamora, now an archaeologist for the Pechanga Band of Indians, enrolled in White’s osteology class more than 20 years ago, when she was 18 and a freshman. But, she said, she withdrew from the course after a teaching assistant told her the human remains belonged to Native Americans.

“That was the first time I really learned that an institution could and can — and is — using real Native American ancestors as teaching tools,” he said. “I was really upset.”

Concern over the institutions’ handling of Indigenous people remains widespread beyond the classroom.

Troubled by the slow pace of repatriations under NAGPRA, California lawmakers passed their own version of the law in 2001, aimed at closing loopholes in the federal statute and allowing tribes to claim remains regardless of whether they have federal recognition . But the state failed to fund an oversight commission created by the bill.

In 2007, without consulting the tribes or providing a public explanation, UC Berkeley abruptly fired museum officials responsible for NAGPRA compliance and named White and others to a newly formed campus repatriation committee, according to leaders of tribes.

That upset tribal members, who took their concerns about the new commission to state senators. The firings “eliminated the only staff at the university who would stand up to Mr. Tim White and his offensive remarks about Native American tribes and our ancestral remains,” Reno Franklin, then a board member and now Kashia president Band of Pomo. Indians, they said during a 2008 legislative hearing.

In emails sent to ProPublica and NBC News, White sought to discredit the testimony of Franklin and others at the hearing, saying it was the result of decades of the university trying to use him as a scapegoat for its failures. White said he had only an advisory role and did not make final repatriation decisions.

Meanwhile, White’s career was soaring after he led a team that discovered and excavated a 4.4-million-year-old hominid discovered in Ethiopia. It was named the 2009 Scientific Discovery of the Year by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and cemented his reputation in the field. It also landed him, along with the likes of Barack Obama and Steve Jobs, on Time magazine’s 2010 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

White attends the Time100 Gala at Lincoln Center in New York in 2010. Timothy A. Clary / AFP via Getty Images

Two years later, White and two other professors sued to block the repatriation of two 9,000-year-old skeletons to the Kumeyaay, 12 tribes whose homelands straddle the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego. White and the other professors wanted to study the remains, which had been discovered in 1976 on the grounds of the chancellor’s house on the campus of the University of California, San Diego.

They argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the Kumeyaay’s ancestral connection to the remains and that the UC system failed to prove that the remains could legitimately be considered “Native American.” Based on the professors’ interpretation of the law, the human remains had to have a cultural or biological connection to a present-day tribe to be considered Native American.

They said not allowing them to study the remains violated their rights as researchers. An appeals court ruled against the professors, citing the Kumeyaay’s sovereign immunity, meaning they could not be sued.

As tribal frustration with the lack of progress on repatriations grew, UC Berkeley convened a “tribal forum” in 2017. At the private gathering, tribal leaders and others expressed outrage that university staff, including White, had resisted their requests for repatriation and that the university required too much proof to reclaim their ancestry, according to an internal university report.

The following year, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ disbanded the campus NAGPRA committee on which White had served, according to records. The university established a new one that did not include him.

Meanwhile, Berkeley prepared for its largest repatriation to date: the return of more than 1,400 ancestors to the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, a small tribe whose ancestral remains were exhumed from burial sites along the California coast and Channel Islands. According to the school’s NAGPRA inventory records, many of the remains were taken by an archaeologist in 1901 whose expeditions were funded by Phoebe Apperson Hearst, wife of mining magnate George Hearst and namesake of UC Berkeley’s museum of anthropology.

UC Berkeley kept the Chumash remains and loaned some to White for research projects before returning them to the tribe in the summer of 2018.

The Santa Ynez Valley
The Chumash Reservation is located in California’s Santa Ynez Valley.Alejandra Rubio for NBC News

When the day of repatriation finally arrived, Nakia Zavalla and other tribe members drove 300 miles to campus and entered a back room of the anthropology building where UC Berkeley stored their ancestors.

“Walking into this facility for the first time was terrifying. Literally shelves of human remains,” said Zavalla, the tribe’s cultural director. “And you take them out, and there’s ancestors all mixed together, sometimes just all the femurs, a tray full of skulls.”

Zavalla said tribal members had to bring their own caskets to carry their ancestors home for burial — a complaint other tribal nations have made regarding the university’s treatment. UC Berkeley officials said they were not aware of Zavalla’s “disturbing account” but changed their policies to ensure they provide assistance “as requested by the tribes.”

Zavala said the visit underscored how the university had deprived the tribe of more than ancestral relics, she said. The university housed recordings and artifacts previously collected by ethnographers and anthropologists from Chumash elders.

For Zavalla, the information could have benefited her and other tribal members’ efforts to revitalize the Santa Ynez Chumash language and traditions — which government policies once sought to eradicate. But the information was not freely shared, he said: “They stole these items.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *