Justice for the Dead, by Tony Platt

BERKLEY indian skull and bones LIFE MAGAZINEIn 1974, Berkeley’s distinguished anthropologist, Robert Heizer, issued a public mea culpa for the practices of his profession in treating “California Indians as though they were objects.” In particular, he apologized for the “continued digging up of the graves of their ancestors.”
In 1999, the Department of Anthropology at Berkeley issued an apology to the cultural descendants of Ishi for sending his brain to the Smithsonian in 1916. “We regret our department’s role in what happened to Ishi, a man who had already lost all that was dear to him.”
This was a good beginning to a journey of accountability and reconciliation. But since then, the University of California has been publicly silent about its role as the legal owner of a vast collection of native body parts stashed in basements in campuses throughout the state. It owes at the very least 10,000 more apologies.
What happened to Ishi was by no means an anomaly. Between the late 18th century, when Thomas Jefferson dug up a thousand skeletons buried near his home, and the 1960s, when the Red Power movement challenged the right of archaeologists and scientists to treat their dead as specimens, hundreds of thousands of native bodies were excavated throughout the United States.
During the first half of the 20th century, California’s anthropologists played a leading role in the exhumation of graves and trade in funerary artifacts. Ralph Glidden, a self-styled archaeologist, filled and decorated the Catalina Museum of Island Indians with hundreds of crania and bones taken from Tongva and other graves. Two hundred human remains collected by Glidden are currently housed at UCLA.
At Berkeley, archaeologist Edward Gifford tested his eugenic theories of racial difference on the skulls of native peoples sent to the university by collectors all over the state. By 1948, Berkeley was boasting to Life magazine that its Native American collection included “more than 10,000 Indian skeletons, many of them complete.” A full-page photograph depicted a room full of human remains and a graduate student using a “craniometer to measure an ancient Indian skull.” A colleague recalls seeing human bones displayed in the landmark Campanile in the early 1960s.
In 1990 Congress passed legislation (Native American Graves and Repatriation Action or NAGPRA) that requires federally funded museums and universities to repatriate human remains to recognized tribes. While most institutions comply with the letter of the law, the pace of repatriation is glacially slow. By 2011 the Smithsonian had repatriated only one-third of its collection of human remains.
The University of California is the main repository of Native remains in this region. Here too repatriation is stalled. UC Davis retains more than 90 percent of its collection. “There are more dead Indians on the Davis campus than alive,” says a Native American activist working on a film about the anthropology department’s morgue of “Uneasy Remains.” As of June 2013, Berkeley has repatriated only 315 of its 10,000 remains. Why so little progress?
First, the process is slow and expensive, as claimants must make their ponderous way through faculty, campus, and university committees. Second, until recently tribes unrecognized by the federal government did not have a legal right to make a direct claim. Third, and most significantly, due to unscientific methods of work, the majority of the collection is unidentifiable as to provenance or tribal affiliation.
The burden for this impasse should be shouldered by the university. Throughout the 20th century, anthropologists from Berkeley and other UC campuses abused their scientific privilege by digging up graves without respect for the descendants of the dead; encouraging amateur archaeologists all over the state to send skeletal remains to the nearest university; failing in many cases to document the sites of excavation; indiscriminately mixing up body parts; and promoting racist ideas about Native inferiority.
The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, which serves as curator of Berkeley’s collection of human remains, is currently closed down for a “profound transformation” of its galleries, educational programs, and storage facilities. According to a Hearst staff member, the collection of body parts will be moved from a dank basement in the Hearst Gym to “new and improved storage” in Kroeber Hall; there will be a visitors’ room for Native groups to hold ceremonies; and a Native American advisory committee (albeit selected by the university) will be established.
These are small steps in the right direction. But in addition to these mostly cosmetic changes and to complying with the bureaucratic procedures of NAGPRA, the University should take institutional responsibility for, in Heizer’s words, “a human ethical” issue, namely how so many well educated, well meaning professors and administrators eagerly violated the rights of the dead and tormented the living.
If the University wants to profoundly transform its relations with tribal and native groups, it needs to take bold action, such as issuing public apologies for decades of malpractice, accelerating the repatriation process, and offering land or compensation for reburials.

(This was published in a slightly edited form as “UC and Native Americans: Unsettled Remains,” Los Angeles Times, 18 June 2013.)

Sociologist, Tony Platt is the author of ten books,150 essays and articles dealing with issues of race, inequality, and social justice in American history. Platt taught at the University of Chicago, University of California (Berkeley), and California State University (Sacramento). He is a Visiting Professor in Department of Justice Studies, San José State University, California. His publications have been translated into German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. His latest book – Grave Matters: Excavating California’s Buried Past – was published by Heyday in 2011. He lives in Berkeley and Big Lagoon, California, and serves as secretary of the Coalition to Protect Yurok Cultural Legacies at O-pyuweg (Big Lagoon). Platt blogs on history and memory at http://GoodToGo.typepad.com

Conference “The case of victims in Spain and Europe”, 28-29 May 2012 in Madrid

The case of victims in Spain and Europe: civil wars, terrorism and political acts of violence.
Nowadays, the political science works about the mobilization of the victims have been rather developed. Unfortunately, these studies ignore most of the time the Spanish fact which should be considered as one of the fields of investigation more appropriate and fertile to deal with this subject. The “case of victims” which could be terrorism, civil war or Franco system consequences, has been present in fact in the Spanish public debate for years.
However in Spain the cause of victims haven’t been analysed itself but in a few occasions and sometimes it is connected with subjects as the historical memory and the justice. The scarce studies trying to isolate the subject of the collective associations of victims are dealt either from a point of view psychological or historical and having a tendency to forget the contribution of the social and politic sciences.
Nevertheless we consider urgent and necessary to contribute to analyse deeply the “cause of victims” in Spain – the way it was set up and the types of reply which have been given rise – such as it is noticed in the mobilizations around the terrorism, Franco system and the civil war and whose bet in politician it is more and more important in Spain nowadays.
In this way, this international and interdisciplinary symposium will meet sociologists, anthropologists, political researchers and historians who will try to compare systematically which it is noticed in Spain from other fields of European investigations (France, Italy, Ex-Yugoslavia, etc). Therefore the aim is to get to know why is special and important the Spanish case in the potential development of the feeling of “victimhood” in Europe during the XX and XXI centuries.

Conference website:

Arnaud Esquerre, “Les Os, les cendres et l’État”. Paris, Fayard, 2011

Who in Europe, is concerned today with bones and ashes of the deceased? French sociologist Arnaud Esquerre reveals that the French State has never so much cared for the dead than these last decades. Removing the church’s control over the fate of the corpses, it has indeed expanded its hold on the territory of bones and ashes. Since the 1970s, the report of human remains has indeed changed radically with the use of increasingly massive cremation, requests for return of human remains to “indigenous peoples”, the media coverage of the desecration of cemeteries or the development of DNA analysis and medical imaging. Read More

“Journal of Genocide Research”: Call for Papers

The editors of the Journal of Genocide Research (the official journal of the International Network of Genocide Scholars) invite expressions of interest for participation in a one-day research workshop on genocide and its memorialization in the country of genocide or in countries with a significant victim/refugee diaspora. How do post-conflict societies negotiate genocidal histories as public narratives, human rights education discourses, and means of documentation of criminal pasts, and/or reconciliation? How have museums, for example, advanced understanding of genocide or undermined it through selective witness perspectives and/or political biases? In what ways has social media shaped the delivery of genocide narratives and their communicability? The editors invite proposals that address these questions and raise others related to genocide memorialization in public, museum, and other institutional settings. The workshop is open in geographic and temporal coverage. Topics can address the evolution and politics of genocide memorialization in recent and colonial times in a national or transnational context, for example Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, Canada, Europe, the Mediterranean world, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union. Read More

Art Installation “Map of Silence”

Argentine artist Rafael Landea’s multimedia installation, Maps of Silence, explores the political use of the concept of silence in different historical contexts. This work was created in collaboration with Gregory T. Kuhn. It features video performances of John Cage’s 4’33″ recorded in different countries.

Maps of Silence examines different historical contexts where the concept of silence took on crucial social and political dimensions. One of them is Buenos Aires, 1975, during a dictatorial government campaign ; this context is called by the artist, “Silence = Death” .