Science versus the sacred: studying native remains at UC Berkeley

Feb 16, 2012

UC Berkeley is home to the country’s second largest collection of human skeletons outside of a graveyard, about 12 thousand total. Some are thousands of years old. The University has unearthed and studied these remains for centuries. They’ve taught researchers a great deal about California’s prehistoric past.

“It turns out that the human skeleton, indeed the skeleton of any mammal is a very good guide to that animal’s life,” explains Tim White, a UC Berkeley professor of integrative biology. “So it is a holisitc study, just like a crime scene investigation, but these are very cold cases with very ancient evidence.”

By studying the bones of native Californians, researchers know a great deal about how people first came to the Golden State. They know what they ate, where they lived, and how they responded to different changes in the climate. Scientists have also learned about diseases that continue to afflict us today. “One is on the incidence of tuberculosis, which many people for many years thought was imported from Europe,” says White. “It turns out that tuberculosis strains were here, in the new world, long before contact with Europeans.”

The bacteria that causes tuberculosis can still be found in some of these bones. White says by studying it, we might gain helpful knowledge in treating the disease. “It is a really important health issue, not just for Native American’s, but for all Americans, indeed all people all over the world.”

But not everyone thinks the argument is that straight forward. “Science is typically seen as something important for everyone, everywhere. And I don’t think that’s the case,” says Clayton Dumont, a Sociology professor at San Francisco State University. “Most Native communities will tell you that they never wanted to have their dead quote collected unquote by scientists. They’ve been fighting this always.”

Dumont is in a unique position in this debate – he’s a social scientist at San Francisco State University and also a member of Southern Oregon’s Klamath tribe. He says the study of Native American skeletons is rooted in a long, dirty history.

“From the moment that Europeans set foot on the East Coast of North America, they began to disturb Native graves.”  Dumont goes on to talk about diaries from the Mayflower, describing the desecration of Native graves.  Of founding fathers exhuming skeletons on their properties. Of dead warriors being decapitated on the battlefield.

“Native dead were treated differently then everyone else’s dead,” explains Dumont. “If there was a road going in, and they uncovered dead white folks, they would go to the coroner, and they would go for reburial.  But native people would go to a lab, or to a museum, or to a university.”

This was all done in the name of science; many thought Native Americans were a dying race, so they believed it was important to collect and study their remains and try and figure out how Native people fit into their story of human evolution.

The belief that Native Americans would become extinct hasn’t panned out, but the study of their remains continues to this day. Dumont says many of the underlying issues have persisted. “It’s about respect and it’s about power. It’s about the ability to look out for and control for the well-being of our own ancestors and not have outsiders tell us what’s good for us.”

In 1990, the federal government passed the Native American Grave and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. The law mandates that Native American tribes have first right to skeletal remains and cultural artifacts, as long as there is proof of lineage. UC Berkeley’s Tim White says what has happened is basically a shift in the balance of power. “These disenfranchised people now have a chance to come in and ask questions about what are the holdings in this museum, and how do those holdings relate to us.”

The law has made 45,000 human remains and over 1 million artifacts available for repatriation. But because of a loophole in the NAGPRA law, about three quarters of UC Berkeley’s collection are being kept without tribal permission. Under the law, only federally recognized tribes have the right to repatriate remains. About 100 tribes in California are federally recognized and 40 aren’t.

A 2010 amendment in the law changed this.  Now, even without federal recognition, tribes can recover bones taken from their indigenous land. At UC Berkeley, this means 6,000 of the roughly 10,000 culturally unaffiliated remains could be returned. Which has scientists like White worried. “It’s the largest collection on earth of people who lived in a hunting and gathering economy,” and he says people come from all over the world to study it.  “That would be lost and it wouldn’t be lost for next years researchers alone, it would be lost for researchers 100 years from now, who came in with new techniques to learn more things.”

UC Berkeley’s Hearst Museum has also changed since the 2010 NAGPRA amendment.  They have hired four additional staff to help catalogue the collection and figure out what bones go where. The university is also helping several tribes to start setting up their own museums.