BERKELEY, Calif. - A group of Natives is protesting a recent move by the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology to eliminate a department that helped tribal members prove their right to ownership of collection items.
The University of California - Berkeley museum houses the second largest Native collection in the nation, after the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
Natives here have long disputed the museum's claim that a large portion of its Native collection cannot be linked to specific federally recognized tribes and therefore cannot be repatriated.
Now activists are saying Natives were ''deliberately and completely'' excluded from a review that led to the disbanding of the department, which assisted in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
''The university demonstrated a complete lack of respect for the Native American voice,'' said Pit River member Mark LeBeau, 36.
The conflict here resonates across Indian country, where struggles are ongoing between tribes who must prove museum items belong to them under NAGPRA and museums that want to maintain their collections.
The five-member Hearst Museum department, which included three Natives, was disbanded recently in part under the recommendation of two non-Natives: a California archaeologist and a former member of the federal NAGPRA Review Committee.
Officials say the reorganization will allow the museum to better work with tribes.
''The mission to serve the tribes has not changed at all,'' university spokesman Marie Felde said.
But opponents are threatening protests when school begins in late August if the decision is not reversed. Over the past few months, they have been waging an online campaign to raise awareness about their complaints against the museum and UC - Berkeley.
Meanwhile, museum and university officials who have been portrayed in the campaign as incommunicative hard-liners are trying to soften their image.
Four days after the announcement of a protest coalition including tribal members from the Kashia Pomo and Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut tribes and the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians, the museum held a ''behind the scenes'' tour for its members.
The private tour featured the 9,000 California Indian baskets the museum has collected since 1901.
''With specimens from almost every tribe in California, and examples representing every technique used in basket weaving, the collection is a unique resource,'' according to the Web site.
A statement about the reorganization is also posted on the Web site, along with a KQED television segment about basket weaver Julia Parker, 78, of the Coast Miwok and Kashaya Pomo.
Parker was filmed making a journey with her family to view the baskets of her ancestors at the Hearst Museum - 350 miles from her home.
Some northern California tribal members protest the museum's possession of such items. By contrast, some have asked it to house delicate repatriated items because they do not have proper storage, said Sandra Harris, the museum's associate director.
And then there are items that have not been repatriated under the federal NAGPRA, which required museums to submit an inventory of their Native collections by 1996, classifying items as ''culturally affiliated'' or ''unidentifiable.''
Across the country, affiliated items were repatriated, while tribes continue to collect evidence to prove their right to ownership of others.
The Hearst Museum's NAGPRA department had assisted area tribes in efforts toward cultural determination, a decision ultimately made by the Berkeley Repatriation Committee.
The museum identified only about 20 percent of its items as ''affiliated'' in its 1996 inventory, according to tribal activists. The museum's Web site says its inventory list of unidentifiable items ''exceeded the federal statute.''
The university was given until 2000 to fully comply. In November 1999, members of the federal NAGPRA review committee ''expressed their concern over the experiences different Native groups have had with UC Berkeley.''
One member suggested a letter be sent ''detailing the concerns that UC Berkeley has not followed the process or completed good faith consultation,'' according to the committee minutes.
Now there is even less hope for Native groups because NAGPRA services are certain to be ''cut or eliminated at a critical time when good faith and justice require that the level of service be maintained or increased,'' said Larri Fredericks, Alaska Athabascan and the former NAGPRA interim coordinator.
Museum Director Kent Lightfoot was unavailable for comment.
Harris said the reorganization was designed so that all staff works with tribes, adding that a repatriation coordinator will be hired to assist with claims.
The museum wants to find ways other than NAGPRA to partner with tribes, including loaning out items to tribal museums or for ceremony, Harris said.
It also wants tribal members to take internships and work on collection items, she said, adding: ''We don't often know the tribal perspective on these pieces.''
Staff views visits by Natives as learning experiences, Harris said.
''There's been cases where someone came in and said, 'You know, a woman should not look at that or handle that,''' she said. ''Sometime it's really fun. Sometimes people come and in and say, 'Oh, my grandmother made that,' or 'My family made this.'''
Lightfoot said in a statement that stronger ties with Natives are ''crucial to the success'' of the museum's plans to expand.
But its relationship with some is now on even shakier ground.
The coalition formed to protest the reorganization - which also includes the Santa Rosa Rancheria Tachi Yokut Tribe, the Soboba Band of Luiseno Indians and the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley - are asking others to join.
They, and the Pit River tribal government, are demanding a complete reversal of the decision to disband the NAGPRA department, arguing that it was a crucial aid to tribes.
They are threatening to protest if Chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau refuses a written request for a meeting this week.
Protests appear likely. Felde said the university will ''take a look'' at the request.
But, she added, ''The university position has been that this is a staff reorganization, not at all a change in the mission of the museum.''