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Natasha Brennan
Special to Indian Country Today

The University of California at Berkeley has stripped the name of a controversial anthropologist from a science and arts building, drawing praise as a “first step” toward healing tensions with tribes and Indigenous students but reigniting criticisms over slow repatriation of Native remains.

For more than 50 years, the building carried the name of Alfred Louis Kroeber, a cultural anthropologist whose research in the early 1900s influenced the study of California tribes for decades.

But his involvement in the exhumation and collection of Indigenous remains and his treatment of a Native man called Ishi – dubbed “the last wild Indian in the United States” – brought growing demands on Berkeley to remove his name.

Joining the call for removal were leaders of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, whose unceded lands are now home to UC Berkeley. Kroeber, who taught at Berkeley for 45 years, erroneously declared the Ohlone tribe to be culturally extinct in 1925, prompting the Bureau of Indian Affairs to remove the tribe’s federally recognized status and forcing members to vacate their protected land.

“We take seriously the commitment of a public university being representative of the people of the state,” said Berkeley Professor Paul Fine, chair of the Building Name Review Committee. “It’s important to change and be responsive and inclusive in educating a cross-section of California.”

Indigenous student groups praised the committee’s unanimous decision to “unname” the building.

“Violence perpetrated against the Indigenous peoples of what is today California should not be discounted or minimized,” said UC Berkeley doctoral student Ataya Cesspooch, Northern Ute, Assiniboine and Lakota.

“This is just a first step – it’s not one or the other. We should rename the building, and returning the ancestors needs to be a top priority.”

Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (center) is shown with an Indigenous man he named Ishi, right, and Yahi translator Sam Batwai. The photo was taken in 1911 in San Francisco, near what was then known as the University of California Museum of Anthropology. Ishi lived and worked in the museum until he died of tuberculosis in 1916. (Photo courtesy of UC San Francisco History Collection)

Kroeber’s great-grandson, Gavin Kroeber, spoke out in support of removing the name, a decision he said was not heavily contested by other family members.

“No one was truly oppositional,” he told Indian Country Today. “I cannot speak for the family or on their behalf, but in my experience members of the family that responded weren’t surprised at the idea the name might come off the building one day … We were surprised that it’s taken this long.”

The building houses the Department of Anthropology and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, which maintains out of public view the university’s vast collection of ancestral remains and artifacts.

The Department of Art Practice and the Worth Ryder Art Gallery also operate in the building, which for now will be called the Anthropology and Art Practice Building.

A lifetime of work draws fire

Kroeber was the university’s first faculty member in the newly formed Anthropology Department, moving west in 1901 to the San Francisco area at age 25 after completing his doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University in New York. He became a full professor in 1919 and continued teaching until he retired in 1946.

From 1909 to 1947, he also directed what was initially called the University of California Museum of Anthropology, which later was named after benefactor Hearst.

He was co-founder and president of the American Anthropological Association, founded the Linguistic Society of America and presided over the American Folklore Society, according to the university.

By the time he died in 1960 at age 84, however, his lifetime of work was beginning to spark dissent.

Kroeber’s research of California tribes led to a 1925 book, “Handbook of the Indians of California,” which included historic details of Indigenous culture at the time. He also captured Native languages on wax cylinders that are still used today by researchers and tribes.

But his work to exhume and collect Indigenous remains – known as “salvage anthropology” by critics – helped the museum and university amass what is one of the largest collections of ancestral remains in the U.S.

In 1990, Congress passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, and the state of California passed its own CalNAGPRA in 2001. The acts establish requirements for the return of Native remains and cultural objects to tribes by government agencies and museums that maintain collections.

The California State Auditor’s office conducted an analysis in 2019 of the University of California’s compliance with the state and federal laws, focusing on three of the 10 UC campuses – Berkeley, Los Angeles and Davis.

Auditors found that Berkeley had nearly 500,000 Native American remains and artifacts as of 2019 – almost five times the number that UCLA and UC Davis had combined.

Berkeley, meanwhile, had returned only about 20 percent of its holdings, compared to UCLA’s 96 percent, the auditor’s office concluded.

The remains and objects are stored at the museum and are not accessible to the public, students or faculty. They are not on display and research on them has stopped, Associate Vice Chancellor for Research Linda Rugg and NAGPRA Coordinator Thomas Torma said in an email.

“If and when tribes request we care for items in accordance with traditional care practices, we do so whenever possible,” they said in the email.

State Auditor Elaine Howle’s 2020 letter summarizing the analysis said the three campuses – and Berkeley, in particular -- weren’t doing enough.

“This report concludes that the university’s inadequate policies and oversight have resulted in inconsistent practices for returning Native American remains and artifacts among the university campuses we reviewed,” Howle wrote.

The audit blames Berkeley’s slow repatriation rate on a requirement that tribes submit evidence beyond geographic evidence and oral history to prove tribal affiliation. Additionally, Berkeley, unlike the other audited campuses, requires written support from all consulted tribes before it returns the remains or artifacts to the requesting tribe — a process that can take more than a year.

University officials acknowledged that cases “dragged on,” but said they have now shifted their focus to repatriation.

“We want to return them as quickly as we can, in accordance with the legislation that tribes fought to enact,” the UC Berkeley NAGPRA representatives said.

A 'living exhibit'

Kroeber’s treatment of Ishi has also drawn sharp criticism.

Ishi apparently surfaced near Oroville, California in 1911, when, alone and emaciated, he was arrested by police for a string of food thefts. Kroeber and UC faculty convinced authorities to release him into their custody.

The man did not give Kroeber his name, but was called “Ishi,” meaning “man.” Ishi was believed to have survived the Three Knolls Massacre in 1865, when many of the Yahi tribal members were killed. He also survived another attack in 1908 that is believed to have killed his few remaining family members.

Kroeber, who by then was the museum’s director, proposed that Ishi be housed at the museum. Ishi worked as a janitor and as a “living exhibit” for visitors, making tools and recording Yahi songs and stories, according to the museum’s website.

According to author Orin Starn’s 2004 book, “Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last ‘Wild’ Indian,’ Ishi was disturbed to be living in the museum among the ancestral remains. He knew of the research and autopsies conducted, and told Kroeber he wanted to be cremated and buried without an autopsy in accordance with his tribe’s traditions.

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In 1916, however, Ishi died from tuberculosis while Kroeber was out of town. By the time Kroeber returned, an autopsy had been performed and Ishi’s brain had been removed for further study.

Kroeber donated the brain to the Smithsonian Institute, where it was held until being rediscovered by Starn at the behest of Native activists.

Finally, in 2000, Ishi’s brain and ashes were repatriated to the Redding Rancheria and Pit River tribes — who trace their ancestry to the Yahi — and buried in secrecy on his ancestral lands in California.

Kroeber’s supporters believe he did the best he could for the times in which he lived.

Kroeber’s wife, Theodora, wrote a book, “Ishi in Two Worlds,” that was published by Berkeley Press in 1961 after Kroeber’s death. It sold more than a million copies, was translated into more than a dozen languages and adapted into two films.

She concluded in the book that living in the museum was the best outcome for Ishi. She said he enjoyed his duties and grew to have a friendship with Kroeber. On many occasions, he refused to leave, she wrote.

Nancy Scheper-Hughes, a UC professor emeritus of anthropology, told the Daily Californian in a 2017 article reflecting on Ishi’s life that Kroeber became depressed after Ishi’s death and did not want to continue his studies of California’s Indigenous people.

In 1999, Scheper-Hughes, on behalf of the anthropology department, wrote and read a letter apologizing for Ishi’s treatment at a Sacramento conference discussing the treatment of the state’s Native people. She also chaired a committee tasked with responding to Maidu activist Art Angle’s request that Ishi’s remains be repatriated.

She recently spoke out against removing Kroeber’s name from the building.

“To refer to Kroeber as ethically atrocious and reprehensible means only one thing: you do not know what you are talking about,” she wrote in a blog post in July 2020.

A final resolution

The building’s controversial namesake has been a topic of discussion for years, well before a former professor was credited with the idea in 1984 and the UC Berkeley Tribal Forum revisited the topic in 2017.

In 2018, the Associated Students of the University of California, Berkeley — the governing student body — passed a resolution to begin the first meeting of every semester with a statement acknowledging the university sits on stolen Ohlone land.

The university received the land through the Morrill Land-Grant Acts, statutes passed by Congress in 1862 and 1890 that allowed for creation of land-grant colleges to provide military and mechanical teachings. Millions of acres were taken from tribes and turned over to states for the land-grant schools.

Finally, in July 2020, the UC Berkeley’s Building Name Review Committee launched an official review of the arts and science building name after receiving an official proposal to remove Kroeber’s name. The proposal was signed by representatives of Indigenous student groups, Berkeley faculty and staff, and members of the school’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act Advisory Committee.

Gavin Kroeber, a curator and art critic, wrote a letter to the committee supporting the proposal.

“To some degree, the presence of our family name on the building makes a kind of land claim — a claim about the right to occupy unceded land, a claim that should not be maintained,” he wrote in the letter.

He told Indian Country Today that he wrote the letter after learning about decolonization from California’s headline-grabbing wildfires, which inspired him to take part in an art project in collaboration with other artists and Indigenous activists. Now, when he visits family in California, he takes time to also visit the burned areas.

“I began to realize these trips mirrored Alfred’s because the lands burning were unstewarded Native land,” he said. “For me, lending his name in the letter could spark change and material actions the university, state and other landowners can follow. For me, we’re now at the interesting part: How does the university move forward?”

Gavin Kroeber said he grew up knowing very little about his great-grandparents. He was well into his 20s, he said, when he began to understand them as figures in his family.

“I’m glad in the end, when I saw the images of the name being taken down, that I was able to contribute in some way,” he said.

The building committee submitted its findings to UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ and UC President Michael Drake for approval in October 2020.

“Kroeber’s treatment of a Native American man we know as Ishi and the handling of his remains was cruel, degrading and racist,” the committee wrote in its proposal.

Looking ahead

Kroeber’s name was removed from the building Jan. 26, leaving behind a pile of metal letters in a box.

It was the fourth building the committee has unnamed in the last year. In 2020, the committee voted to remove the names from Boalt Hall, Barrows Hall and LeConte Hall, citing actions by their long-dead namesakes perceived as racist.

Next up will be a new name for the anthropology building, a decision that will fall to the Space Assignments and Capital Improvements Committee. The building committee recommended the new name be chosen in consultation with Native students and tribes, though a meeting has not yet been scheduled.

The Muwekma Ohlone Indian Tribe of the San Francisco Bay Area Region has asked to be included in the process, and suggested the building be renamed “Muwekma Ohlone Hall.”

“The renaming of buildings on Berkeley’s campus is an issue of justice for our Muwekma Ohlone tribal members, and for our ancestors who were impacted by Kroeber’s harmful actions and declarations,” tribal chair Charlene Nijmeh wrote in a letter to the committee.

The pain endures for many.

“Our great-grandparents suffered through that time, but they survived that time,” tribal member Vincent Medina said at the Native American Cultural Affiliation and Repatriation Work Sessions with UC in January 2020.

“(They) refused to give up, refused to stop speaking our language, practicing our religion, carrying on traditional ways. And because we grew up with those people, we feel compelled to do the same,” he said.

The fight for repatriation of remains, meanwhile, continues.

“Kroeber wasn’t the sole actor in the California genocide, but he definitely played a part in the process that alienated California Indians,” said Phenocia Bauerle, a member of the Apsáalooke tribe and director of Native American student development at Berkeley. She is also a member of the campus’s Native American Advisory Council.

“Unnaming is a small step, and yes, somewhat performative, but I think once you open that door, you are making room for more conversation and potential reflection on our ‘truths’ of a country or institution,” Bauerle said.

“His actions weren’t malicious, but they were flawed. Unnaming acknowledges that there was harm done,” she said. “I don't understand why it can't be true that Berkeley needs to take care of NAGPRA and other issues as well.”

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Natasha Brennan, Cahuilla, is a journalist and photographer from Southern California covering the surrounding Native communities. Follow her on Twitter- @Natasha_Marie_B or Instagram- @Natasha_Marie_B.

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