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University of California, Berkeley repatriates cultural artifacts to Indigenous tribe


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: The looting and excavation of excavating of Native American grades and sites, the collecting, studying and exhibiting of human remains and sacred objects, this has been a source of bitter relations between many American cultural institutions and Native tribes, even as laws and practices have begun to change.

Jeffrey Brown reports from Berkeley, California, for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Vincent Medina, Co-Founder, Cafe Ohlone: We start off with our most traditional food, which is black oak acorn soup.

Jeffrey Brown: It was a meal of the past.

Vincent Medina: This is a food that has sustained our Ohlone people for thousands upon thousands of years.

Jeffrey Brown: And present.

Vincent Medina: Cowgirl Creamery triple-cream cheese.

Person: Thank you.

Jeffrey Brown: This was a special gathering of the new Cafe Ohlone just outside the Anthropology Museum at the University of California, Berkeley.

The space is now called Ottoy, which means to amend or repair in the Chochenyo language. And this was a celebration for co-founder Vincent Medina and other members of his Ohlone Tribe, but also something more.

Vincent Medina: When I was a child, I remember first hearing about our ancestors that were being held here at this university.

Jeffrey Brown: Just days before, Medina spoke of the deep historical trauma that gives the location of his new cafe such meaning now.

Vincent Medina: I remember there was an elder that was there who was just pointing her finger. I could never forget that. And she said that the University of California, Berkeley, is holding onto thousands of our ancestors that they had removed from their cemeteries.

Jeffrey Brown: The remains, the actual remains?

Vincent Medina: Yes.

And I remember that elder told me -- I must have been 10 or 11 years old at the time. She said, and there is nothing that we can do about it right now.

Jeffrey Brown: Recent DNA studies suggest Ohlone people have lived in what is now the San Francisco Bay Area for at least 2,000 years, part of a long history of once-thriving California tribes decimated and marked by genocide, discrimination and exclusion.

The university sitting on Ohlone land is part of that history too. Like research institutions elsewhere, its scholars, such as famed anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, long collected, studied and exhibited Native remains and artifacts.

Sabrina Agarwal, University of California, Berkeley: It was kind of routine professional practice, but they only took certain people, right? They weren't taking -- there's not large collections of early pioneers, right?

There's sort of -- there's collections of people from marginalized communities. The disenfranchised are who are in these collections. It is part of a larger context of scientific racism in the field and in many fields in biomedicine and in anthropology.

Jeffrey Brown: Sabrina Agarwal a bio-archaeologist and professor of anthropology at Berkeley. She studied and trained under the old system, but is now part of a new movement in her field, which she refers to as restorative justice.

Sabrina Agarwal: You have to change professional practice and institutional policies and process, which is what we have done.

Jeffrey Brown: The Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, was signed into federal law in 1990 to govern the handling and, in many cases, return of human remains, sacred objects and other cultural patrimony.

But it applies only to federally recognized tribes, leaving out many smaller ones. California has had its own version on the books since 2001. But Native tribes have long complained of being ignored and confronted with barriers. What items count as sacred, for example, and who decides, and of scientific scholarship being privileged over tribal knowledge, which was often passed down in an oral tradition.

Ohlone elder Andrew Galvan, who himself became a curator at Old Mission Dolores in San Francisco, has fought this system for decades.

Andrew Galvan, Curator, Old Mission Dolores: Over time, I did find some researchers that were very honest and very sincere. And, yes, there can be many things that are learned from research.

But the way the collections were treated, the way they were stored, whereas, nothing against students, but a 19-year-old undergrad could have access to the skeletal remains of our ancestors for his or her research, and we couldn't even see them.

Jeffrey Brown: As recently as 2020, a California NAGPRA audit strongly criticized U.C. Berkeley, even as compared with other California universities, for failing to return many of the thousands of items it continues to hold, including remains in storage cabinets on campus.

But change is now happening. One small sign? Under new collection guidelines, we were not permitted to show the physical holdings, as we might have in the past.

Sabrina Agarwal, who now heads Berkeley's NAGPRA campus committee, charged with implementing the law, adds this:

Sabrina Agarwal: I think we have had a shift in realizing we are not the experts, right? It is the people that -- whose history that we are interested in which are the experts. And if they are still alive, we -- they are the people that we need to learn from and listen to.

Jeffrey Brown: One notable repatriation occurred earlier this year, the return of remains of at least 20 members of the Northern California Wiyot Tribe, victims of an 1860 massacre.

Ted Hernandez is the tribe's the tribes historic preservation officer.

Ted Hernandez, Historic Preservation Officer, Wiyot Tribe: It was important because they have our ancestors in boxes, where they did not belong, and we knew they were from the massacre, that they needed to come home, and they need to be with their families that are in the sacred sites that we keep secret for the tribe.

Your family is not connected unless you are all together. In our culture, family is unity. That's what keeps us strong, and that's what keeps us bonded together.

Jeffrey Brown: A large storage facility near Berkeley's campus contains thousands of Native artifacts still to be resolved. Now classified as sacred, the university no longer displays them publicly.

We were given permission by the Wiyot Tribe to film these baskets. After the critical 2020 audit, Tom Torma, a non-Native who previously worked with the Wiyot Tribe to get its remains returned from Berkeley, was hired by the university to help it facilitate future returns for all tribes.

He has been on both, once opposing sides. Now he believes working together.

Thomas Torma, University of California, Berkeley: That's a real sea change, that active encouragement in actively seeking to repatriate. My mandate from the university is to get all the ancestors home, as opposed to keep as many as we can. And that is a massive sea change.

Jeffrey Brown: Some, like Andrew Galvan, remain skeptical.

Andrew Galvan: It still to me feels just the same, lip service. We want to give you these things back, but we can't, because.

Jeffrey Brown: It still feels that way?

Andrew Galvan: It still feels that way.

Jeffrey Brown: By all accounts, the process is just beginning. Last year, Alfred Kroeber's name was removed from the anthropology building, one symbolic gesture, another, perhaps, the new Cafe Ohlone next door.

But for co-founder Vincent Medina, who also now works with the university as an outside member of its repatriation committee, symbolic change is important too.

Vincent Medina: What it is going to be doing right here on campus is to be a constant reminder that the Ohlone people, that we are still here, that our culture is beautiful, that our culture is valuable, that it is not something of the past, but it is something of the present as well.

Jeffrey Brown: For the "PBS NewsHour," I am Jeffrey Brown on the campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

Judy Woodruff: So important to understand that this is going on.

Thank you, Jeff.

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