Berkeley Talks transcript: Linda Rugg on Native American repatriation at UC Berkeley

Listen to Berkeley Talks episode #118: “Linda Rugg on Native American repatriation at UC Berkeley.”

Susan Hoffman: Welcome, everyone. Welcome OLLI members, campus colleagues and community members. Today’s topic is based on “UC Berkeley’s Native American repatriation and renaming and un-naming efforts.” It is a part of OLLI’s speaker series called America’s Unfinished Work. The leading thinkers from campus engaged in the examination and eradication of systemic racism to create a more human just and equal society.

Today’s speaker is associate vice chancellor for research, Linda Haverty Rugg. We have known her well at UC Berkeley’s OLLI, where she has been the professor of Swedish literature in the Scandinavian department, bringing courses to OLLI on all sorts of related topics, literature and film, the eco-cultural criticism of the Nordic lands and many other relevant pieces.

Her present research engages with the work of two Swedish brothers, who arrived in the Delaware River Valley in 1712. The particular focus of this encounter is with the Native Americans and the natural environment of North America. So right now, I’d like also to mention that Professor Linda Rugg was also a Distinguished Teaching Award Winner with OLLI at Berkeley, given her relationship with us. So now, we will have a presentation by professor Rugg, Associate Vice Chancellor Rugg for the next 45, 50 minutes. Hopefully, we’ll have a few minutes at the end for questions, which we will ask you to put into the chat room. So with no further ado, Linda Rugg.

Linda Haverty Rugg: Thank you, Susan. I was asked to speak today, as you may have guessed, because I’m a long-term instructor for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute and also because I now occupy a position in the administration, where I’m part of an effort to change a long pattern of delay and obstruction on the part of the university, and frustration and hurt and righteous anger on the part of Native Americans regarding repatriation.

Linda Haverty Rugg: I began this work in 2018. And when I started my present position, I had never heard of NAGPRA, which is an acronym that I will explain shortly. And I was not aware of the experience of Native Americans, particularly Native Californians, with our university. I’ve now had the chance to meet with Native people at conferences and in meetings, both in their ancestral lands and on campus and virtually, and I have felt their anger and their sorrow at the treatment they and their ancestors have received. And I want to say that I’m deeply sorry for what we have done as individuals and as a community to cause this injury.

I had a chance to scan the attendance sheet for this event before speaking today. And I realized that there are a lot of people sitting in the audience who know more than me, more than I do about NAGPRA, about California history about Native American history, and certainly about Native American life. And so I want to stress that I’m not speaking today out of a position of great knowledge and great authority. But I’m going to offer my perspective on the work of repatriation and the acts of naming and un-naming and tell you what we’ve been trying to do to restore justice. But speaking out of my own position also means bringing something in my background into this mix. And so I want to share with you an image, it’s actually a story that has played out in my mind as I’ve been working on repatriation in the university.

I am in the Scandinavian department, my first foreign language that I learned was German. And this is a story that I often think about. It’s a powerful image for me of what it’s like to approach the university as a native person, and how the university holds its power. It’s a story called Vor dem Gesetz/Before the Law, and it was written by Franz Kafka in 1915. It begins, “Vor dem Gesetz steht ein Türhüter,” which means “Before the law stands a gatekeeper.” A man from the country comes to this gatekeeper and ask for permission to be granted access to the law. But the gatekeeper answers that for now, it is not possible. Having thought about this, the man asks if it would be possible later on. “Maybe,” says the gatekeeper, “but not now.”

In this little parable, the man from the country is kept waiting so long to be permitted to present his case that he dies. It is my hope that because the Native American people have persisted and have held up a mirror to the gatekeeper, which is the university, which is me and others, and show us what we have done and what we are doing, I hope that we can change the ending to this story.

I’m going to now come finally to my talk. But before I do that, I want to take a moment to recognize that UC Berkeley sits on a territory of Huichin, the ancestral and unceded land of the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone people, the successors of the sovereign Verona Band of Alameda County. This land was and continues to be of great importance to the Muwekma Ohlone tribe and other familial descendants of the Verona Band.

It’s vitally important that we not only recognize the history of the land on which the university stands, but also, we recognize that the Muwekma Ohlone people are alive and flourishing members of the Berkeley and broader Bay Area communities today. This land acknowledgement is an abridged version of a co-created one by the Muwekma Ohlone tribe and Native Student Development and it’s a living document, so it can change as we go forward. And this is a recreation, an image of an Ohlone village. First, I’ll talk about the ancestors and their sacred belongings.

UC Berkeley holds the ancestral remains of more than 9,594 Native American individuals. That looks like a very exact number, but it’s deceptive. I have read the work of Tony Platt, as a historian, I’ll reference him later. And Tony points out that this is probably a significant undercount because there will be a count that counts a box, a burial site, and there may be several individuals in that burial site, for example. So it’s probably an undercount. Of that 9,594, more than 9,000 were taken from California. So, the holdings of the university, the ancestral remains, are predominantly California. And more than 2,000 of them come from Alameda County, where the university is sitting. And I should say that about two-thirds of these remains were taken from the counties around the Bay Area, about five counties.

I want to also point out that the creek that runs through the campus was a site of an Ohlone settlement. So, as we walk across campus every day, we’re actually walking on the land that was occupied by the Ohlone people. And also, the university holds, in addition to ancestral remains, about 122,000 sacred belongings that were taken from Californian tribes.

This is an image of the Emeryville Shellmound. Some of you may be familiar with this, where the Emeryville mall now stands at that area by the Bay. There used to be an enormous shellmound. The shellmound was a place where the Native people of this area buried their dead. It was a sacred site. And you can see that the dance pavilion was built on top of this mound, and before it later it was destroyed and there was a mall put there. And the ancestors that were buried in this mound, many of them are in the university’s holdings.

How did the ancestors and the sacred belongings get to the university? I’m going to give the very broad basic historical background of that was, of course, a genocide and dislocation of tribes. California Natives were targeted, especially during the United States period for actual killing and dislocation, cultural genocide and so on. Native Americans were viewed as a dying or disappearing race, and so that was an excuse. They would say, “We need to collect these things because the people are dying.” And so, that was one of the motivations for collection.

This was all predicated on the fact that Native Americans were viewed as racially inferior and they lacked legal standing. So, people did things to the remains and the belongings of Native American people that they would not have allowed each other to do to the remains of European colonists, for example, or American colonists.

There was a drive, especially around the turn of the century and the beginning of the 20th century, toward collection and exhibition. And this was something that pushed forward the amassing these enormous amounts of ancestral remains and belongings. And then, the development of anthropology as a discipline within the university also led to a drive to collect, amass a large number of ancestral remains and belongings. And one of the disciplines, a sub-discipline in anthropology, was craniometry, which is the measurement of skulls and very frequently this was used in a racist context distinguishing between races. UC Berkeley anthropologists collected ancestral remains and belongings and they urged others to do…

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