UC Berkeley Museum of Anthropology Returns Remains of 1860 Massacre to Wiyot Tribe – CBS San Francisco
EUREKA (AP) — The most vulnerable members of the Wiyot tribe were sleeping on the morning of February 26, 1860, when a band of white men crept into their northern California villages in the dark and massacred them .
Many of the children, women and elderly people killed in what became known as the Indian Island Massacre had their eternal rest disrupted when their graves were later dug up and their skeletons and the artifacts buried with them were been placed in a museum.
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After nearly 70 years of separation from their tribe, the remains of at least 20 of those believed to have been killed have been brought home.
“They are going to be at peace and at rest with our other ancestors,” Ted Hernandez, the Wiyot Tribe’s historic preservation manager, said Tuesday after the repatriation was announced. “They will be able to reunite with their families.
The return is part of an effort by some institutions to do a better job of complying with federal law that requires returning to tribes items looted from sacred burial sites.
Grave robbing was another indignity suffered by Native Americans and their descendants long after they were driven from their lands or killed. Prominent amateurs, collectors and even researchers participated in the desecration of burial sites. Skulls, bones and antiquities were sold, exchanged, studied and exhibited in museums.
Cutcha Risling Baldy, professor of Native American studies at Humboldt State University, said the return of sacred objects brings healing to tribes.
She criticized museums and universities that store objects that objectify Native Americans and reduce them to historical objects and artifacts rather than people.
“From a spiritual perspective, from a cultural perspective, or even from a human perspective, it’s hard to imagine the graves of your ancestors being dug up and then put in a museum,” Risling said. Baldy. “It kind of creates a mythology around Indigenous people that we’re kind of specimens, rather than people and human beings.”
The bones of the Wiyot were recovered in 1953 after they were discovered near where a pier was being built outside the city of Eureka, 362 kilometers north of San Francisco, according to a notice published the last year in the Federal Register.
A team from the University of California at Berkeley collected the remains and stored them along with 136 artifacts buried with them – mostly beads and ornaments made from shells, an arrowhead from a broken bottle fragment, a sinker for a fishing net, bone tools and a moose tooth.
The burial grounds were where the Wiyot buried some of their dead following a devastating series of mass killings in a dozen of their villages over the course of a week in 1860.
The unprovoked killings took place amid the tribe’s Global Renewal Ceremony, a peaceful 10-day celebration of food, dance and prayers to restore balance to the Earth, Hernandez said.
After the ceremony, the tribesmen left for the night, paddling from the island to the mainland to hunt and fish for food and to collect firewood for the feast the next day.
In the early morning, raiders arrived in canoes across the bay and stabbed, beat or hacked the victims with knives, clubs and hatchets. Several more attacks took place that night, and more killings took place over the next five days, said Jerry Rohde, a Humboldt County historian.
More than 50 people have been killed on the island, and up to 500 may have been killed during the week, Rohde said. A report in the New York Times put the death toll at 188.
The vigilante group was dubbed the “Thugs” but was never publicly named or held accountable.
A young Bret Harte, who was to become one of the most popular writers of the day, wrote a scathing op-ed about the bloodshed in The Northern Californian, a city newspaper just north.
“When the bodies were landed at Union, a more shocking and revolting sight was never presented to the eyes of a Christian and civilized people,” he wrote.
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But that was not popular opinion in the region, Rohde said. The editor of the Humboldt Times had pleaded for the displacement or extermination of the natives. Harte fled to San Francisco after death threats.
Some of the men bragged about the killings, and two others who allegedly participated were later elected to the state legislature, Rohde said.
The Wiyot began seeking the return of their ancestors in 2016 under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The law made grave theft illegal and required government institutions to return items in their possession.
But getting them back hasn’t always been easy.
UC Berkeley, which held the remains at the Hearst Museum of Anthropology, denied the request, citing lack of evidence, said university repatriation coordinator Tom Torma.
Torma knew about the matter because he submitted the request as the Wiyot’s historical preservation officer at the time.
A 2020 state audit found the University of California had an inconsistent policy in how it repatriated remains. While the University of California, Los Angeles had returned most of the remains eligible, Berkeley had returned only 20%.
UC Berkeley, home to the remains of 10,000 Native Americans — the largest collection in the United States — also routinely demanded additional evidence that delayed returns, the audit found.
The campus has had a racial account with the past in recent years, including its history with Native Americans.
Last year, the university removed Alfred Kroeber’s name from the hall housing the anthropology department and museum. Kroeber, a pioneer in American anthropology, collected or licensed a collection of Native American remains for research.
He was best known for taking custody of Ishi, called “the last of the Yahi”, who emerged from the desert in 1911. The man presented himself as a living exhibit for museum visitors, demonstrating how to make stone tools and crafts.
The university system revised its repatriation policy, based in part on tribal contributions, last year. A new committee at UC Berkeley took a more proactive approach and determined there was enough evidence to return the Wiyot articles, Torma said.
The repatriation was done in conjunction with the US Army Corps of Engineers, which was responsible for building the pier that may have unearthed the remains.
For the Wiyot tribe, the repatriation last fall came two years after the island known today as Tuluwat was returned to the tribe by the city of Eureka.
It’s now up to the tribal elders to figure out what to do with the remains, Hernandez said.
The dead are already part of their ceremonies. When the dance and prayer are over, the sacred fires remain lit for their ancestors.
“They will be able to continue the ceremonies in the afterlife,” Hernandez said.
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