A recent year-long investigation by ProPublica and NBC News confirmed what is widely known on the UC Berkeley campus: Cal is the least compliant with the 1990 federal law that ordered the university to speedily repatriate thousands of Native American remains to their biological and cultural descendants. In response to this in-depth reporting, university administrators declined an interview and instead issued an unsigned, callously unreflective statement promising to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) by 2033 — 43 years after passage of the federal legislation. 

For the past three years, I have been doing research for the Berkeley Truth and Justice Project, trying to understand how a university that brands itself as an advocate of social justice sidesteps any controversial issues that might disrupt inspirational narratives marketed to prospective students and alums. Its public relations strategy relies on damage control, procrastination, and diversion of system-wide issues into bureaucratic silos. 

The university justified the plunder of Native patrimony in the name of scientific racism and preserving the culture of a “disappearing race.” It has since ignored the survivors of genocide and their descendants who have organized a fierce resistance, ranging from polite petitions to rambunctious confrontations.  Today, Tribes continue to speak out against what Sam Cohen of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians characterizes as “the number one bad actor” in the state: UC Berkeley. 

Academia functions not just in the service of power but as a powerful institution in its own right. This is what has permitted the university — despite multiple state audits excoriating Berkeley’s noncompliance with NAGPRA — to continue to sit on the largest collection of unrepatriated Native American remains in the United States — possibly the largest in the world. Cal’s refusal to honor the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People is one of many examples of its callous disregard for the human cost of knowledge. 

As I recently walked through the Berkeley campus — past buildings and plaques that celebrate the appropriation of Native homelands to finance the University of California; that dignify entrepreneurs who built their fortunes from the plunder of conquest; that erase Cal’s significant role in usurping tribal lands in New Mexico in order to build the first weapon of mass destruction against Japanese civilians; and that enshrine academics who made white supremacy respectable — I was reminded of Yurok Judge Abby Abinanti’s admonition that “the hardest mistakes to correct are those that are ingrained.”

March inaugurated UC Berkeley’s Big Give campaign to raise millions of dollars in donations to a university dedicated to “making the world a better place.” How about a Big Give Back campaign, starting with compensating the tribes and native organizations whose land, blood, ancestors, cultural heritage, and traditional knowledge are inseparably tied to the university’s origins and rise to global prominence? 

We also must do everything we can, in the words of Civil Rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, to “bring this thing out to the light.” Cal cultivates a culture of forgetfulness reminiscent of Turkey’s officially mandated amnesia about the genocide of Armenians in the early 20th century and Spain’s “collective pact of forgetting” after the death of Franco. It applies its slogan “Fiat Lux” — let there be light — everywhere but to itself.  The “greatest public university in the world” needs to illuminate its own dark past.

Whatever steps are taken to do justice to history, the reckoning must involve the active, substantial, and equitable involvement of Tribes and Native organizations whose ancestors’ lives and deaths constitute the university’s material and cultural foundations.

Tony Platt is a distinguished affiliated scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at UC Berkeley, a founding member of the Berkeley Truth & Justice Project and author of The Scandal of Cal: Land Grabs, White Supremacy, and Miseducation at UC Berkeley (Heyday, August 2023).