Book Review Dan Siegel Original

Built on the Bodies of Native Californians

Berkeley – University of California Football” by roger4336 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Watch Bob Scheer’s interview w/ Tony Platt on Scheer Intelligence

By Dan Siegel / Original to ScheerPost

The University of California brags that it brought “light to the darkness” – “Fiat Lux” – but fails to acknowledge its role in creating that darkness through the genocide of some 500,000 of California’s first citizens. Or the reckless grave robbing that made UC’s Berkeley campus a disorganized, haphazard boneyard housing the remains of over 10,000 of the Indigenous dead. 

California’s sunny histories of beaches, Hollywood, world-class universities, and Silicon Valley riches rarely describe the bloodletting of the state’s origins. Twelve thousand or more years ago immigrants from east Asia began populating what came to be known as the Americas. By the time the Spanish began visiting in the 1500s, an estimated half-million or more people were enjoying the fine climate and abundant, varied foods California offered. Three and fifty years later, only 15,000 remained. The rest were victims of the “benign” slavery of the Spanish mission system and the genocidal violence of gold miners, farmers, ranchers, and the U.S. military.

Tony Platt’s new book, The Scandal of Cal (Heyday, 2023) exposes the role of America’s finest public university in that slaughter and expropriation. UC’s true origin story is reflected in the names of its grand buildings. 

John LeConte, UC’s president from 1875 to 1881, and his geography professor brother Joseph, were white supremacists who grew up on a plantation with 200 slaves in Liberty County, Georgia, and later opposed Reconstruction. John was a Confederate military officer while John manufactured munitions for the Confederacy. A committed eugenicist, Joseph hoped that slavery would one day improve African Americans enough for them to join civilized society. He was less optimistic about indigenous Californians, regretfully concluding that their “extermination” was necessary. 

Benjamin Ide Wheeler was president of the University from 1899 to 1919, when he was forced to resign due to his pro-German sympathies, and cofounder of San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club, which endorsed eugenics policies and hosted academics who promoted “dreams of Aryan and Nordic supremacy.” Like many of his colleagues at Cal – and at Stanford – Wheeler subscribed to eugenicist theories, arguing that there are inherent differences among people and that racial groups can be ranked by intelligence and a variety of human characteristics such as ambition and bravery. Wheeler argued for the suppression of the birth rates of members of “inferior” races. Under Wheeler’s leadership UC increased its collection of human remains. Some scientists believed that studying the sizes and shapes of human skulls would help them prove the superiority of white Europeans.

Bernard Moses, who taught history and social sciences from 1875 to 1911, argued that indigenous people ranked the lowest in the hierarchy of civilizations. Moses mentored David Prescott Barrows, who became the superintendent of public education in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War and president of UC from 1919 to 1923. Barrows fashioned himself as a public expert on the superiority of “the white, or European race.” In other highlights of his illustrious career, Barrows led troops against the San Francisco maritime strikers in 1934 and consulted with the War Department on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

In response to student protests beginning in 2017, Berkeley “unnamed” LeConte Hall, Barrow Hall, Moses Hall, and two others.

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No family outdid the Hearsts in making the University of California a bastion of white supremacy and grave-robbing. Family patriarch George Hearst was a slaver from birth and an avowed racist until the day he died. Hearst accumulated a fortune from mining and property deals, often based on acquiring land made available by military campaigns against native people, such as George Armstrong Custer’s war against the Sioux over the gold-rich Black Hills of South Dakota. Hearst became a San Francisco politician and opposed the city’s resolution in support of the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. Twenty years later Senator Hearst filibustered to death a federal law to protect African Americans’ voting rights.

Hearst’s fortune enabled his widow, Phoebe Apperson Hearst, to dominate the University of California’s efforts to develop its programs in anthropology by pillaging grave sites throughout California as well as Egypt, Peru, and Mexico. She paid dozens of collectors, often a few dollars per skull, to excavate native graves. Phoebe Hearst was the university’s first female regent and acted as president in Wheeler’s absence.

Phoebe Hearst funded and directed the development of UC’s anthropology department from the late 1890s and sought unsuccessfully to build a grandiose museum on the Berkeley campus before she ended her active career in the 1910s. Between the 1870s, when the first students were admitted, and the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, UC collected, by its own accounts, 11,109 “skeletal remains” and 492,425 “Indian specimens” from North America. Despite the Act’s requirements, most of these items remain on campus, and most of them remain uncatalogued and haphazardly stored.

The Hearst name continues in its places of honor as well. The Hearst Greek Theater, Hearst Museum of Anthropology, Hearst Memorial Mining building, Hearst Memorial Gymnasium, Hearst Avenue, Hearst Parking Structures, Hearst Food Court, and Hearst Tennis Courts remain, unapologetically, as monuments to Cal’s first family.

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Dan Siegel

Dan Siegel is a civil rights attorney in Oakland.

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