Above Photo: Author, Tony Platt. (T.William Wallin/The Lumberjack)
Tony Platt’s recently re-released book, “Grave Matters” digs into the Golden State’s dark history of not only massacring Indigenous Peoples, but later desecrating their graves and excavating their remains without their descendants’ consent.
The United States of America is founded on the original sin of Native American genocide and the myth that the Indigenous Peoples that lived on these lands for thousands of years had no right to it. White settler colonialism is not just a stain on the country’s history, it is its very raison d’etre. To this day, all non-Native Americans live on stolen land. The prosperous, liberal state of California is not exempt from this original sin, nor has it made reparations for the devastation of Indigenous Peoples and their lands. In a recently reissued book, Tony Platt, the acclaimed author of 10 books and professor emeritus who taught at the University of California, Berkeley, the University of Chicago, and California State University, Sacramento, uncovers another more recent abhorrence committed against Native Californians by one of the state’s most revered institutions, the University of California, Berkeley.
On this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” Platt joins Robert Scheer to discuss his book “Grave Matters: The Controversy over Excavating California’s Buried Indigenous Past,” which examines the history of the Yurok people whose ancestors’ remains were excavated by UC Berkeley for use in its research without any consent, or, as Scheer indicates, respect. “Grave Matters,” which was first released in 2011 and has recently been re-issued by Heyday Books, reveals many uncomfortable truths at the core of America’s past and present, while prompting crucial questions about the country’s future. The “Grave Matters” author explains that in addition to their genocide, displacement, and continual disenfrenchisement, Americans have continued to desecrate the very bones of the Indigenous Peoples whose remains archaelogists stole in the “name of scholarship.”
With regard to the future, Platt expresses some hope that the country is at the start of the inevitably long process of coming to grips with its grim past. Scheer points to recognition from former California Governor Jerry Brown and current Governor Gavin Newsom regarding the crimes the state has committed against Native Americans, and the two discuss the recent New York Times exposé of UC Hastings’ founder Serranus Hastings and his “mastermind[ing of] the slaughter of Yuki men, women and children” (which ultimately prompted the law school to decide to change its name) as signs the times are changing.
Whether or not the process will lead to justice and reparations remains to be seen. However, as Scheer highlights throughout the episode, works like “Grave Matters” and those by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Benjamin Madley, former guests of the show who have exposed other travesties committed against the Indigenous Peoples, are undoubtedly indispensable to this process. Listen to the full conversation between Platt and Scheer as they discuss the details of this Californian story and the broader American story of Native American mass murder and desecration.
Host: Robert Scheer
Producer: Joshua Scheer
Introduction: Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Transcript: Lucy Berbeo
RS: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, and the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Tony Platt, a well-known criminologist who’s written a lot about the incarceration system that defines America in so many ways. But this book is different. The title is—and it’s published by Heyday Books, which does a lot of publication on indigenous life, and particularly in California, but in North America. And the title is called, Grave Matters: The Controversy Over Excavating California’s Buried Indigenous Past.
And I want to begin with that. Really, the book centers on digging up graves; it’s grisly, and in the name of science, particularly anthropology, that we have the right to desecrate a people’s history, to just rip their bones from the ground, measure their skulls. And it shows a contempt for, basically, 7,000 years of life in this area. And in the short time that California has been around—and the book centers a lot around UC Berkeley; 1873 was when that school was started, and the whole university system. And we’ve managed—these people lived there for 7,000 years, and were in harmony with nature; the redwoods grew, the salmon jumped out of the creeks. I’m not going to overidealize it; I’m sure they had their own problems. But for 7,000 years, they didn’t threaten the very existence of the planet. You could argue that California, which is now the fifth largest economy in the entire world, has done a lot to contribute to the possibility of life ending on this planet.
Tony, I’m going to ask you about this generally. You’re a scholar, you believe in scholarship. And in the name of scholarship, we really had the desecration of a people’s 7,000-year history. And it really is consistent with the consumer society that has wasted so much—these artifacts sold to museums, sold on the commercial market, just ripping through people’s history in the name of science, and centered at a university where I met you. I was a graduate student; you became a young professor, honored at UC Berkeley. There was Kroeber Hall; I remember it well, right there on our campus. And this guy Kroeber was sort of the main anthropologist that led to this pillage of the graves. Take it away.
TP: Ah, yes, the University of California has been very involved in this tragedy ever since the beginning of the university in the 1870s. About 25, 30 years before there was even an anthropology department, they were into digging up gravesites, collecting artifacts, bringing ancestors’ human remains back to the campus to supposedly study them. So it’s been—the university sort of set itself up as the West Coast, the Western expert on everything Indian. And from the earliest days, they were into doing as much collecting as possible. It was really made economically possible by the wealth of the Hearst family, George Hearst’s money that went to Phoebe Hearst, and the Hearst family money, particularly Phoebe’s money, was very interested in anthropology and creating a huge collection at Berkeley. And that had a lot to do with the rise of Berkeley as being the center of these kinds of collections.
And from the earliest days on, they were very proud about what they were doing. They publicized this, they wrote about it, they gave interviews about it. And by their own count, by the 1990s when the federal government finally stepped in to try to stop this from happening, they claimed by their own account they had 11,000 or 12,000 human remains. My research suggests that maybe they had twice as much as that, certainly into 20,000. They have the largest collection of human remains in the United States, possibly in the world; certainly they rank up there with world collections of human remains. And you’re right that early on they went into this in the name of science, a kind of eugenic science, wanting to find racial differences between different groups, wanting to look for biological explanations of why native people disappeared, and so on.
And so that was a big part of it. But also, I think it was just about hoarding and about collecting as much stuff as they possibly could. They wanted to be on a par with the British Museum and the Smithsonian and the Harvard museum; that’s who they saw as their competition. And to do that, they wanted to have the biggest and largest collection possible. So in the name of science, in the name of hoarding, they justified going out and digging up the gravesites of communities that had been destroyed by genocide; they’d been destroyed by land dispossession, they were impoverished. So it was quite easy on the West Coast, particularly in California, for anthropologists and people in archaeological expeditions to go out and dig up graves, and do that without much resistance in the early days.
RS: But, you know, the contempt really shown by high science at Berkeley and elsewhere for a previous civilization is consistent with the massacre of that civilization. I mean, and that’s woven through your really terrific book, Grave Matters. And I say this even though I’ve known you over the years; it’s actually a grisly subject, but an interesting—I don’t want to say joyful read, but it takes you through a whole lot of history here.
And it gets to a basic question—and I don’t know, I bring up Thanksgiving because it’s an occasion to think about our origin myths. But it really runs through the whole American experience, and someone I’ve had on this show, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, has written extensively about this. And that’s the origin myths. And sort of that there was nothing here; this was always the myth of settler colonialism, generally white settler colonialism. You know, it actually has been said about Israel, originally; “a land without people for a people without land.” It was said about South Africa, it’s been said about many places like that. So sort of what existed was of no consequence, and certainly not any great human consequence.
And yet what I found so powerful in your book is your love of this area and its history. You had tragedy in that your son, at the age of 40, died; you buried him in a way that was actually quite similar to how native people buried, putting the remains, the ashes in the water so they could go under to some, whatever it was going to greet them. You were moved by your connection with it, you got involved with local—remnants, really, of local tribes and so forth, for their rights, fighting for it. But you know, what was really very powerful in your book was the evoking what life must have been like when there were 300,000 indigenous people, when the Spanish came, and how it gets down to, what, 10,000 or something after all of the visits of Western civilization—the crassness, the brutality.
And I think it’s really, we have to think about why do we have this origin myth that somehow we were the civilizers, when we were the brutalizers? We were the people who destroyed it. I think that’s the power of your work here, and the fact that an enlightened center of learning, the University of California, would contribute to that—would actually base this collection—and they actually collected human beings. The famous Ishi story, I was reminded by your book—you know, one of the survivors, presumably, of the original indigenous population, and then kept alive and used as an exhibit. And then his brain was shipped, what, back to Harvard because Cal wouldn’t be sufficient to examine it. I mean, give me the spirit of your book, really, which is one of the loss of respect for what came before us, and really the seeding of arrogance that has dominated what is called modern civilization—that arrogance that we alone know what progress is.
TP: I think that the issue you raise here is very key. I see three sort of important historical stages. I mean, one is genocide, and the destruction of a huge percentage of the indigenous population of California. Then you have the archaeologists and anthropologists and amateurs coming in and digging up the human settlements, the native grave sites, and taking away artifacts and putting them on the market and selling them all over the world, and taking human remains back to the university; that’s the second stage.
And then the third stage is the creation of the origins myths, which you raised, and which I think is pretty critical. Because this is where intellectuals play a very key part in creating a story about the California past that’s mythological. You know, Berkeley’s, the University of California’s slogan, its sort of brand that it uses all the time is fiat lux. That comes from the 1880s, 1890s; it’s still used today. Fiat lux means “let there be light.” That phrase comes from the Old Testament, from Genesis, where God said, you know, there was darkness and then I brought light. And that notion that you’re coming to a place of darkness, of uncivilization, of nobody here—or if they were here they were really not productive and creative or they weren’t really doing anything—and then we came here and we made the lands grow, and we made this into the productive place that it is today.
So I call this the California story, this creation of a whole set of ideas about the past that have become extraordinarily popular. They’ve become popular in textbooks, in memoirs, in stories. The California story was sort of the equivalent of what Facebook is today. It was a very popular way that people read about the past, and California was a very popular way of trying to think about Western history. And I’ll give you three examples of the way in which intellectuals and faculty and the smartest people in the country contributed to this mythology. First of all, they created the notion that native people were a disappearing race. This was a very important theme on the West Coast. And the argument is that somehow, because of biological inferiority, because of a constitutional weakness, you know, they’re not up for the march of progress; they’re not up for the march of civilization.
And it’s true that the mission system of the Spanish, and then the genocide, and then the impoverishment caused a dramatic decline in the population, maybe 80 or 90 percent. Probably equivalent to the destruction of European Jewry during the Nazi regime. But nowhere in the stories and narratives of Jewish history did we talk about Jews being a vanishing race or a vanishing people; that becomes very particular to Western history, and to the California story. And in some ways, that becomes a comforting story, because then you don’t have to deal with what happened under the mission system, you don’t have to deal with genocide, you don’t have to deal with the criminalization of people who were driven off their land and work, you don’t have to deal with that if you can somehow make the argument that they were automatically and inherently vanishing anyway. So that’s one important mythology.
The second important mythology is that they were stuck in the Stone Age. You see this in all kinds of textbooks and stories and memoirs that were written in newspaper articles, the notion that they lived here for maybe 10,000—not just 7,000, maybe 10,000 or more years—and that they were a static culture. I mean, the idea is ridiculous that people could live in a land for thousands and thousands of years and never change; you know, never adapt, never be creative, never have agency, never figure out what to do, never figure out how to create and develop their ceremonies and rituals and so on. So the notion of them being static is another way of saying that when we arrived, you know, we brought this dynamic civilization here.
And then the third example of the mythology, which I think is a really serious indictment of the histories, is the notion that people never resisted. I know that you know the history of Israel and the history of the Holocaust and so on, and you might remember that in the 1950s for a short period of time, there was a notion that the Jews that were murdered in the Holocaust somehow went to their death without any kind of resistance, and that there was some shame attached to people that actually survived the Holocaust. That quickly then got replaced by the very complex and important stories about resistance and people fighting back, and all the different ways they did that. But in the California history of native people, you generally get no sense that there was resistance. I mean, the idea that you would dig up, you know, people’s ancestors and take out their human remains and bring them back to the campus at Berkeley and turn them into specimens, that people would not object to that or fight back is absurd.
So there’s a very important chapter in the book where I went out and interviewed people and excavated the history of resistance that goes back, as far as California is concerned, goes back to the genocide and goes back to what the anthropologists did to document that history and document that resistance. Because I think when you make the argument that there was no, or very little, resistance, then you also give the impression that people are complicit in their own demise.
So those are three examples of what I think have contributed to making this story so powerful, and have such a long persistence, and be so difficult to dig up—you know, to dig up these stories, understand where they come from, and to get rid of them. And so the fact is, the university still today uses as its slogan fiat lux—you know, we came to bring light to the wilderness. Which shows how pervasive this idea is, and how institutionalized it’s become.
RS: You know, one of the powerful things in your book—and you know, you’re a scholar, but this is really an accessible book. And it is, you get in the head of these anthropologists, particularly Kroeber. You know, how do they work with these people, excavating a history—because that’s after all what they’re supposed to be doing. And there’s a lack of fundamental respect. It’s, like, built in that they’re dealing with this word “primitive,” a lower order of life. The fact that for 7,000 years, people were stewards of the land, these indigenous people—they nurtured it, they knew how to deal with it, how to extract from it without destroying it. And then in a very brief time—remember, California as a state has not been around that long, you know? So we’re talking—Benjamin Madley, a great scholar in all this who I’ve also interviewed, has documented this genocide, and uses the word “genocide.” We’re talking about—I mean, my own father came to this country in 1898. He was I guess one of the white settlers; he didn’t come to California, he was in New York. But that’s the end of this period we’re talking about here. We’re talking about a 50-year period of mayhem.
You know, there’s a big controversy at another branch of the University of California, the Hastings Law School, which is named after a man who led the massacre, one of the biggest massacres, and they’re arguing now. But you know, the marks are everywhere. But even the ones who were not leading troops, like Kroeber—I keep getting back to him—there was just a contempt for these people who had somehow managed to live in this, I do consider it a paradise, without destroying it. And in this short period of time—I have to emphasize, we’re talking about 7,000 years, you know, and then we’re talking about, what, California in 50 years with the Gold Rush and everything, you know, basically starting to savage, rape this land. I think that’s the power of your book, it’s—you know, it didn’t have to be. And we didn’t learn from these people. We didn’t incorporate them, we didn’t acknowledge them with respect. So digging up their bodies is symptomatic of just a contempt for everything that came before you, which is really what settler colonialism is about.
TP: Yeah, and I think this is an important issue. You know, I spent a lot of time during the pandemic—it was one of the few good things about the pandemic for me, that I had the opportunity to do a lot of research. And I went back into the archives that I hadn’t seen when I wrote this book, and looked at all the reports written by the archaeologists and anthropologists as they went out to dig up these gravesites. And it was a sickening, difficult experience; I had to really pause to catch my breath. Because I was looking for examples of people doing this work, and where they would have a ritual or a ceremony, or an acknowledgment that there but for the grace of God go I, or these are like my ancestors, these are like my grandparents. But people were thought of as specimens. And you know, I didn’t find one example of any kind of ritualistic behavior when they were doing this work.
So I estimate that for every one human remain they brought back to the Berkeley campus, which is the main campus for storing and examining human remains, for every one they brought back another 10 they dumped back into pits that they were digging up. And there were no ceremonies when that happened; there was no acknowledgment of the humanity of the people. It showed that from the moment of digging up the graves to bringing them back and then putting them into boxes—I’m sorry to say this, but the university then broke up the human remains, broke them into boxes of legs, boxes of arms, into crania, stashed them everywhere, didn’t do real good reporting on what they had or where they got it from. And from that very first moment, they thought of other human beings as being specimens.
The other thing that I think is related to this is that we tend to forget now that Berkeley was founded in a period of massive militarism. You know, you and I were around Berkeley and the Berkeley campus, were a part of the anti-military movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement. We know that before that there was the controversy of the [unclear] campus, where people were politically active. But there’s often a sense that Berkeley has a reputation and a history of being a social justice campus, an activist campus. And it does, in part, certainly in my lifetime. But the much longer, deeper history of Berkeley is of a university that was pro-war, pro-military. Berkeley had a battalion of soldiers, the students operated also with soldiers in the early decades of the university. And military service was required on the Berkeley campus until the late fifties, early 1960s. Berkeley was born after the Civil War, after the genocide. Berkeley was a part of the launching of the war in the Philippines, the first imperial adventure of the United States. So war and militarism is very much a part of the early days. And that’s why when you go around the campus today, you’ll see many memorials and many names and many buildings that celebrate the people that were a part of militarism.
RS: You know, with all due respect, Professor Platt, I think you left out what may be the most startling example of that. That the Los Alamos lab was run by UC Berkeley, where the atomic bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, the cute names they gave them, were developed. The bombing runs, the decisions about how to use these bombs, when to drop them, were hatched at UC Berkeley. And the decision, for example, to drop these weapons that are really not weapons, they’re just weapons of genocide, during daylight, when it would maximize the number of children going to school—that was a Berkeley decision. And I stress this to emphasize, you know, what Hannah Arendt talked about: the banality of evil. And reading your book, the book reeks of that phrase, you know? These people didn’t think there was anything—they don’t think there’s anything evil about having all these skulls stored on the campus. You know, and again, I didn’t want to make this an interview about the development of the atomic weapons, but again, it was that casual, elitist indifference to the people who would end up being bombed. That is really—your book describes the origin of this.
And it really—let me sort of push this a little further. It goes a long way to explaining why we know so little about the history of the indigenous people. You know, the whole mythology of the mission life, of the role of the Spanish, Catholic Church—I mean the whole thing, these inventions, were not countered by intellectuals. And still, our longest-surviving prisoner, I think, in America, political prisoner, Leonard Peltier, is still in prison, right? The American Indian movement that tried to bring attention to the savagery of what happened to indigenous people has—you know, yeah, there are casinos now, but the history has really not been taught in a compelling way. I mean, I mention you, and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Benjamin Madley; you have a handful of scholars that really have done an effective job of educating. And your book is really about a major, one of the most important institutions of learning in this country, being really central to the cover-up of massacre, a cover-up of genocide.
TP: I’m glad you raise that, Bob, because I think it’s a really critical issue. And you know, you can walk through the Berkeley campus today—and I’ve spent a lot of time doing that in the last year—and you’d never learn that the University of California had administered two national laboratories involved in nuclear weapons production since their creation. I think Berkeley has responsibility for the murder of at least 340,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. There’s nothing as you walk through the campus that gets us to think about that, to ponder about that. About what is the role and what is the relationship and what is the responsibility.
And I’m going to give you a quote now, and this is not from you or me. This is a quote from the chair of the military science department at Berkeley in 1968. He said, “From its beginnings at the university, instruction in military science has spanned advancements in military tactics, from musketry and horse-mounted cavalry to nuclear weapons and counterinsurgency.” So this is not something that we’re making up, or that we’re accusing the university of. This is something the university knows and is deeply aware of. And yet most people don’t have that knowledge and don’t have that understanding. And there’s nothing in the landscape of the university that gets us to stop and think about that. Nor nothing that gets us to stop and think about what it means for the university to have, still, between 10,000 and 20,000 human remains of indigenous people under the ground, in basements, on the campus, that people walk by all the time.
RS: You know, it’s interesting you’re bringing this up. Because we are actually at a moment of truth. And finally, you know, with Jerry Brown as governor and then Gavin Newsom in particular, there’s been an official acknowledgment of what had happened, the genocide and so forth, there is some investigation. This controversy at the Hastings College of Law, which is part of the UC system, there was a terrific article in the New York Times just recently, you know, which really made the point. That the founder of the Hastings College of Law masterminded the killings of, what is it, hundreds of Native Americans. You know, and the school [unclear] disagree on what should be done about it.
You know, but the article itself talks, actually—the New York Times finally has an article entertaining the possibility that this is all part of a genocide against Native Americans. Of course not just in California, but nationally. And maybe we’re at a moment where actually this is now being considered as part of our own mental health. If you cannot recognize that your culture, that you bragged about all over the world, was launched—and this is where I think Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz has played a key role—was launched by violence. Bloodthirst, violence, racist violence. That this is the origin story that we don’t want you to deal with.
TP: Yeah, you’re absolutely right about that. And I think this is a moment, which I’m encouraged by. I think the fact that the New York Times did a front-page story and then did a whole page and a very serious investigation of the history of the Hastings Law School, and the role of naming it after somebody who was engaged in massacres, that’s produced a whole discussion. And activists have been working on this for quite a while, but that article has definitely made a difference. And now the governing body of the law school is willing to change the name of the law school. Hopefully it’ll do a lot more than that. That was the first law school created by the University of California in 1880, when there was only really one major campus, that was at Berkeley.
And then you’re right about there being a shift in political atmosphere; the legislature is now putting pressure, as they had been doing for the last few years, on the University of California to do something about repatriation. They’ve had 31 years since the passage of the Federal NAGPRA act, which required them to post an inventory of all their collections and the human remains, and facilitate their repatriation to tribes. It’s been the most—it’s been the slowest institution to respond to that now 31-year-old legislation. It still has, by my account, thousands and thousands of human remains.
But the legislature, and then Newsom admitting in public for the first time there was a genocide, and giving an apology, and the tribes themselves now having more clout in Sacramento, and putting more pressure on the University of California—I think that opens up possibilities. The university at Berkeley has now taken the names of four extraordinarily racist people off buildings. It’s providing a building of services for native students, finally, on the campus. It’s beginning to develop a land acknowledgment at important events on the campus. All those are good signs. It’s the beginning; it’s the early beginning.
And now I think we need to really go much more deeply into that history. And I think it’s going to be a very difficult challenge to do this, because for the university to come to terms with its past, it has to do a very profound reckoning. And I don’t think it can do that reckoning unless native tribes are there at the table to discuss how to do that. They have to be a part of it; they’ve been left out, they’ve been cut out, they’ve been insulted, they’ve been humiliated by the university. And for anything to happen now in a systematic way, in a way that really gets to structural issues in the institution, you need to have the people at the table who are a part of the experience and who have suffered the most as a result of the policies. So that has to happen.
And I think also, given the way the university got its land—it got its land in the 1860s through the Morrill land act, under President Lincoln, who took land that had once been indigenous land, and people had been run off that land, and gave that money to legislatures and to people to start up a university like Berkeley, where they spent the money from that land and invested it. And that’s how the university got its beginning, its economic beginnings. And also Berkeley then moved into land at Berkeley that they knew had been inhabited for at least 5,000 and maybe as much as 10,000 years. Strawberry Canyon, which we saw after the rains recently can be a river—that that was a river for thousands of years, and it sustained life all the way from the top of the Berkeley hills all the way down to the estuary to the bay. And the Berkeley campus has known that from the very beginning, because they were collecting native artifacts, they were digging up native gravesites on the campus; they’ve known that.
So I think land has to be a part of whatever the reparations, whatever the justice is to the past.
But more importantly, I think that the tribes have to be at the table to make decisions about what should happen.
RS: You know, I think we’re going to wrap this up, but I think this Hastings College of Law example is important. Because—I always mispronounce the name, but it was Serranus Hastings, right?
TP: I think that’s right.
RS: Yeah, and he was actually the first chief justice in California, I think. And he paid—he was a very wealthy man, one of the wealthiest in the state. And so he supplied his gold coin collection that was the initial endowment of the Hastings School, and said it had to keep his name on forever. And Vice President Kamala Harris is a graduate of that program. I don’t know if—I didn’t have a chance to look it up, whether she has publicly called for renaming the school. But I mean, if you think about it, you know, would you have a school in Germany that had a Nazi leader’s name on it? I mean, this is—it’s grisly. You are at great pains in your book to say, look, we don’t compare genocides and so forth. But I think particularly Benjamin Madley has made a real contribution in saying, why not talk about it as genocide? It just was an attempt to eliminate a whole people. They were in the way. That really is what it was.
And you describe that—I’ll close on that—but you really describe in your book, because there’s a beautiful, positive description, and I don’t think it’s a naïve description; I think it’s grounded in fact, of what life was like for the 7,000-year period that we dismissed as primitive or savage or so forth. It was in balance. I want to end on that point, that people lived here in balance with nature for 7,000 years. Look at California now. Look at our fires, look at our flooding, look at our man-made disasters, our overpopulation, our excessive consumption, our incredible waste. And look at our exploitation of human beings: farmworkers, you know, Indian, native slaves, you know, just the brutality of it. I love California; I actually still love the University of California at Berkeley, where I met you. But you know, we really have to examine the real origin story here, that we are a violent, brutal people, because we never came to grips with that history of rapid expansion, industrialization, exploitation of people and of nature.
So I’ll give you the final word on this, because you’ve devoted a lot of time to not only this subject but the subject of how we incarcerate people, our massive prison population. There’s a consistent concern in your life’s work, which has been remarkable, Professor Platt. And so why don’t you just give the closing, you know, summation of this. And I would like one last word in the resistance of the university—and they’re not alone—the resistance to accountability. And why your research was difficult to do, and why this book is such an important contribution.
TP: Ah, thank you for those comments. Yeah, I’m glad the book is out again; unfortunately, the issues that I raised in it 10 years ago are still issues that are happening now. Though now, there’s a political, cultural climate to have, I think, a more serious discussion about them. I think the debate going on about Hastings College of Law is important. But I also think that Berkeley can more than hold its own with Hastings, particularly if you look at the life and work of George Hearst. It was the George Hearst fortune that really was left to Phoebe Hearst, and that Phoebe Hearst was the key person in making anthropology and archaeology so important at Berkeley. Berkeley has a hard time coming to term with that aspect of its origin story.
But you know, George Hearst, he made one huge chunk of his money by driving out the Sioux from the Dakota hills, and then robbing thousands of tons of gold from the hills; that was a big part of his fortune. And then the other part of his fortune that was very significant was the copper mines in Peru, where he recruited indigenous labor, thousands of people that worked in the copper mines, really under conditions of semi-slavery, as indentured laborers, many dying on the job, many having horrendous illnesses, leaving extraordinary environmental damage that still lasts today in terms of lead poisoning in Peru. So, not to be competitive with Hastings, but I think Berkeley’s founding fathers can hold their own here.
And on a more positive note, I’d say that the model for places like Berkeley and Hastings and other powerful institutions will be the way that some universities on the East Coast are coming to terms with the legacies of being involved in the slave trade, and how the trade in enslaved Africans was an important economic part of their origins and development. These are universities that have begun to really seriously look at that, to investigate it, to hold meetings and discussions about it, to memorialize it, to provide scholarships to the descendants of people who were enslaved, to set up research centers so that the university can really interrogate and excavate its own role. We have great models there for doing that.
And also there’s a very good model in the African Burial Ground, which is a national monument in New York; when they were building in the financial district, trying to put up new buildings there, they discovered the burial ground for the cemetery for African formerly enslaved people that was there. And then there was a whole discussion that took place in the community, particularly with African American communities, what to do about that. And they ended up with something that I think is a good model, something that is dignified, something that is a burial ground, something that has rituals and memorials, something that does educational work and has a museum. And also that they do scientific investigation of human remains, with the support and permission of communities and of descendants.
All of those things are possible. There’s nothing wrong with the science of archaeology, as long as the political and social relationships are egalitarian and permission is given. So I see those as models for what we can do out here, but there’s a lot of work to be done, and your willingness to have programming on this topic I think shows that there’s a—we’re turning a page here, we have a possibility, and I thank you for doing that.
RS: And thank you for living this long, you know, that you could help turn that page. You know, sometimes these things take half a century. And I just want to close this by, you know, there I was a graduate student at Berkeley in Chinese studies and in economics, and I heard about this guy Tony Platt, and I got to meet him; I got to sit in on some of these classes. But you know, I would say in that whole period of the sixties when Berkeley redefined itself—redefined itself—it became a real beacon, internationally, for enlightened education, for accountable education, for not just favoring the rich and the privileged and the white, and looking deeper. I think you were—and I don’t want to insult anybody else—I think you were the premier professor in Berkeley’s best period. And I say that with great respect, really.
And I’ve run into so many Tony Platt students over the years, doing stories; when I worked at the L.A. Times there’d be somebody changing the environment, changing thinking, at a university, in government, or where else. So you know, it may take a long time, but my hat’s off to you, Tony Platt. You brought the best from British education to California, and it’s another argument for immigration. But let’s broaden it to larger groups.
So that’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I want to thank Christopher Ho at KCRW for consistently posting these programs and making them available to a larger audience. Joshua Scheer, our producer, who drives us to cover issues others aren’t covering. Natasha Hakimi Zapata for writing the great introductions. And Lucy Berbeo for doing the transcription. That’s it for this—oh, and I’m sorry, a real important shout-out to the JWK Foundation in the memory of Jean Stein, a terrific journalist, for providing funding for this show. That’s it for this edition of Scheer Intelligence. See you next week. Bye.