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Author calls for return of American Indian artifacts

After centuries of looting American Indian burial sites in the name of science — and profit — it's time for a "dignified" process that returns artifacts to tribes, allows for reburial of bones, collaborates with tribes on excavations, and creates monuments and education centers, says author Tony Platt.

A former teacher at the University of California at Berkeley, Platt is the author of 10 historical books, including "Grave Matters," which examines the legacy of archaeology in California and the politics of reparations, which often finds universities and museums "nervous about facing the past."

He will give a talk on his book and sign copies at 4 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 1, in the Meese Room of the Hannon Library at Southern Oregon University, 1250 Siskiyou Blvd., Ashland. He also will give a presentation on "Present Absences: Remembrances in Germany, Amnesia in California" at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 30, at Temple Emek Shalom, 1800 E. Main St. And Platt will be interviewed at 9 a.m. Monday, Oct. 31, on Jefferson Public Radio's Jefferson Exchange.

Platt's book was inspired by the struggles of the Yuroks of northwest California, the state's largest tribe with 5,000 members, to honor the relics and remains of ancestors. Platt's family had a cabin on Big Lagoon in coastal Humboldt County, formerly part of Yurok territory.

With grave looting going on nearby, "I felt obligated to do something and have worked with a coalition of people to protect the area," he said.

The tribe recently received one of the largest repatriations of ancestral relics in the history of the practice, from the Smithsonian Institution.

Platt's book explores the "contradictory relationship" in which, he said, Anglo culture "destroyed their livelihood, and northwest California was one of the few places where genocide was practiced, instead of herding them to reservations — and children were made indentured slaves. Then we dig up and loot their graves and engage in this very romantic preservation of their culture. It's a paradox."

His book notes that earlier archaeologists had a "genuine concern for the past" but were ignorant of tribal descendants who still perform ceremonies and object to excavations.

"I try to show how people (both archaeologists and looters) can behave so cruelly and so romantically at the same time," he said.

The cover of his book shows two white women with a shovel, about 80 years ago, happily digging for Indian relics, "without a trace of self-consciousness. Often when people do reprehensible things in large numbers, it's forgotten or blamed on the culture, with the idea they were biologically inferior — but they (archaeologists) thought they were doing the right thing," Platt said. "I wonder how they can sleep at night."

Scientific excavations in the present day are carried out with much higher standards and in cooperation with tribal members, he noted.

Excavations of American Indian sites began with Thomas Jefferson, who, in the 1780s, "dug up 1,000 graves near his home."

"This continued all over the country until the 1960s, when the American Indian movement got going," said Platt, who traveled the U.S. and Europe as his subject widened, and he found American Indian relics from California in many museums.

The Clarke Historical Museum in Eureka, Calif., he said, is identifying and repatriating hundreds of items to tribes.

"A very small percentage of artifacts have been repatriated," said Platt. "Some grave goods or remains are buried. Some tribes believe they are so tainted by looting that they don't want them back."

Many governments are now facing the past and honoring dark chapters and tragic sites with monuments and learning displays, he said, including Washington state for the expulsion of the Chinese in the 1880s and Japanese-Americans during World War II — and New York City, where an "African Burial Ground" was uncovered during construction work.

"It's difficult to deal with the past," said Platt, noting that UCB has thousands of human remains but has yet to address the question of repatriation or reburial. "Museums are nervous. It opens up questions of how things were bought, found or stolen."

Platt's books and 150 articles deal with issues of race, inequality, and social justice in American history. The link to his book is heydaybooks.com/book/grave-matters-excavating-calif.