Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

On the Renaming of Anthropology's Kroeber Hall

By Nancy Scheper-Hughes

I was deeply distressed  to learn about an administrative plan to remove the name of AL Kroeber from Kroeber Hall. The decision was not discussed with the anthropology faculty. Moreover, the ‘statement’ on Alfred Kroeber was woefully  misinformed and  in the pop style of social media "cancel culture”, based on shaming and removing public figures thought to have done something objectionable or offensive. But ad hoc  censoring without a process including  factual knowledge, evidence,  and reserach has no place in a public university.

This renaming  is happening during a time when the long over due erasures and removals of the names and statues, and monuments of slavers, Indian killers, colonialists, and racists.  Of course we want all  those odious monuments of exploitation and evil  to be taken down or sent to museums including the likes of Junipero Serra, Juan de Oñate,  Columbus, and all Confederate statues like 'Silent Sam' who until recently graced the gates of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

But Kroeber had nothing to do with any of these.

A.L. Kroeber founded and built the anthropology department around Indigenous people in California. He worked closely with Native Californians throughout his career.  His goal was to document as much of as he could about the cultures and languages of dozens of California tribes and rancherias. His  900 page “Handbook of the Indians of California” (1925) took Kroeber seventeen years of fieldwork and gathering oral histories. Those, including Indigenous Californians who had never heard the language of their ancestors could hear could hear it on the wax cylinders sound recordings taken by  Kroeber.

Kroeber had many faults but he was neither  a neo-colonialist, nor a racist, nor a fascist (like Boalt!).  The criticism  of  Kroeber has to do with the story of Ishi, the so-called 'last' of the Yahi California Indians and in particular Kroeber's handling of Ishi's  death and the  autopsy that removed Ishi's brain for reserach, a common practice in the early 20th century for those who died  in public hospitals.

During the time that Ishi lived among whites anthropologists and doctors (1911-1916) he agreed to share Yahi myths, origin stories,Yahi gambling songs, and folktales, all of which were recorded.  However Ishi refused to talk about the long period of confinement when he and his small group of survivors, including his mother and his sister, of the Yahi Mill Creek Band.

On August 29,1911, the last living member of his family band, the man who was later named Ishi, appeared in the gold town of Oroville, California.  Driven by isolation, hunger and desperation, Ishi  emerged from the foothills of Mt. Lassen and was caught in a slaughter house  by barking dogs. Police were called and taken to a local jail until Kroeber and  young Berkeley linguist, Tom Waterman, were summoned to identify who the frightened and emaciated 'Indian' was.  The captive was silent and almost paralyzed. He would not accept food or water.  His hair was clipped or more likely singed by fire close to his head, a sign of Yahi mourning. His cheeks clung fast to the bones and accented his deep-set eyes. The first photo taken shows a man of intelligence and deep sorrow.

Ishi accomodated to living and working in the Anthropology Museum which was then located close to the UC medical school. He  was given private quarters, but it was too close to a room that contained a large collection of human skulls and bones that shocked him. He expressed his disgust about this unholy practice of white people. Instead Ishi spent most of his  time visiting sick people in the hospital. He sat next to their hospital beds, chanting  and singing medicine songs. Ishi was likely a Yahi healer.  If we are to believe what Kroeber conveyed to colleagues, he said that Ishi was willing to stay in the  anthropology museum and the hospital. He could not go home as his territory was occupied by the ghosts and spirits of his kin who had died without the proper death rituals.

Ishi died of Tuberculosis  at UCSF hospital during Kroeber's sabbatical abroad.  Ishi was showing symptoms of this rabidly communicative disease to which he had no immunization.  When Kroeber learned from Saxton Pope, the UCSF surgeon who became Ishi’s personal physician and companion that he had plans to perform an autopsy on Ishi’s body, he immediately wrote to Pope instructing him to stop the proceedings: “I might be willing to consent if it were to be a strict autopsy in the ordinary sense to determine the cause of death, but as we already  know that, I fear that the autopsy will resolve  into a general dissection. Please shut down on it.

When Kroeber returned to Berkeley and found sitting on his desk a bottle containing Ishi's brain, he fell into a deep depression. He certainly did not want a brain specimen and he sent the organ off to the Smithsonian Museum. He then  took a long leave of absence from his professorship to undergo psychoanalysis and to be a therapist,  after which he refused to talk about Ishi following the Yahi tradition of not speaking about the dead.

In 2001 I was invited to the ceremony following the reburial of Ishi’s remains on Mount Lassen. When I was asked to speak I  tried to apologize for Kroeber’s error in sending Ishi’s brain to the Smithsonian. But I was chided by Maidu and Pit-River elders who said that just as Ishi was their grandfather, Kroeber was my grandfather and I should show respect for him.

Kroeber’s wife, Theodora Kroeber, who I got to know quite well, wrote the classic book, “Ishi  in Two Worlds” that her husband was unable to do.  It sold more than a million books, sales that subsidized  UC Press over many decades. One UC Press editor called the book, our Bible.  And, in a way  it was our bible, beginning with our state's original sin. Theodora’s book opened with the  California Indigenous genocide following the Gold Rush. Throughout the book she honors Ishi as a man of great intelligence and a survivor of an American Indigenous holocaust.  I believe that she was the first to use that term.

Alfred Kroeber and Theodora Kroeber’s daughter,Ursula Le Guin, published many books based on her early exposure to Ishi’s story.  Ishi’s history informed all of Le Guin’s greatest literary works of the 1960s and 1970s: Planet of Exile, City of Illusions, The Word for World Is Forest, The Dispossessed, and  her masterpiece,The Left Hand of Darkness.

If UC Berkeley erases Kroeber, the legacy of Kroeber including two brilliant women authors writing in different genres about our Californian Indigenous history will also be erased.

The righteous anger of Native Californians  is not really about Kroeber.The demonstrations and hunger strikes over the decades were about the Berkeley Anthropology Museum and its historically stubborn retention of Native remains, ceremonial materials and artifacts, many of which were originally bartered or stolen and purchased or gifted to the   museum. I remember so well the annual fall exhibit of the museum: A glass case displaying the ragged clothes, tobacco pipe, and gourd that were taken from Ishi after he was captured in Oroville.  How and why did the Museum directors display their indifference to the violence of White and Spanish Californian rustlers, settlers, thieves and kidnappers?

As for re-naming of buildings, the Phoebe Hearst Museum was once the Lowie Museum, honoring Robert Lowie, a specialist in Native American culture, especially his close identification with the Crow Indians  In 1984 then Professor Burton Benedict (now deceased)  was an associate director of the Lowie Museum of Anthropology. During his administration Benedict forged a strong relationship with the William Randolph Hearst Foundation to help support the anthropology museum. Benedict's  return gift to the Hearst family was to rename the museum as the Phoebe Hearst Museum. Many senior anthropologists, my self included,  put on our academic roles to demonstrate against the renaming of the Lowie  Museum. Now we are facing the renaming of Kroeber Hall.

I have two suggestions: 

1.Given that the  first 50 years of the Berkeley Department of Anthropology was steeped in studies of Indigenous Californians, there must be  a  discussion among  current anthropologists and representatives of  Native Californian communities and leaders  to discuss the renaming of Kroeber Hall.

2.  Assuming that there will be a desire to rename the Anthropology Building, I suggest that Kroeber Hall should be renamed ISHI Hall.

The man who Kroeber called  Ishi never told anyone his real name, just as he refused to name the dead. His name was consumed in the funeral pyres of the last of his loved ones.He accepted the name   Ishi that simply means man or human.

By honoring Ishi's collective name, our university would be honoring all Native Californians.