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Death and Return: Back to the Bones - Who Holds the Power Over Knowledge?

by Ryann Hirt 11.11.18




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Prior to Spanish colonization, the Ohlone people inhabited the San Francisco Peninsula, Santa Clara Valley, Santa Cruz Mounties, Monterey Bay area, Alameda County, Contro Costa County, and Salinas Valley. The Ohlone was made up of 50 different tribes with anywhere from 50 to 500 members. Each group traded amongst the other tribes, married into each other’s villages, and held ceremonies together, in addition to having certain tribal conflicts with other villages. The Ohlone were many hunter- gatherers, living off of the land, eating nuts, seeds, berries, game, and seafood. Important to the Ohlone were their burial practices. Shell mounds, which many Bay area residents have seen or heard of, were Ohlone settlements, where the tribe members lived, died, and were buried. After Spanish invasion, their burial practices turned to cremation. After cremating their loved ones, ornaments and other valuables would be placed around the cremation site as an offering to the dead.


After the Spanish invasion of the Ohlone people, came a dramatic transition of cultures and traditions. A few weeks ago, I had the incredible opportunity to listen to a talk from Nick Tipon, a member of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and a committee member of the reservation’s Sacred Sites Protection Committee. His people originally came from the Bay Area, with Angel Island surviving as the ancestor’s tribal site; in today’s modern age, that is no longer the case. Currently the tribe has 1400 members, but in historical times, the tribe was much bigger. A significant drop in population was observed during the settlement of the Spanish missions. The missionaries brought foreign diseases, bugs, and animals that killed the Native peoples and their way of life. It was a genocide for the Natives that survived the biological attack of diseases; they were hunted for bounty and land. Traditions and cultures were lost along with the population loss. They struggled to keep their traditions and cultures alive, but due to missionary involvement, it was a nearly impossible task.

As an outsider, I would honestly say that this period of Native American history was the apocalypse for the Ohlone; there was death and disease everywhere. The physical landscape around them was changing as invasive plants, bugs, and animals destroyed the native environment. Life as they knew it was drastically altered and their culture was close to extinction. This was the end of the world for their people. In addition, Elder Tipon mentioned the role of archaeology and the political climate of the tribe. There are positive gains from working with archaeologists: the tribespeople got the chance to learn information of how their ancestors used to live pre- colonialism. They discovered what their ancestors traded, ate, and did; how they managed the landscape with fire, etc. However, Tipon pointed out that often, private archaeologists were looking to make a profit off of discoveries; they were quick to leave after a discovery, since the more in depth they went, the less money they would gain.


In modern day events, the institutions of UC Berkeley and Hearst Museum strongly feel that with having the bones for anthropologists and anthropology students to observe and study allows for new knowledge to arise. From the bones of past people, their ways of life can be discovered. Archaeologists in favor of keeping the bones for scientific observations believes that it would be beneficial to discover what the ancestors ate, what they traded, and how they conducted their daily lives. From the bones, evidence of what they ate lingers on their bones. What their jobs were in the tribe shows from the wear on certain joints, for example hunters have specific wear on their shoulder joints suggesting that they did a lot of throwing of spears. How they managed their landscape is proven through the artifacts that they left behind.

While it may be beneficial to learn from the bones, it is a violation of the Ohlone people’s religious beliefs. The Ohlone believe that their dead need to be buried with their heads to the stream, or else the spirits of the dead will be unable to move on to the afterlife. With their people remaining unburied, they are stuck here on Earth until they are reburied. Museums, not including UC Berkeley, have, on numerous occasions, used Native American bones on display as a way of gaining profit. In addition to violating religious beliefs, with the storage of the bones has come many counts of bones going missing due to improper storage. These events cause a problem for archaeologists who genuinely care for the Natives and respect their decisions. Because of the actions of UC Berkeley and other institutions, archaeologists have begun to seem invasive to Native peoples; they are less cooperative to interact with the archaeologists due to distrust.


The institution versus the Ohlone people reminds me of the play our guest speaker mentioned in class: Rabinal Achi, a performance of a duel of two balancing forces. In this performance, two armed warriors Cawek and Rabinal are dueling with speech and at the end of their speeches each gives the name of his adversary. During the performance, there isn’t much sense of which whether Cawek is good or evil; however, there is showing that Cawek made poor choices, but that both him and Rabinal are working together to correct the mistake. UC Berkeley and its affiliated archaeologists aren’t per-say evil, but they aren’t doing the right thing in the case of not returning the native’s remains to their people. The institution is a lot like Cawek in this story, poor choices were made, but perhaps if the institution and the Native peoples worked together, a solution can be found? With Western culture, specifically in Western theater, it is almost a tradition to claim two opposing forces as good or as evil; something we like to search for in our entertainment, in theaters and in other forms of media. On the campus of UC Berkeley, the two opposing forces of the institution against the Ohlone people doesn’t make the two necessarily good or evil, they just can’t come to terms with each other.


This academic battle also representative of the battle of the archive and the repertoire. In performance studies, the archive is usually film, photos, letters, artifacts of the past, etc. The institution favors the archive, where it stores anything it deems valuable that could’ve been lost. With the archive, the source of “knowledge” is separated from the knower, causing the viewers to only see a single moment, but not the entire context. Due to this, the learner begins to make assumptions and moment that was framed has been forgotten. The repertoire is typically history that is passed down from person to person, causing lived experiences to be more valued.


We saw this intergenerational transfer of knowledge in the play, Unplugging, where the knowledge the two women had gained from being exiled and being forced to survive on their own. After a moment of betrayal, main characters Bern and Elena are arguing that a young man, Seamus stole knowledge from the women that had been ‘gifted’ to him. Elena believes he stole what was originally hers, telling Bern “Now that you have taught him everything you know, everything I taught you. He’s gone back, bearing that gift, to that place, that place that spat us out like rotten meat. It is his passport back in.” (p. 334 CR). Bern argues that other side, believing that the knowledge the women had gained while trying to survive, wasn’t theirs to keep. She response back to Elena, “So what if he did, Elena. They need to know. Maybe they will let him back in… It wasn’t ours to keep… he didn’t take anything from me that I didn’t want to give. No, I mean the knowledge, the things I taught him, the things you taught me, maybe he will go back and teach your daughter and isn’t that the way it is supposed to be?” (334 CR) The women’s experience of living in a post – apocalyptic world became valuable to their ex – tribesmen as their knowledge would benefit the tribe and their survival. This is lived experience, that due to repertoire – passing down their knowledge, became a valuable tool that would allow humanity to survive on. The knowledge was learned and passed on without the aid of the archive, there was no recording of “How to Hunt”. It was something the women had to learn how to do and to pass on that knowledge, they had to teach it. The idea of preservation within the archive implies that something is dead. In the case of Hearst Museum preserving artifacts that belong to the Ohlone tribe suggests that the Ohlone culture is dead and that their tradition will be kept alive by preserving the tools their ancestors. However, this ideology of preservation forgets about the Natives who are still alive, who still practice their culture, and who continuously pass on their knowledge to the next generations.


The play Antikoni suitably addressed the issue between the archive, repertoire, and the impact on Native people. The piece of Antikoni is a decolonizing piece focused on the main character Antikoni who is trying to get her ancestors’, two brothers, remains back from the museum, believing that the brothers’ remains shouldn’t be stored in the museum, instead they should be properly buried. Antagonist to her belief is Kreon, the museum head and maternal uncle to Antikoni and her sister, Ismene, who believes that with keeping the remains in the museum is beneficial to preserving the culture. In the play, Kreon is very much the physical embodiment of the archive, believing cultures are preserved if held in museums; Antikoni represents the repertoire, who believes that her culture will live on without needing to be preserved in the institution. This play mirrors what is going on right now between the Hearst museum and the Ohlone people. Because the museum is so focused on profiting off the ancestors remains, they have become blind to the fact that they have stolen from the Ohlone. A line from Antikoni that struck me so much was Kreon accusing Antikoni of stealing her brothers’ remains from the museum and Antikoni replies that it was the museum who stole the bones. As Diana Taylor, in The Archive and the Repertoire, would argue, the way to keep cultures alive is not by keeping them in the archive, its by passing the knowledge down, body to body.


In the opening scene of Antikoni, Ismene is trying to talk her sister out of taking back the remains. She fears that if Antikoni steals these bones from the museum, her actions will push back all of the work the Natives have done to ensure they could get the remains back, following the laws of the State. She knows that punishment for taking back the remains would come from the State, but Antikoni wouldn't be the only one punished, her people will be punished as well, as Antikoni puts their lives at risk. Ismene recalls the power of the State, reminding Antikoni that she should “Give some thought to our history. Our father is dead by his own hand, our mother by disease… our grandfathers and grandmothers were forced to boarding schools, beaten and assailed by brutes. Our great - grandparents survived the war, lived through The Hot Place, Leavenworth. Military prisons filled with children. Not so many generations back our people were slaughtered. Surely you must know that these rulers have power greater than ours. If we defy the law, they will make examples of us, punish us. We are women and have more to lose… It is not only the State who may punish you. But think of our kinsmen of other Red Nations. What will you risk of theirs?... They will be punished as well. Perhaps more severely… The tribes will be angry if your stunt closes the door to all others who pray for their Ancestors’ remains. Those Tribes who have papers, who are following the rules as NAGPRA demands. They will lose if you succeed.” (Antikoni Script, 4). Ismene is pleading with Antikoni, asking her to be aware of the impact of her taking back the bones. It may be the right thing in her mind, but Antikoni’s actions are still against the law and in order to ensure no one is harmed by the State’s power, Ismene begs that she follows the laws of the State.


The important law she mentions is NAGPRA. Standing for Native American Grave Protection Reparation Act, NAGPRA only applies to federally recognized tribes. NAGPRA, passed in 1990, is a Federal law that holds a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items. The cultural items are typically human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony. The cultural items are to be returned to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated Native American tribes. To get back one's’ ancestral artifacts, the tribe must prove a connection with the cultural objects and Western academia is the one who proves that the remains actually belong to a certain tribe. Archaeologists can prove through certain methods - linguistically, genetically, etc. And still it is the institution who has the power to prove that who gets to have the claim. What is the most unfair part is that if a tribe is trying to get a cultural item returned to them, they have to be federally recognized as a tribe, and even with federal recognition, it still is a long process to get what was taken from them back.


The Ohlone tribe isn’t the only tribe in the United States dealing with repariatriation conflicts. Countless others are dealing with this same struggle over power, including the Duwamish tribe in Seattle, Washington. Twice, the Duwamish have tried to become federally recognized by the US Government, but every time, they were denied. With over 600 descendants, the Duwamish tribe has to prove that they are at the required status to become federally recognized. In 1978 and 1994, the rules of become federally recongized caused authorities to come to the conclusion that there was not enough evidence to prove that the Duwamish can be identified as an “Indian entity.” The government claimed that there was also a lack of evidence concerning the continuous existence of a “distinct American-Indian community” and “tribal political influence or authority”. The government holds the cards in deciding who gets to be recognized, despite the fact that the Duwamish is culturally a tribe! Why is it that the government is the one who determines yes this is tribe can be recognized as a culture or not? Imagine what that does to a tribe, to be told that your culture isn’t valid and that it will die out because there is no use trying to preserve your tribe and give it some power.


The whole issue between the archive and the repertoire is determining who has the power to decide what is valuable enough to preserve or deem ‘still alive’. With this, is understanding the knowledge production, who has the power to pass down the knowledge, translating, interpreting it. And with this knowledge production, it is always within the perspective of the victor. In this battle between the Hearst museum and the Ohlone people, the one with the power is the institution. They are the one who have won the victory, as of now, and get to determine what is worth keeping from the Ohlone ancestors, including their remains. Since they can profit off of the artifacts and remains, then the Hearst museum deems certain parts of the Ohlone culture as valuable and once it no longer has value, it is no longer needed. Those with the power over the knowledge get to choose what gets to be kept and preserved and what gets edited out. This knowledge production has been seen before between the native people and the Spanish missionaries. After colonizing the Native people, missionaries desired to control the natives by removing their ability to celebrate their culture and traditions.


The play Juicio Final in Mexico was a method of the Franciscan friars to achieve control over the natives. In the play, Christ calls upon the living and the dead to receive judgment; those who embraced Christ would be forgiven, but those who rejected would be sent to hell. Lucia, a character in the play, was one to reject Christ, ignoring receiving the seventh sacrament and refusing marriage. As a result, Lucia was sent to hell. It is easy to see that this play could be used by the friars as a way of putting fear into the native people. If they didn’t accept this religion, then they wouldn’t move on to a peaceful afterlife, instead they would burn in hell. This performance was an effective way for the friars to transmit Christian ideology to the native people. In Mayan culture, the invading Spanish actually banned the performance of Rabinal Achi, the play of two dueling forces mentioned earlier in this analysis. This oppression denigrated Mayan religion and in order for the Mayan’s to keep the court drama alive was through disguising the performance as more Christian. Even the records of the play may be inaccurate due to the fact that they were recorded by foreigners. So, the knowledge that the recorder deemed sharing was kept, while all other knowledge may have been left out and forgotten.

Shifting back to the death and destruction that the Native people experienced with the Spanish invasion and colonization, the fear and pain they must have felt mirrors the horror of the oncoming apocalypse in both Marisol and Angels in America.


For both plays, the world is in chaos; in Marisol, judgement day occurs as the play continues in time; and for Angles in America, judgement day is already upon the people of the LGBTQ+ community, with AIDS taking lives and striking fear in all. For both plays, the fear of being remembered lingers and is questioned; there is a certainty of being forgotten because now, in the apocalypse, no one has time to record the death of those around them. The fear of not being included in the archive is then replaced by the hope that remaining in people’s memories will keep individual’s memory alive. In Angels in America, Prior has hope that the dead will be remembered, stating “… the dead will be commemorated and will struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore.” (pg. 280). Prior has hope that those who die will be remembered and the human soul will live on. This hope, that those who have passed will be remembered, is interesting when this opinion is set next to the events in Marisol, that suggests that even the nameless who have passed away will also be remembered. In Marisol, a powerful scene to the end of the play showcases that babies that didn’t survive long past birth weren’t buried in a fancy cemetery, in a traditional plot. Instead the babies were buried under a sidewalk, with fire hydrants serving as their grave markers. Despite most of the babies being labeled as unnamed, the passed children will still be remembered due to the grave markers above them and by those who cry in their memory, wondering what their lives would have been if they had survived. For both plays, those who have passed will remain remembered by the repertoire, by the memories that are passed down from person to person.


The whole idea of keeping someone alive by passing on their memory, was also seen in Ohlone traditions where they would bury their dead and place offerings above their graves for them. This tradition I feel is similar to Hispanic culture with Dia de los Muertos and setting up ofrendas with pictures of the passed and with offerings. The images were a way of keeping someone’s memory alive and passing it down through the family. As stated in a popular children’s film Coco, the moment the memory of the deceased is lost, the deceased’s spirit fades away and they are permanently forgotten. There is a fear in certain cultures, including with the Ohlone people, that if an individual is not properly buried their spirit cannot move on. In Adios Ayacucho Alfonso Canepa has been brutally murdered, with his body lost, his spirit enters Q’olla’s body and Alfonso begins to tell the story of his disappearance and murder. His mother mourns for her son, “They’ve killed my boy. His soul won’t be able to rest. We have to find him and give him a Christian burial.” (p. 297, Adios Ayacucho). I found this moment of mourning very interesting, it is as if what was Native American belief of burying the dead - so that their spirits don’t continue to wander Earth - merged with Christian belief, where those who aren’t buried properly don’t get to go to Heaven. There is a human fear that if we aren’t identified after death, then we won’t get to move on to the next stage. These beliefs essentially revolve around requiring that individuals to be buried, to mark that this is the spot that they have been laid to rest, in order to keep the memory of them alive. The same thing occurred with the babies in Marisol; some may not have had names, but they are still acknowledged by their place of burial. And once more, this acknowledgement reminds me of the power of the archive. We seem to be relying on the records of deaths more than we do on the passed down memory of an individual.


For me, the Spanish missionaries and the institutions of UC Berkeley and Hearst Museum are taking on roles similar to the God of the Old Testament and His punishment and the destruction of Babylon, or God in Angels in America, where their God disappears because of his disappointment in what humanity has become. All seem to dislike that a certain part of humanity was and how it is different from their opinion of how humanity should be. For all, it seems like they are the ones in the power and get to decide who to punish just for being different. The Spanish missionaries and UC Berkeley are the ones with the power to decide what parts of Ohlone culture gets to survive—preserving and recording only small parts and putting them into the archive, giving the chosen pieces a place in history.


We are a society that likes to have everything recorded and kept in storage to use for future reference; we like to prioritize the past, but don’t focus on the present. With the Native Americans’ bones in the museum, they now become a part of the archive. The institution deems it is more important to preserve the bones, than to preserve the present-day culture of Native Americans. This is a way of recolonizing the Native Americans and their culture, by picking and choosing what part of their cultures are worth keeping alive and what knowledge is worth preserving. The institution claims that the bones can provide us insight of how past humans used to live. How they used their bodies – by studying wear on certain joints, like the shoulders, suggesting they may have been active hunters, archers, fishers, etc. What they traded—by analyzing food waste around the archaeological site. How they lived—by the structure of their villages & where they decided to settle. But couldn’t the repertoire—the passed down knowledge within the tribe answer many of these questions? Many cultures rely on passed down knowledge as means of keeping their cultures from dying. During Esperanza del Valle’s performance, I noticed on their program, they had used “repertoire” in reference to dance knowledge that a choreographer had passed on to his dancers. This was knowledge that they could only receive from the choreo.


While talking with my boyfriend’s father, I had a realization on why in today’s world the archive is so much more powerful. With information that we want at the touch of our fingertips, we no longer have the need to turn to our elders and ask them for their knowledge. We can just Youtube how to hunt fish, or which plants are poisonous. The technology hinders us and makes us more dependable on the archive than with the repertoire. Even with cultural knowledge, many individuals my age, including myself, come from mixed backgrounds, where with in their families, the cultures have blended and its difficult to remember their cultural roots. Knowledge that was once passed down through the village people or by family is no longer being passed down as we become cut off from our heritages. The archive, specifically the Internet, has allowed for us to reconnect to our lost connections in certain ways. But actually hearing the stories of their ancestors comes from the repertoire, from the words spoken by their Elders.


The death of a culture is an apocalypse to its people. Their traditions, rituals, and beliefs are, most of the time, all that they have known. When a society with more power comes in and invades their culture, they typically use their power to claim what is worth preserving of the colonized culture. The culture is permanently altered, and their past lives are destroyed. The Ohlone tribe has dealt with attacks on its culture since the arrival of the Spaniards. And now, UC Berkeley refuses to return what doesn’t belong to the institution, in a timely manner, based on the opinion that learning from the confiscated cultural objects will benefit future scholars. What about learning from the Ohlone’s present culture? Why is their past the only piece of their history that is valued? Because the institution has profit in mind, not preservation.

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