Letters + Opinion » The Town Dandy

Rob Me Two Times

By Hank Sims



To my mind, this week's cover story on the long history of Native American grave robbing in Humboldt County has a couple of pretty clear villains. (Please note that in no way do I speak for writer Tony Platt, a cautious and moderate man.) We're talking about people so engrossed in their own time and their own prejudices that they made themselves deaf to the concerns of the people they were violating. They may have had good intentions in some sense, but to continue the work they had chosen for themselves they had to mentally push aside the voices of the people who had buried their ancestors, generation after generation, in places around the North Coast. The grave robbers had to dehumanize their subjects, but ended by dehumanizing themselves.

But as Platt's story makes clear, the grave robbers had one big institutional enabler: The University of California at Berkeley, whose school of anthropology vaulted to prominence on the back of field work done here. Even timber companies took the Indians seriously far before the university did. The university has much to answer for. And so we must note for the record one galling irony we came across when putting this week's paper together.

For the cover image, Platt had hoped to secure rights to a photograph held at Berkeley's anthropology library. The photo was taken in 1928 by Berkeley anthropologist Thomas T. Waterman, who wrote several monographs on the native people of the North Coast (including Yurok Geography, which is available in reprint). It is an image of a man called Pete, and he is depicted standing at the Yurok village of Okits, which figures prominently in Platt's story. Pete is dressed in Western clothing, hat in hand, with the landscape in the background. It is a quiet, somber picture, well suited to the history that Platt relates.

But when we went to secure reprint rights for this photo, the Berkeley anthropology department informed us that we would have to pay $125 for the rights to use it. Those fees would not include delivery of a high-resolution version of the image, or anything like that -- it would be $125 to use just the tiny little square of a photo that appears in the library's online catalog. Unfortunately, this was too much for us to pay.

So here's where we're at. Berkeley finances, sponsors and otherwise abets the mass looting of Native American graves in Humboldt County. Years later, when a researcher comes along to tell citizens of the county about the university's culpability in this matter, the university -- a public university -- demands stiff payment to reprint archival materials that would help tell the tale! Materials gathered right here!

Yes, you heard right! One wonders what Pete's family's cut would have been had we acquiesced. We will say, though, that Berkeley's shame is at least partly ameliorated by the wonderful work of the Yurok Language Project, whose Web site (http://www.linguistics.berkeley.edu/~yurok/) should be in the bookmarks folder of every computer in Humboldt County. The YLP is a project of the department of linguistics, which appears to have a greater interest in civic service than its cross-campus rival.

If there's a lesson to be learned here, it's one that HSU professor Sheila Steinberg drove home in last week's issue: It pays to have local history and data housed locally, where people who actually have a stake in these matters have an interest in keeping it free and open ("With a Rural Yell," June 11). That's long-term thinking, though -- in the meantime, if you wish to see the Waterman's picture of Pete in Opits, take a spin to northcoastjournal.com and look at the online version of this column. It'll contain a link to the image. While you're there, you can read or print out the full 9,000-word version of Tony Platt's important piece, including footnotes that can point you to primary sources.


Quick plug: The Journal was delighted last week to receive a visit from Beth Bosk and R.D. Deines, editor and publisher of the New Settler Interview. If you're not already hip to the NSI, it's never to late to start -- generations from now, historians will look to as the most important document of the North Coast back-to-the-land movement in all its messy glory.

The new issue has a couple of real gems. For one, Bosk profiles the guy who came out of nowhere to win this year's Cannabis Cup -- with outdoor, no less! -- and gets him to share his secrets. But the centerpiece of the issue is a long, long series of interviews with the Humboldt County treesitter known as Farmer, the end of which shows some perspective on the treesits currently underway on the McKay Tract.

The New Settler Interview: indispensable. Find it at finer macramé supply stands and head shops.

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