The Representational Politics of Science

Sent: September 29, 2021

From: Vincent J. Del Casino, Jr., Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs

Dear Colleagues,

Recently, a colleague sent me a photo that has been posted on Twitter. In that photo was an image of a smiling SJSU professor holding a skull of what appears likely to be, based on the caption and background in the photo, an ancestor of one of our local Native American tribes. That professor also appears to be standing in a SJSU curational space, which holds the remains of hundreds of Native American peoples, many of whom are from Muwekma Ohlone and other area tribes. This image has evoked shock and disgust from our Native and Indigenous community on campus and from many people within and outside of SJSU.

The image is tied to a larger argument in the same Twitter feed which suggests that landmark human rights laws, such as the Federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), the California Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 2001 (CalNAGPRA), and the California Native American Cultural Preservation bill (AB 275) that went into effect on January 1, 2021, are anti-science, or at least impede scientific pursuits because they favor religious and cultural values over scientific ones. Yet, there are many examples of how we regulate science. For example, academics and governments have developed ethical standards for the governance of their fields as well as bureaucratic mechanisms to regulate risks and harm in relation to scientific benefit. We have scientific review panels to protect research subjects in experiments, such as the ones that recently yielded COVID-19 vaccines. We have institutional review boards that review the risks – not only physical, but also psychological and emotional as well – and ask if the research findings are of value to society in such a way where the benefits outweigh the risks. The federal government has also had to develop a “Certificate of Confidentiality” to “protect the privacy of research subjects by prohibiting disclosure of identifiable, sensitive research information to anyone not connected to the research except when the subject consents or in a few other specific situations.” 

These strategies are also imperfect because science, like religion, relies, to a certain degree, on faith – a faith that scientific inquiry is the appropriate way to solve wicked problems and grand challenges. And as is often the case, science can. But the measures identified above also reflect that unfettered science can go horribly wrong, which is why both academic societies and governments have had to step in to regulate scientific research. NAGPRA, CalNAGPRA and AB 275 collectively set forth regulations governing the material and ethical treatment of the remains of Native American and Indigenous peoples who have suffered genocide at the hands of settler colonialism. As binding federal and state law, they govern our institution’s actions when it comes to the handling of those remains, which include the eventual return of the remains if requested by descendants. Some would argue the laws do not go far enough, others may argue they go too far, but in any event, we are not given a choice whether to follow them.

While there are scientific issues at stake, there are also many things in the image itself that do not align with the values of SJSU or of academic inquiry. For example, in what context is it ever ethically appropriate for an academic to handle remains while smiling with ungloved hands while calling these remains “friends”? I doubt many colleagues in the fields of Forensic Science or Physical Anthropology would find this palatable. Moreover, it is very important to ask: Does the research “value” implied in the image really outweigh the risk of harm and trauma to Native American and Indigenous peoples such an image evokes? Based on my reading of the ethical guidelines of the social science disciplines that govern such practices and laws such as AB 275 – which requires SJSU to consult affiliated California Indian tribes on protocols including the need to “minimize handling” of such remains – the answer is no.

At the same time, does a professor have the right to express their views on the matter? Do they have the right to advocate against laws like NAGPRA, CalNAGPRA, and AB 275 and present their work at academic conferences and post on social media? Do they have the right to teach on these topics in their classes? The answer to all these questions is yes.  

Do other faculty likewise have a right to respond? That answer is also yes. I also have the responsibility as the university’s provost to not only offer my reading of such images as another social scientist but to assess the use of such images in relation to the values of the institution. In that latter role, I can say that SJSU does not condone or endorse the practice of posing with the human remains of others – be that Native American or any other human remains. Moreover, aligned with the words of Dr. Joanne Barker, who is Lenape (a citizen of the Delaware Tribe of Indians) and professor of American Indian Studies at San Francisco State University, I acknowledge in our institutional practices that “[n]ative peoples have been made to navigate around and collaborate with one another because of federal authority and dominant science claims about their histories, cultures, and genealogies. It is not that empirical science is without value. But it should be accorded a similar kind of respect and role in federal policy making—whether about recognition or repatriation—as native forms and practices of knowledge, experts, and expertise” (108-109). And as required by NAGPRA, CalNAGPRA, and AB 275, SJSU has invested in the people to respect tribal sovereignty by doing the appropriate work to “consult…with affiliated California Indian tribes on any protocols to be used in the inventory process.” 

SJSU has already begun dialogue with local Native American and Indigenous community members about the treatment of human remains and artifacts as part of our implementation of AB 275. SJSU’s Department of Anthropology, for example, has committed itself to this dialogue, helping the University fully comply with the various laws that have been passed. This is one small step, however. There is much more we need to do to build stronger bridges to area tribes and to our Native American and Indigenous students, staff, and faculty. We can and we will.