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Goodbye Kroeber, Kroeber Hall, and the Man We Know as Ishi

Nancy Scheper‑Hughes

University of California, Berkeley

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Scheper–Hughes, Nancy, 2022. “Goodbye Kroeber, Kroeber Hall, and the Man We Know as Ishi”, in Bérose - Encyclopédie internationale des histoires de l'anthropologie, Paris.

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Cet article fait partie d’une série de six communications présentées le 19 novembre 2021, lors d’une session intitulée “Alfred L. Kroeber : The Man, His Work and His Legacy”, organisée pendant la réunion annuelle de l’American Anthropological Association (AAA). Le 27 janvier 2021, l’Université de Berkeley (Californie) a débaptisé le “Kroeber Hall” qui abrite le département et le musée d’anthropologie - institutions fondées par Kroeber. Il nous a semblé intéressant d’offrir en lecture dans Bérose ces six contributions discutées en novembre. Sans prétendre à l’exhaustivité, elle offrent des éclairages complémentaires sur l’oeuvre d’une figure majeure de l’histoire de l’anthropologie états-unienne. Participaient à cette session : Herbert S. Lewis (organisateur, Université du Wisconsin-Madison), Stanley Brandes (Université de Californie, Berkeley), James Stanlaw (président, Illinois State University), Jack Glazier (Oberlin College), Nicholas Barron (Mission College), et Nancy Scheper-Hughes (Université de Californie, Berkeley).

On January 26, 2021, UC Berkeley chancellor, Carol Christ, the president of the UC system and the chair of anthropology with the support of most of the anthropology faculty, [1] agreed that the time had come to erase the name of Alfred Kroeber from Kroeber Hall. Obviously, times change and my senior colleagues and I can recall other unnamings at UC Berkeley. For one, the Robert H. Lowie Museum of Anthropology (in the Kroeber building) was unnamed as it was renamed for Phoebe A. Hearst in 1991. Professors Laura Nader, Paul Rabinow, Alan Dundes and I led a protest outside the museum gates. We lost, of course. University building namings, even in major public universities, have ties with financial benefactors.

In 1901 AL Kroeber, then a new temporary professor at the University of California in San Francisco and Berkeley, campaigned to name the anthropology building and museum for his primary benefactor, Phoebe Hearst. In a letter to her on December 11, 1904, Kroeber wrote :

“I have now given you, my dear Mrs. Hearst, a general account of the department and the great Museum which will be another lasting monument to you and your devotion to the university and your desire to advance knowledge and to encourage the higher culture of the people…So If you consent to the naming of the Phoebe Hearst Museum, as I suggest, there will come forward many men and women who will make strong foundations in the work to be done by the Museum.”

But it was only in 1960, a few months before Kroeber died, that the anthropology building in UC Berkeley was completed and named for the founder and chair of the department. Thus began Kroeber Hall. However, truth be told, Kroeber never wanted his name on the building.

If this is so, why should we anthropologists care about the crude removal and erasure of Kroeber’s name on the anthropology building ? We are aware that this is a time for serious reckonings, acknowledgements of past errors, atonement, and reparation toward a new social and political imagination. In recent years we have seen the destruction and removal of public statues and monuments of slavers, Indian killers, colonizers, and racists from Junipero Serra to Juan De Oñate, not to mention Columbus, and all the hundreds of Confederate statues like ‘Silent Sam’ who until recently graced the entrance to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill where I was a professor in the early 1980s. I felt sorry for Sam, a ‘tar heel’ soldier dragged into the Civil War. The monument depicted a young man holding tight to his rifle firmly in his hands. Beneath the statue was a female representing the state of North Carolina begging students to drop their books and to join the Confederate cause. After all, Confederate soldiers like Sam came home with tar on their bare feet. [2] I wondered when student activists would knock him down, which they finally did in 2018.

The goal of UC Berkeley’s chancellor, Carol Christ, was to decide which of the campus buildings had been named for people who represented the “meanings and values of the university” and for those who absolutely did not. The timing for this ‘unnaming’ took place in 2020 during the simultaneous Covid lockdowns that kept faculty and students ‘zooming away’ from campus. This made it easier for the UC Berkeley administration to unname a fourth building along with Boalt Hall (Law School), Barrows Hall (Social Science), and LeConte Hall (Physics Department). These buildings were stripped of their names in 2020 for because of the racist, eugenicist, pro-slavery, and colonialist individuals for which the buildings had been named. Le Conte Hall was unnamed because the LeConte brothers had grown up on a Southern plantation with 200 enslaved people, and during the Civil War Joseph LeConte helped the Confederacy produce gunpowder. Barrows Hall was unnamed when it was claimed that David Prescott Barrows, an anthropologist, and UC president from 1919 to 1923, taught that the White European race was above all others as a great historical race. Berkeley’s Law School, Boalt Hall, was unnamed because John Henry Boalt played an instrumental role in anti-Chinese racism and his support for the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But Kroeber Hall ?

Chancellor Christ approved the unnaming of the first three buildings and this was accepted by the new UC president, Michael V. Drake. But the fourth unnaming of a building was what Hannah Arendt would have called ‘unthinking’ and what I would call ‘undoing’. In her letter, Chancellor Christ wrote that Kroeber’s views and writings “clearly stand in opposition to our university’s values of inclusion and our belief in promoting diversity and excellence.” She added that the removing of Kroeber’s name would “help Berkeley recognize a challenging part of our history, while supporting the diversity of today’s academic community.” [3] Why would Kroeber’s life and work be seen as racist ? I could not understand where this came from.

The following day, January 27, 2020 marked the end of an era of American anthropology : Alfred Kroeber and Kroeber Hall. However, the event was quiet, discreet and bureaucratic. Without much ado, the ‘undoing’ of Kroeber took place in front of the locked doors of Kroeber Hall during a pandemic and ghostly, empty campus. The only ceremony to be seen was the sound of a worker chiseling away at the metal letters of Kroeber Hall, clink by clink. With no faculty interest or resistance among the Berkeley anthropology faculty, the name of our founding father and of California anthropology was not only removed but disgraced as well. So, I decided to protest.

Behind the unnaming of Kroeber Hall was a secret letter, signed by some 20 diverse campus faculty members condemning Kroeber as a white supremacist, among other absurd untruths. This began a Trump-like heyday of falsehoods, that were included in the official chancellor’s review and acceptance of the unnaming of Kroeber Hall. [4]

Among the accusations that were hurled were the following :

1. That Alfred Kroeber engaged in research practices that were always objectionable to many Native Americans and that society now recognizes as reprehensible and have made illegal.

2. That Kroeber and his colleagues engaged in collection of the remains of Native American ancestors, which has always been wrong and is now illegal. This includes the collection of remains and sacred funerary objects of Native American ancestors and other Indigenous people from their graves, without consent, from tribes or individual descendants of Indigenous people. 

 3. That Kroeber mistreated a Native American survivor of genocide whom he placed as a living exhibit in the university’s museum. Kroeber’s treatment of a Native American man we know as Ishi and the handling of his remains was said to be cruel, degrading, and racist.

4.That Kroeber pronounced the Ohlone to be culturally extinct, a declaration that supposedly had terrible political consequences for these people. [See Nicholas Barron’s paper regarding this claim.[

None of the first three accusations against AL Kroeber had any historical evidence whatsoever. Kroeber’s ethnographic research and his publications were not objectionable to his informants nor to the people of the communities he studied. To the contrary, Kroeber worked side by side with his Native Californian ‘informants’ who were recognized and listed in Kroeber’s 1925 Handbook of the Indians of California. Kroeber was a public anthropologist from the very beginning of his career. He gave an early public lecture to the San Francisco Commonwealth Club in October 1909 in which he addressed the history of “the rights and wrongs” toward California Indians following the genocidal wars following the American Gold Rush. [5] And it was not Kroeber who collected ancestral indigenous human remains and ancestral sacred objects that to this day choke the Anthropology Museum. [6]

Nonetheless, Chancellor Carol Christ’s Building Name Review Committee voted to unname Kroeber Hall in July 2020. The ‘vote’ was based on random solicitations from across campus of faculty members, students, and local Bay Area people. The majority (including the faculty on the Name Review Committee) probably knew nothing about Kroeber. The anthropology faculty shamefully voted to rename Kroeber Hall with the belief that this ‘gesture’ would bring administrative financial support to the department. The majority of the votes was anonymous and just about anyone could vote. Among the 595 ‘votes’ that were counted by the unnaming committee, 85% favored removing Kroeber’s name from Kroeber Hall. Thus, he was condemned by a random selection of faculty members and students who sent comments to the renaming committee claiming that Kroeber was a colonialist, an Indian killer, a racist, and a white supremacist. All of which was false. A local student newspaper article referred to A. L. Kroeber as the perpetrator of the California genocide which occurred forty years before Kroeber ever set foot in California. 

To avoid conflict during a terrible time—Covid deaths and the death of truth as we once knew it— both the Department of Anthropology and Chancellor Christ decided to accept an anti-intellectual, populist attack on Kroeber who had spent his life studying and saving the languages and cultures of Native Californians. Kroeber was part of the early twentieth-century circle of radical thinkers who initiated an anthropological movement against racism in America (see King, 2019) under the leadership of his close colleague and mentor, Franz Boas, who had himself suffered anti-Semitism during his undergraduate studies in Germany. Boas’s students and followers included radical feminist women, such as Elsie Clews Parsons, Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and a member of the Harlem Renaissance. Kroeber was part of this same progressive movement that was determined to prove that eugenics was a false science, that IQ tests were irreparably biased and misleading, and that the only truly ‘primitive’ people were those who believed that European (“White”) people people were superior to other peoples and their cultures and civilizationsThe Boasian-Kroeberian movement successfully argued that biological ‘race,’ as it was then understood, was an artificial category, a social construct based on nineteenth-century racial theories and ideologies.

This is not to say that Kroeber’s history is without legitimate controversy. While Kroeber spent his lifelong vocation and social compatibility with the Yurok Indians of California, he referred to a group of north coastal Native Californians, the Ohlone peoples, as culturally extinct (Kroeber 1925), which has caused pain and controversy. Kroeber’s opinion was based on the early assimilation of the tribe. By the time that Kroeber conducted his fieldwork with the Ohlone/Muwekma people in Pleasanton in the early 1900s, their way of life had been transformed by the Spanish conquest for nearly 130 years. During the colonial conquest, the Muwekma tribe was largely converted to Catholicism and had adapted Spanish over their native language. They had intermarried with settlers and other tribes. The Ohlone like other California tribes faced violence and racism, religious persecution, economic exploitation, and institutionalized discrimination. Kroeber feared that this would end their cultural identity, if not their population, which numbered about 30 at that time. He used the term ‘extinction’ because they were actually dying. Each wave of colonization had brought new forms of devastation to the natural environment, new diseases and poor health conditions. There were few treatments available. How would Kroeber know that many decades later the Ohlone tribes would experience vibrant revitalizations ?

During the long, ugly and violent history of California and its state universities with respect to Native Californians, A. L. Kroeber was an ally not an enemy. Beyond his meticulous writings, audio transcriptions, photos, conferences, his co-authoring of books and articles with his Native Californian informants and colleagues, Kroeber went to federal court as an expert witness on behalf of a California Indian land rights lawsuit, ‘Indians of California, Docket No. 37 on June 23, 1952’. An elderly and frail Alfred Kroeber spent weeks in a California court testifying to the claims of Indigenous Californians who had lost their land. He responded to a cross-examination three hours a day for ten days in which he supported the land rights of the Indians. Kroeber prepared an updated and detailed map of all the indigenous linguistic groups in California that he had drawn for his Handbook of California (1925), showing the court the native lands that were stolen. He argued that all the land in California, not just particular identified sites of Californian bands and tribes, belonged to Native Californians. When asked how much land had been stolen, he replied that it was all of it. His powerful testimony helped win the case but it took decades before the tribes received small reparations for the plunder of their lands. [7]

Ishi, a Survivor of the California Genocide

Ishi was born during a time of intense conflict (1860–1865), just after the California Gold Rush that brought thousands of immigrants to the traditional homeland of Yahi Indians at Feather River and Mill Creek. The Yahi were accused of several murders of White settlers near the village of Oroville. After a massacre of remaining members of the Yahi tribe, the Yahi were believed to have been totally “exterminated”. The man that A. L. Kroeber called ‘Ishi’ was just a few years old when he and his four remaining relatives went into seclusion for almost forty years, hiding in fear of the murderous and greedy bounty hunters and white ranchers who were determined to kill every single member of Ishi’s remaining band.

As a child, Ishi stayed close to women and followed them to collect seeds and reeds. He learned to make baskets. Later he spent more time with the few men left in his band and developed skills in hunting, fishing, and making tools. The White ‘death squads’ destroyed their last bit of freedom and Ishi and four of his relatives decided to hide. Their last years were threatened and their movements restricted by the arrival of gold miners and land-grabbing settlers. When Ishi finally stumbled out of Mount Lassen into the gold town of Oroville in August 29, 1911, he had crossed a raging river during which one of the women of his desperate band had drowned. Others died of exhaustion and were possibly eaten by coyotes. By the time the Yahi Indian arrived in Oroville he knew that he was the last of his people. Now what would he do ? He had nowhere to go, and at dawn he was caught in a slaughterhouse looking for something to eat. A barking dog exposed him.

Was this a mad man or a wild man ? The citizens of Oroville had different thoughts. Ishi (who had no Anglo name) was arrested and taken to the local jail while the sheriff tried to figure out who he was and what to do with him. Ishi was silent and in shock. Meanwhile crowds of local people came to see the ‘wild man’ in jail. Ishi was starving, and when given a bowl of beans he gobbled them down and put out his bowl asking for more, please. He was given loose tobacco and cigarette papers to make his own. 

Later, Ishi told his Maidu interpreter, Sam Batwi, mostly in sign language, that he thought the sheriff who for some reason handed him a gun was threatening him. Ishi trusted no one at this point. Everyone was a total stranger to him. Eventually, he told Batwi how he had wandered alone through the mountains and how the rushing waters had drowned his loved ones and how he had dug shallow graves to bury them. When a city photographer arrived he made Ishi pose in various ways that made no sense to him. Moreover he had burned his long black hair in mourning and alone he sang a death chant. When asked what had happened to him, the man raised his index finger and pointed to chest to say that he was now all alone, there were no others of his band to find and nowhere for him to go. He was held at the local jail simply because the decent sheriff had no other idea what else to do with him.

Professor Kroeber and a young anthropologist, Tom Waterman, were summoned to Oroville, but only Waterman arrived to identify the man as a Yahi Indian. In the first photo taken just hours after his capture, Ishi seemed startled and in a state of advanced emaciation with his hair singed close to his head. His cheeks clung fast to the bones and accentuated his deep-set eyes. The photo showed a man of great intelligence and of deep sorrow. Sheriff Weber called and negotiated with the chair of anthropology, A. L. Kroeber, then in his 40s, to please take custody of the ‘wild man’ who was homeless and bereft. While Kroeber considered this, Weber took Ishi out of the jail to acquaint him to the town. To be safe he put handcuffs on Ishi’s hands. Ishi asked his imperfect interpreter, Batwi, if the steel handcuffs were a present for him. Could he now take them off ? While Ishi was still in Oroville Kroeber contacted the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in Washington, DC, who gave the anthropologist permission to bring the man to San Francisco. 

Kroeber reluctantly agreed to be Ishi’s “guardian” and said that the man would have an “independent life” while living in and working as a custodian in the San Francisco Anthropology Museum. Kroeber had his office and a suite of rooms that he shared with Ishi at the museum. Ishi was glad enough to have his own room, a bed, table, fresh clothing, weekly wages, and ample meals that put weight on him—which he did not like. He soon created his own meals, reducing the butter and sugar that was at first a great delight. And while Ishi liked his quarters, his room was located next to a collection of human skulls and bones that depressed him. Nonetheless, Ishi conveyed to his anthropological and medical ‘guardians’ that he wished to remain at the museum rather than face uncertainty elsewhere. He insisted that he could not go home to Mount Lassen or Deer Creek because his home territory was now occupied by the ghosts and spirits of his kin who had not died a peaceful death nor been given a proper Yahi funeral. Ishi was certainly not a captive but an American genocide survivor. 

Ishi was not “wild.” He was a sophisticated person, stoical and self-disciplined. He did his best to adjust and accommodate to the new world into which he was thrown by genocide. Ishi understood why Kroeber and his colleagues wanted to record his knowledge of Yahi culture, songs, stories, and cosmologies. It was precious to both of them. Why would Ishi share his knowledge with a White anthropologist ? To whom else could he give his knowledge and wisdom ? Ishi had no living kin. Ishi loved children with whom he spent much of his free time on the local streets near the university and the university hospital. Kroeber admired Ishi. He said that the Yahi Indian was more intelligent than his undergraduate students. Indeed, Ishi was a teacher and he co-organized many Anthropology Museum demonstrations of artifacts he loved. He eagerly showed white Sunday visitors to the museum how the Yahi made fire and how to make bows, arrow points and shafts, salmon harpoons, and other hunting implements and skills that were essential to his early life. Ishi even showed how he hunted dressed as a deer with antlers, and how he spoke the languages of animals and birds. 

Kroeber did not ‘force’ Ishi to do these performances. In fact, Ishi enjoyed teaching the material aspects of his Yahi culture and recording many songs, while he kept other secrets that would be lost when he died. Ishi would never give his real name to Kroeber and he accepted “Ishi,” the Yahi name for ‘human’. When the Indian took walks around the streets of San Francisco, he often asked children what their names were and if they had a nickname. He was interested in their stories and religious beliefs, but he kept his own to himself. When he was once asked by a local resident if he believed in God, Ishi replied ‘Sure Mike !’ with a twinkle in his eye.

If we can, and I believe we must, think of Ishi as a survivor of the California genocide, we can better understand his wishes to stay just where he was. Ishi had suffered enough during his long years hiding out with his mother, perhaps an aunt, and a younger woman who may have been his wife. He later told Sam Batwi that she had died while they tried to cross the river that left him the sole survivor of the five. 

Ishi and Kroeber were respectful of each other, but Ishi had closer friendships with the anthropologist T. T.(Tom) Waterman and Saxton Pope, his hospital doctor, as well as several shopkeepers near the Anthropology Museum. He came to enjoy the trolley cars and the clanging of their bells. He didn’t mind being a part-time custodian for the university ; he liked the silver dollars that were in his weekly paycheck. Like the California Yurok described by Kroeber (1925), Ishi was careful and frugal. He kept most of his money in a local bank. He enjoyed dressing up in style with suit and tie, but not in shoes that hurt the wide feet that walked around Mount Lassen in his earlier life.

Ishi worked as a medicine man in San Francisco. He made daily visits to all the patients at the university hospital. Each morning he would sit down next to each bed. He often sang or whispered what seemed like ‘prayers’ to the patients, many of whom thought he was a great healer. Ishi had free access in the hospital but he avoided observing surgeries and autopsies which he declared were ‘very bad’ medicine. When Ishi began to get ill, his friend and doctor Saxton Pope was late diagnosing his rapid tuberculosis. Ishi accepted his death with grace. He was calm and said that he would soon be together with his deceased relatives. Kroeber went away on sabbatical but he realized that Ishi was very ill. Ishi told Kroeber : “You stay, I go” (Theodora Kroeber 1961:238).

After Ishi’s death, Kroeber wrote to E. W. Gifford (March 24, 1916) that there should be no autopsy. ‘If there is any talk about the interests of science, say for me that science can go to hell. We propose to stand by our friends.’ (Buzaljko 2003:55). Against Kroeber’s demand, a standard university hospital autopsy was performed on Ishi’s body during which his brain was removed ‘for science’ by a research intern at UCSF. When the brain was returned in a bottle to Kroeber’s desk, he was horrified and furious. He sent the brain off to the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC where an old school physical anthropologist, Aleš Hrdlička curated, collected, and measured human brain ‘specimens’. Ishi was dead and the damage to his body was irreversible. Or perhaps— and to my mind this is the most probable explanation— Kroeber’s behavior was a symptom of his disordered mourning. Grief can be expressed in a myriad of ways from denial and avoidance (as in the Yahi taboo on speaking the names of the dead) to indifference to death. Freud’s classic essay on ‘mourning and melancholia’ (1917) comes to mind with respect to Kroeber’s own ‘swallowed grief’ following the deaths of his first wife in 1913 and then, soon afterwards, Ishi, both from the same disease.

The final chapter of this story opened in the spring of 1999 with the rediscovery of Ishi’s brain. Anthropologists at Berkeley differed in their opinions of what, if anything, should be said or done. In 2000 I was invited to the celebration of the return of Ishi’s brain from the Smithsonian Institution to the Pit River tribe on August 8. A few weeks after the secret burial, there were two days of communal feasting and healing dances at Summit Lake on Mt. Lassen. It was a first step toward more constructive engagement between anthropologists and the survivors of California’s genocides. Not all Native Californians spoke well of Ishi at that event. Some resented the fact that he accepted sanctuary with Whites and the ‘anthros’. Young people, in particular, were quick to judge Ishi : Why didn’t Ishi run away from the Anthro Museum ? But their elders were more understanding, putting themselves in his shoes, imagining how they themselves might behave in similar circumstances. They recognized Ishi as a man facing genocide. ‘We need to think in a good way now and to find ways to honor our grandfather Ishi.’ When I apologized at the celebration of Ishi’s remains, one of the elder women from Pit River scolded me for speaking badly of Dr. Kroeber. [8]

Kroeber’s Lifelong Battle Between ‘Science and Sentiment’

What can one say about Alfred Kroeber ? The anthropologist was a complicated and imperfect person. He struggled all his life with a battle between ‘science and sentiment.’ Kroeber believed in anthropology as a natural science and therefore he believed that he must be a neutral and distanced observer. At times he seemed unable to express compassion, sorrow, or grief for the horrendous situation of the Native Californians whom he studied. When Kroeber was asked why he never asked Yurok villagers about the ‘White conquest’ that had upended their lives and livelihood, he replied that he just “could not stand all the tears” (Buckley 1996). Kroeber dedicated his research and fieldwork to studying the languages and the life histories of indigenous elders because they still spoke their languages and knew their rituals that predated Euro-American colonization. He studied the past and avoided the recent and continuing history of atrocities against Native Californians. He didn’t have the heart to pursue these questions.

In her book on her husband, and in my conversations with her in the late 1960s, Theodora Kroeber reveals another Alfred Kroeber altogether. She sees him as a professional anthropologist whose life was transformed by the death of his first wife and then the death of Ishi less than three years later. [9] Kroeber entered a period in his life from 1915 to 1922 that he called his hegira, a reference to Muhammad’s departure from Mecca to Medina in AD 622. (Theodora Kroeber, 1970 : 104–105). After these two deaths Kroeber fell apart. He questioned his academic anthropological profession. He took leaves from teaching to go through intense, almost daily, psychoanalysis. He then became a lay psychoanalyst in Stanford. Still he suffered from severe vertigo and on one occasion he fell in the gutter in front of a bar in San Francisco. His professional life no longer satisfied him. Theodora thought that it might have been the result of exhaustion following his completion of his Handbook of the Indians of California which he had just turned over to the Smithsonian Institution—all 995 pages of it.

Kroeber worried about having exposed Ishi to communicable diseases by allowing Sunday visitors to the Anthropology Museum to observe his exhibitions. He refused to take Ishi to the 1915 Pacific Exhibition but Ishi found a way to get there with a group of Sioux Indians who were participants in an event. These performances, which Ishi especially enjoyed, exposed him to rapid tuberculosis for which there was no cure. What other option did Kroeber have at that time ? And one might ask why Ishi refused Kroeber’s suggestions that he move into Native Californian communities. The Maidu and Pitt River people had welcomed him.

I will end with the words of one of Kroeber’s Yurok friends and informants who was saddened to hear of Alfred’s death. Mary Hornbeck, a Yurok woman who had helped Kroeber during his fieldwork along the Klamath River, wrote a remembrance for the newsletter of the California Council of Indian Organizations. In it she expressed her tribe’s deep gratitude for Kroeber’s work on behalf of all California Indians and for his efforts on behalf of the Indian land claims cases in the 1950s. She wrote : “Members of our Council feel and express the conviction of every California Indian when we say that we will be forever grateful for the Great Spirit who must have guided Dr. Alfred Louis Kroeber from Hoboken, New Jersey to California where he soon became our friend and in later life our greatest hope for long delayed justice” (Sackman 2010 : 291).

As for Carol Christ, who responded to my complaints about the shameful undoing of Kroeber by putting him in the same category with slavers and racists, she recently replied in an e-mail to me :

“How complicated the story of Kroeber is. One of the things I am trying to do as chancellor is to create better relationships with Native American communities. This has been a real education to me—how brutal their history was. I feel there need to be acts of reparation. And I am determined to return as many of the human remains in the Hearst Museum to California tribes as soon as possible. I would love to do what UCLA did—to create a single burial at a site of [unidentified] ancestors remains.”

But that, she said, “will be hard to accomplish.” I would add that what is necessary is a California Commission on “Truth, Responsibility, and Reparation” similar to the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Native leaders living in California Tribal Lands and Reservations should lead this committee.

While it is easy today, with the advantage of hindsight, to identify the blind spots of our anthropological predecessors, is it fair to think that Kroeber might have done things differently ? At that time, over a hundred years ago, what other options did he have ? After Ishi’s health began to fail, were the anthropological and medical ‘guardians’ adequate ?

In the end of this morality tale, we know that UC Berkeley attacked the wrong target. The complaint against Kroeber judged him as if multiculturalism and social welfare were widespread at the time, while Kroeber in the face of it all, remained a strong and resistant anti-racist while working as hard as he could to preserve the languages, knowledge, music, arts, and culture of California Indians.


Kroeber died in Paris during an international anthropological conference. When Lévi-Strauss came to Berkeley in 1984 to give a series of lectures, he asked to see the latest issue of the Kroeber Anthropology Society Journal, a graduate student journal that he much admired. He also asked to see and to touch a beautiful Yurok canoe that Kroeber and his colleague T. T. Waterman had donated to the Anthropology Museum. Most university buildings are named for wealthy benefactors, many of whom made their fortunes by extractive capitalist measures. Kroeber Hall was one of the very few university buildings that were named for a world famous scholar. [10] To negate or ‘cancel’ Alfred L. Kroeber is to censor and defame one of the most distinguished anthropologists in America.


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Buzaljko, Grace W. 2003. ‘Kroeber, Pope,and Ishi.’ In Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber (eds.) Ishi in Three Centuries. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, pp. 48–64.

Freud, Sigmund. 1917. “Trauer und Melancholie” [Mourning and melancholia]. Internationale Zeitschrift für Ärztliche Psychoanalyse, 4 (6) : 288–301.

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King, Charles. 2019. God’s of the Upper Air : How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century. New York : Doubleday.

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Scheper-Hughes. 2001. “Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes : the Anthropology of Genocide,” Anthropology Today, 17(1) : 12–18.

Scheper-Hughes., Nancy. 2003. “Reflections on Anthropology and Genocide.” In Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber (eds.) Ishi in Three Centuries. Lincoln : University of Nebraska Press, pp. 99–131.

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 2002. “Coming to our Senses : Anthropology and Genocide”, in Annihilating Difference : The Anthropology of Genocide, edited by Alexander Hinton. Berkeley : UC Press, pp. 348–381.

Steward, Julian, J. Gibson, and John H. Rowe. 1961. “Alfred Louis Kroeber, 1876-1960.” American Anthropologist 63(5):1038–1087.

[1Except for Professor Kent Lightfoot and a few of the emeriti.

[2North Carolina is known as “The Tar Heel State.” University of North Carolina sports teams are called “Tar Heels.”

[5Kroeber outlined the history of the early Spanish Entrada that brought Catholic missions and with them death and destruction to the Indians through terrorism, disposition of indigenous lands, disrespect for their cultures and ecologies. Toward the end of Spanish and American genocides the result was disease, starvation and death. “Far more Indians fell in battle [and] were massacred”, Kroeber told the white settler men and women in the audience. American settlers killed men, women, and children. The US government policies of Indian reservations had also failed. The reason, Kroeber said, was because of the dispossession of California Indian rights and territories. Without their land, they could not survive.

[6It was Phoebe Hearst who purchased native remains and sacred objects for the museum. This is a long story and one that I cannot address here. But I can say that the Phoebe Hearst Museum has been for many decades, long after the death of Kroeber, a “godless graveyard” of Native Americans’ sacred remains. As for the accusation that Kroeber was involved in excavations of Native California graves, Julian Steward in his 50-page obituary of Kroeber in the American Anthropologist wrote that “Kroeber was never a physical anthropologist, and, although he summarized basic information in his book, Anthropology, his publications on the subject were negligible. He had no predisposition to be a field archeologist” (1960 : 1056). Similarly, Dell Hymes, who joined the Berkeley anthropology department in 1960, wrote a long obituary of Kroeber in Language, vol. 37:1 (1961) stating that Kroeber was first and foremost a linguist. Of his more than 550 scholarly articles, none are based on human remains. Kroeber avoided archeological excavations in California Indian burial sites.

[7See Omer C. Stewart, “Kroeber and the Indian Claims Commission Cases,”

[8I have since written several articles and book chapters on Kroeber and Ishi, such as ‘Ishi’s Brain, Ishi’s Ashes : the Anthropology of Genocide” (2001) in Anthropology Today (UK) ; a longer version in Ishi in Three Centuries (2003), edited by Karl Kroeber and Clifton Kroeber ; and “Coming to our Senses : Anthropology and Genocide”, in Annihilating Difference : The Anthropology of Genocide, edited by Alexander Hinton (UC Press, 2002).

[9To cancel A. L. Kroeber also means negating and deriding Kroeber’s wife, Theodora Kroeber, the author of Ishi in Two Worlds, and Kroeber’s daughter, Ursula Kroeber Le Guinn, who produced beloved books that were inspired by Kroeber’s ethnologies of Native Californians. These and the tragic story of Ishi that reverberates in her magical surrealist novels : Planet of Exile (1966), City of Illusions (1967), The Dispossessed (1974), The Word for World Is Forest (1976), and in her masterpiece, The Left Hand of Darkness (1969). Ursula Le Guin often put people of color as primary protagonists in her writings, and used the anthropology that she learned from her father to rethink notions of race, gender, and social oppression. By erasing Kroeber, the legacy of two brilliant women authors writing in different genres about our Californian indigenous history is also erased.

[10Kroeber’s contributions are well known across the social sciences and the humanities as well as in the natural sciences. In addition to offices in scholarly organization noted previously (see Herbert S. Lewis’s paper :], he served as chairman of the anthropology and psychology section of the National Research Council (1921-22), was honorary president of the Academies of Science of Peru and of Denmark, and recipient of many international medals and awards including the Huxley Medal (1945). He was an elected member of the American Philosophical Society, the National Academy of Sciences, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences.