"In the summer of 2006," Tony Platt writes, "my forty-year-old son died. Daniel left a clear written message that he wanted a funeral at Big Lagoon, the northwestern California village on the coast where we have a vacation cabin. We honored his request, sending his ashy remains off into the lagoon. Some eighteen months later I discovered that the Yurok who lived in this area 'since time immemorial' had been buried a few hundred yards away from my cabin."
Only in the last few years has Platt, a CSU Sacramento emeritus professor, come to realize that that area in Humboldt County, called O-pyúweg by the Yurok, was the scene not only of bloody violence but of plundered native remains. His scholarly research--and passion--are on display in "Grave Matters: Excavating California's Buried Past" ($18.95 in paperback from Heyday Books).
"Many local 'Indian relics' preserved in university labs, museum display cases, private collections, and tourist attractions," he writes, "were taken from inside graves; and that often collectors also removed skulls and bones to show off to their friends or ship off to anthropologists in Berkeley." Those acts are illegal now in California, "but until the 1970s digging up native burial sites for pleasure, science, or profit was for the most part authorized and popular, despite longstanding and persistent native protests."
Platt will be speaking in Chico Wednesday night at 6:00 p.m. at Barnes and Noble; and Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. at Lyon Books (which will also feature Heyday Books founder Malcolm Margolin).
"'We bury our individuals with the trappings of their life,' says the Yurok tribal historic preservation officer, 'in order to show their status in the afterlife. To separate the dead from their artifacts is to separate them from their identity.'" The story of desecration and repatriation is a complex one, involving anthropologist Alfred Kroeber (associated with Ishi) and a host of others.
For Platt, what happened to native populations in California amounts to genocide, making us "pay attention to the magnitude of a decade of butchery, and invites us to consider 'family resemblances' between California in the 1850s and 1860s, Turkey in 1915, Germany in the 1930s, and Rwanda in 1994." It is a horrendous story, one told with nuance and compassion.