A Troll in the Lost City of the Dead
For decades, museums have sat on droves of Native American bones that aren't rightfully theirs. One anonymous online troll is trying to get them back.
Photo: Permanent Collection of the Catalina Island Museum.
In 2010, anonymous emails started popping up in the inboxes of Department of the Interior officials. The messages accuse museums across the country of failing to deal with their massive collections of Native American bones. Those remains are there illegally, the emails allege, and should be returned to the tribes to which they belong. They're all signed "T.D. White."
Over the last two centuries, scientists and collectors have exhumed Indian graves and battlefields across the country, gathering at least 200,000 Native American skeletons for science or self-enrichment—stockpiles that indigenous peoples have demanded back ever since.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed in 1990 to establish an official process through which Native Americans could retrieve their ancestors' bones, but 25 years after going into effect, progress remains haltingly slow. Tribes acknowledge that scientific attitudes toward their sacred histories are improving, but only about 10 percent of the stockpiled human remains have actually been physically returned amid never-ending battles over the past.
So, "T.D. White" keeps on sending emails—he or she has filed 37 formal complaints against cities, government agencies, and museums in 19 states—and no one involved in the repatriation process could miss the irony behind the troll's choice of alias.
The University of California-Berkeley is home to one of America's biggest and oldest Indian bone collections. It is also the basecamp for professor Tim D. White, a major force in modern anthropology and one of the field's biggest personalities—his old academic profile photo, for instance, pictures him with four companions, some in Cal hats, gripping AK-47s.
To the broader Native American community, however, the scientist symbolizes the museum establishment that once decried repatriation as the death of anthropology. And he's adamant that he's not the one sending the emails—when I reached out to him recently, and I told him about the rise of the troll who shares his name, White was taken by surprise. He denies any involvement.
He also tells me that the critics labeling him anti-repatriation are "wrong, malicious, or both" and he trumpets a view shared by many researchers: Congress intended to balance scientific and tribal interests, not simply defer to Native Americans in light of the historical injustice.
"I am well known for my support for the letter of NAGPRA law, and for the legitimate Indian grievances and the pursuant Congressional intent that promulgated the law," he wrote in an email. "And equally well known for my open opposition against those in governments and beyond who have attempted and/or managed to extend the statute beyond what it says."
A surprised White denies any connection to the complaints. Federal investigators are also at a loss, and tribal repatriation advocates can only smile at a nemesis trolled.
So, who is "T.D. White"? There was, really, only one other person to ask.
I sent an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, the account responsible for the complaints, and a play on the professor's initials and date of birth. I emailed the address with the obvious questions— who are you, and why are you doing this?—and got back only two cryptic sentences.
"Motivations?" the unsigned email read. "As a citizen I am compelled to report (injustice/illegal acts) when I see (it/them) to the appropriate authorities."
More questions only evoked more cagey responses, most aimed at denigrating the federal officials overseeing museum repatriation.
"The heart of the problem, and the reason museums continue to fail to comply (either willfully or through ignorance) is that the federal agency responsible for enforcement is clearly not doing its job," the troll wrote.
Again, I pressed for a name. "Sorry to disappoint you, but I am T.D. White," was all the troll would say. Intrigue gave way to frustration, and I asked again, point blank. But instead of a big reveal, the troll went dark, leaving only two things clear.
T.D. White blames an inept bureaucracy for repatriation's slow trudge. And, as the troll said, "Any allegation that I am 'Tim White from Berkeley' is utterly false and defamatory."
Whoever he or she actually is, the mystery crusader, armed with only a pseudonym, continues to dredge up a sordid legacy that even the nation's most prestigious museums still can't seem to shake.
The caches of bones gouge a raw nerve in Indian Country. For centuries, still-bloody Indian corpses were shipped from battlefields or massacre sites to Smithsonian exhibits while other physical remnants of the "Indian problem" were mulled over in government laboratories.
In the 20th century, universities and research groups amassed huge collections of Native American "research material" in the process of clearing the way for dams and other major works of Manifest Destiny. Federal preservation laws tasked archaeologists and anthropologists with preserving Native American history for science, in what critics say frequently amounted to state-sanctioned grave robbing. Meanwhile, plenty of private collectors were also uncovering—and keeping—Native American remains across the nation.
These included pseudoscientists and "hucksters" like Ralph Glidden, who was among the most notorious. According to the LA Times, Glidden "made a living unearthing Native American artifacts and human remains for sale and trade." He lined the walls of his California road-side museum by excavating the remains of the Tongva on Catalina Island—and all but obliterating their history in the process.
In 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) finally offered Indian Country recourse. Congress ordered museums, and the federal agencies that stocked their shelves, to sit down with interested American Indians, Alaska Natives and Native Hawaiians, with the intent to establish "reasonable" links between their tribes and certain bones. It proved to be a monumental task.
Most records either never existed or were an afterthought long since scattered to the wind in a larger universe of archaeological collections, a problem documented in numerous reports, like a scathing 2010 Government Accountability Office review. Lost in the mess they inherited without a map, modern curators labeled roughly two-thirds of all Indian bones "culturally unidentifiable"—thus, ostensibly, rendering them off-limits for repatriation.
Tribes, meanwhile, blast many of these conclusions as too convenient, or as examples of the fox guarding the henhouse—scientists resolving to protect their research material.
Either way, the distinction left 122,736 bodies in dust-covered purgatory. On NAGPRA's 25th anniversary, the veritable city of the unknown dead remains closely guarded.
The discovery of mankind's oldest cousin in remote Ethiopia made Tim D. White famous when he revealed the humanoid nicknamed "Ardi" to the world in 2009. He was named one of TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People of 2010, and his notoriety made him a focal point in the debate over recent changes to repatriation procedure.
In 2011, a new regulation called the 10.11 rule reduced the burden of proof for repatriation. Suddenly, the legions of unidentifiable remains were back on the table, including roughly 80 percent of collections at Berkeley. White and others opposed the rule, citing NAGPRA'S exceptions for studies of "major benefit to the United States."
A federal court upheld those exceptions in the most famous repatriation case ruled thus far. Scientists were allowed to study Kennewick Man, a 9,000-year-old skeleton unearthed in Washington state, as the connection to neighboring tribes was ruled too hazy. Initial research enraged tribes further when it linked the skull structure of Kennewick Man more closely to an indigenous Japanese group than Native Americans, but newer genetic research has contradicted that finding, giving the tribes a chance to renew their fight to rebury what they call their Ancient One, currently stored at the University of Washington.
National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers President D. Bambi Kraus said museums often just stall repatriations, when in most cases, plenty of evidence exists to justify an ancestor's return.
"It's always one excuse after another," Kraus said.
Unlike the troll, Santa Rosa Rancheria Cultural and Historical Preservation Department Director Hector "Lalo" Franco has publicly put his own name on accusations filed against Berkeley.
Franco said the 10.11 rule should have been the writing on the wall for "holdouts" like Tim White, opening the floodgates for repatriation of the unidentified, but thus far the regulation has only been used to return two percent of the human remains stuck in limbo.
Part of the problem is that not all tribes can afford to engage the repatriation process, and are apt to focus their budgets on more immediate issues like unemployment. Some lack enough land to rebury their ancestors properly, while others consider any handling of the dead taboo. These issues have created a situation in which, in total, tribes have claimed only half of culturally affiliated remains.
"Inaction is complicity"
For nearly five months, the troll had given me nothing but radio silence. That didn't stop the email bombardment campaign, however. In June, "T.D. White" filed two new complaints necessitating action from the National NAGPRA program, the independent office within the National Park Service.
Long-time program staffer David Tarler said the complaints, in general, have appeared whenever there are new relevant news stories about native remains. The troll appears highly educated on the process, too—s/he meticulously lists the US Code serial numbers for each purported violation.
Only two of the troll's complaints have been formally investigated, which is par for the course of for NAGPRA. The program lacked an official investigator for five years, before one was finally hired earlier this year. As of 2014, a total of 96 museums have been accused of noncompliance, but only 33 have been investigated. An easy scapegoat is the heavy budget slashing government-wide since the recession, but "T.D. White" questions whether repatriation is being marginalized like other issues in Indian Country.
"It is always about priorities, and enforcement is clearly not one of theirs," the troll told me. He or she underlined that sentiment just this summer, when contact was finally re-established.
On July 1, "T.D. White" wrote a typically terse welcome email addressed to newly appointed National NAGPRA program manager, Melanie O'Brien. The troll copied me onto the message, along with a laundry list of the federal officials, museum representatives and tribal advocates duking it out over repatriation. Listing all 37 complaints, including the 35 yet to be addressed, the troll demanded O'Brien "deal with them more honestly and expeditiously" than her predecessor.
Then, to-the-point as ever, the troll signed off:
"Inaction is complicity.
Top: Inside collector Ralph Glidden's road-side museum on Catalina Island.