Another Berkeley Building “Unnamed” for Its Namesake’s Controversial Past

“[Kroeber’s] actions weren’t malicious, but they were flawed. Unnaming acknowledges that there was harm done.”
By Maddy Weinberg

ON JANUARY 26, KROEBER HALL BECAME THE LATEST Berkeley campus building to be “unnamed” because of its namesake’s controversial legacy. 

Alfred Louis Kroeber was one of the most influential anthropologists of his era, known for studying and documenting California’s indigenous cultures. As part of his research, he collected and authorized the collection of remains from Native American grave sites. Cal’s Building Name Review Committee cited this practice—which it notes was legal at the time, but also ethically dubious—as one of several key reasons for their unanimous recommendation to remove Kroeber’s name.

While the committee was unanimous in its decision, some faculty members argued that Kroeber’s work helped preserve Native Americans’ history in the wake of genocide.

Another reason cited: Kroeber testified that the Ohlone people were “culturally extinct,” prompting the federal government to strip the Muwekma Ohlone tribe of its land and political power. (The renaming proposal begins with an “acknowledgement that Kroeber Hall sits on the unceded land of the Chochenyo-speaking Ohlone.”)

In 1911, Kroeber famously took custody of an indigenous man he called “Ishi”—thought to be the last of the Yahi people—who then worked as a janitor and performed as a “living exhibit,” as the committee phrased it, in the University’s Museum of Anthropology. Ishi was not his real name. According to the account by Kroeber’s wife, Theodora, author of the best-selling book, Ishi in Two Worlds, it was taboo to say one’s own name in Yahi culture. With no known Yahi left to introduce him, his real name was lost. Ishi means “man” in the related Yana language. Though some have raised questions about Kroeber’s treatment of Ishi, Kroeber’s daughter, the late author Ursula K. Le Guin, said the two men had “a deep friendship.”

While the committee was unanimous in its decision, some faculty members objected, arguing that Kroeber’s work helped preserve Native Americans’ history in the wake of genocide. “[Kroeber’s] goal was to document as much as he could about the cultures and languages of dozens of California tribes,” anthropology professor Nancy Scheper-Hughes wrote in an online forum. “He was neither a neo-colonialist, nor a racist, nor a fascist.” Scheper-Hughes added that, if Kroeber’s name must be removed, the building should be renamed Ishi Hall.

Most respondents to the proposal sided with the committee. Phenocia Bauerle, an Apsáalooke Tribe member and director of Native American student development at Cal, argued in a University statement that Kroeber “definitely played a part in the process that alienated California Indians …. His actions weren’t malicious, but they were flawed. Unnaming acknowledges that there was harm done.”

“This is also about how we look forward … the future needs for public housing, for racial equity and social equity.”
—Vishaan
Chakrabarti

Home to the anthropology department, art practice department, Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology, and Worth Ryder Art Gallery, the building will temporarily be called the Anthropology and Art Practice Building.

Three other Berkeley campus buildings—formerly known as Boalt, Barrows, and LeConte—were stripped of their names last year because of the racist and colonialist legacies of the men for whom they were named.

Another building on campus, Wurster Hall, has also had its name changed—for a different reason. Originally named for Berkeley professors William Wurster and Catherine Bauer Wurster—the husband-and-wife team who, in the 1950s, helped create Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (CED)—the building will now be called Bauer Wurster Hall.

CED faculty hope that the updated name will more explicitly honor the contributions of Catherine Bauer Wurster, known to some as the “mother of public housing.”

“This is also about how we look forward, in terms of the issues in which Catherine Bauer Wurster was a pioneer … the future needs for public housing, for racial equity and social equity,” said CED Dean Vishaan Chakrabarti in a virtual toast to the renaming. “For us, this is both about looking back and looking forward.”

From the Spring 2021 issue of California.
Filed under: Cal Culture
Image source: A.L. Kroeber Family Photographs, The Regents of the University of California, Bancroft Library; Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology
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More steps down the path pushing me toward disowning Cal.
Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.
What will they name buildings when they run out of saints? The university’s purpose is to educate students, not waste time on this nonsense.
I have never been prouder of my Cal degrees.
Will they kick Sather out of Sather Gate? He probably did something mean to somebody. Question: If you paid for the building do you get to keep your name on it even if you’re a big time sinner?
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Berkeley was an immaterialist. He held that there are no material substances. There are only finite mental substances and an infinite mental substance, namely, God. On these points there is general agreement. jared leto joker costume
As a Cal graduate, I am proud of Cal Berkeley, but I am not in favor of most of the name changing exercises at Cal or most other places. There are likely flaws with all persons whose names on building that were not seen as flaws or even crimes at the time of the naming. I see this as a form of reframing history which is not useful since we all change with the times and our values evolve. We can learn from past mistakes but changing names/credit does not help in the learning process but only covers up the reality of history.

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