A tenured professor in California finds her job in jeopardy, and her research curtailed, merely because she spoke out against restrictions on research on ancient American skeletal remains. Such research can uncover vital clues about history, demography, and culture, and tell us what life was like in ancient America. (Indian Tribes demand that such remains be handed over to them, even though tribes that live in an area today may not have lived anywhere near that area in ancient times, meaning that ancient skeletons may not have any link to the tribes that ask for them).
Dr. Elizabeth Weiss is a fully tenured professor of anthropology at San Jose State University.
When you speak with her, the passion she feels for her work as a scholar and a lecturer is reflected in her radiant smile.
She is well-spoken and calmer than you’d expect one to be while discussing how her university colleagues have tried to ostracize her.
Weiss specializes in osteology—the study of human skeletal remains. She holds strong views about the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and other similar laws, which require laboratories and museums to hand over certain Native American remains to the tribes for reburial.
“I’m against reburying bones,” she says. “I think they can tell us a lot about the past.”
“I think they can be used to train forensic anthropologists. I think that they are a key resource for young anthropologists, for archaeologists, forensic anthropologists, and I think that we still have a lot to learn from skeletal remains. I also think that a collection is not something that you study once and then it can be repatriated, because as you build knowledge on the collection, it helps you ask deeper questions as you learn more about the collection.”
This is a stance from which she has never tried to hide; indeed, the university has praised her for her innovative and thought-provoking ideas. But they are views that many now have labeled “anti-indigenous” or even racist.
For most of her career, her research has been supported by her university colleagues. The university had even praised her as a prolific and rigorous scholar and lecturer. In 2019, she was awarded San Jose State’s College of Social Sciences’ Austen D. Warburton Award of Merit for excellence in scholarship.
But after the 2020 release of her book Repatriation and Erasing the Past, Dr. Weiss found herself at the center of controversy and a social outcast on campus as students, professors, and administrators branded her a racist and white supremacist.
She found it difficult to reconcile the administrators’ newfound condemnation with their longstanding support of her research. Her criticisms of NAGPRA were, after all, well-known. But the smear campaign against her was just beginning.
For 18 years, Weiss has served as the curator of the university’s collection of remains. But after the debacle began, the school changed the locks and prevented her from getting near the remains.
Worse still, the university did nothing to shield her from the mob. The school even went so far as to hold a Zoom meeting with the passive-aggressive title, “What to Do When a Tenured Professor is Branded a Racist,” as well as a series of “anti-racism” workshops where participants called for censoring her views.
When she asked if she could hold a counter-event to tell her own side of the story, the school denied her request. She was also threatened with disciplinary action and other forms of retaliation if she continued to espouse her views to her students.
While her opinions are certainly considered controversial by many, she had held them for years, during which she encountered no backlash, aside from other scholars disagreeing with her.
But academia has changed so drastically over the past several years, controversial views are no longer welcome…..Professor Weiss has refused to capitulate to the mob and is now fighting for her First Amendment rights in court, with Pacific Legal Foundation’s assistance.
It sounds like tribal sovereign immunity, and the tribe’s supposed status as an “indispensable party” under the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, have thus far prevented Professor Weiss from getting a court ruling in her favor.