Response To The Representational Politics of Science
Sent: September 30, 2021
From: Vincent J. Del Casino, Jr., Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs
Yesterday, I sent a message to all faculty and staff in the division regarding a series of tweets. Dr. Elizabeth Weiss from the Department of Anthropology wrote to me and asked that I “either formally withdraw the statement or publish mine, to the same people/list that yours went out to, as a response.” Below is Dr. Weiss’ unedited (but slightly reformatted) response to my message.
I am disappointed in your lack of reaching out to me and talking to me about this issue before posting your email. There are a few things that I would like to point out before getting to the heart of the issue:
1) Handling remains with gloves is only necessary if these remains have always been treated with gloved hands and other sterile conditions. By the time I arrived at SJSU, in 2004, the collection had already been handled for many years, by many people without gloves. Putting gloves on now would just be theater. When those interested in DNA studies have reached out to me, I made it clear that these remains have been handled for literally decades before my arrival without gloves and, thus, the DNA would need to be gotten through unbroken teeth.
2) The photo was taken during my curational duties. Throughout the years, I have boxed, reboxed, and taken care of these remains. In this case, I hadn't been in the curation facility since COVID-19 ended my ability to work with students on the collection, so yes, I was genuinely happy to be back with the collection.
3) SJSU is in compliance with NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA, even though I am against repatriation -- as I have stated in many of my writings, as recently as a month ago in the Mercury News -- I have never not done my job with regard to compliance issues.
4) We have a culture of promoting the anthropology department and the collection; this culture has revolved around interesting images. I have even gotten funding for this and helped promote human diversity by introducing people to the concept of skeletal diversity. There have been promotional posters in which I have a similar pose. This has never been against university, college or departmental protocol. Not long ago, as recently as 2019, this was celebrated (such as when I won the Warburton Award for excellence in scholarly activities in relation to my work on the collection). It instills a love of evolutionary anatomy, a love of anthropology, and a promotion of university resources.
5) This university curates one of the finest (and last) teaching and research collections of skeletal remains in the US. We should be celebrating and utilizing this resource, before it's gone forever. I use the collection to instil a love of bones in my students, and in - hopefully - the next generation of anthropologists and osteologists. The photo you refer to is entirely consistent with this love of bones, and with the spirit of inquiry I foster (for example, in the 2015 Smithsonian traveling exhibition "What Does it Mean to be Human?", which I helped bring to the Bay Area).
We have no way of telling what the individuals whose remains we curate would think about this issue, but when one looks at the Egyptian mummies, Otzi the iceman, or the bog bodies of northern Europe, public display celebrates these individuals, telling their stories in a respectful way that gives them a voice they never had in life. The same is true of our collection, and we should be celebrating the lives of these first occupants of Silicon Valley - not allowing their voices to be silenced by a vociferous campaign orchestrated by woke activists whose strategy is to try to shut down debate, and promote superstition over science.
Now, to the heart of the issue. I have been the target of a constant cancellation attack for the last 10 months. It started with attacking and trying to get my book banned (an effort that half of my colleagues encouraged), then it moved to deplatforming my Society for American Archaeology talk. Recently, it involved over 1,200 comments on Twitter regarding my op-ed in the Mercury News. I was reported to Twitter and investigated in Germany due to the tweet regarding my op-ed. Finally, it's an attack on a genuine photo that celebrates our collection, my admiration for the collection, and my joy at being able to do my job. After your strong statement regarding academic freedom, I am disappointed that you were not courageous enough -- as those reporting on me -- to talk to me first, to have a rational discussion about these occurrences.
Moving forward I request you either formally withdraw the statement or publish mine, to the same people/list that yours went out to, as a response.
Elizabeth Weiss, PhD
Professor of Anthropology