May 12 • 51M

Ep. 79: The Politics of Bones | Elizabeth Weiss

J.D. Richmond
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In a world where politics becomes more and more like our new religion, everything is politicized, even bones.

Dr. Elizabeth Weiss found this out after a seemingly innocuous picture of her posing with a skull dredged up her work on repatriation and a new frenzy and firestorm emerged over her views, which unexpectedly had her labeled with all the tedious epithets of the day — racist, ethno-centric, culturally insensitive, and so on.

Elizabeth will be the first to tell you that her views on the repatriation of bones is on the more extreme end of the spectrum. Her lawyers will tell you that it is exactly these kinds of views that are most in need of protection. Views that push the boundaries and force us to consider and wrestle with uncomfortable truths, is the highest aim of scholarship.

In her classroom, Elizabeth teaches the full spectrum of views so that her students can engage in the critical thinking and robust exchange of ideas, that is the stated, but subsumed mission of much of higher education, as diversity statements, loyalty oaths and purity tests take precedence.

In her research, Elizabeth has been open to working with other specialists who object to her ideas of repatriation, as long as the collaboration follows guidelines that don’t bury or dismiss findings to fit a particular narrative. In essence, she believes the purpose of education and research is not about who is telling the story, or even about the race of the storyteller; it’s about the most accurate representation of the truth. However, too often university policy is more interested in coddling our kids to avoid discomfort, and placing more emphasis on lived experiences over objective truth.

Elizabeth is currently in a First Amendment battle with San Jose State University after she was locked out as the curator of their skeletal collection. A collection she was using to study the importance of grandparents, and the biological and evolutionary implications of our elders on the health of their grandchildren.

Have there been injustices and asymmetry in the way we treat the ancestors and artifacts of indigenous groups vis-à-vis the majority white population? I have no doubt. Do we carry those injustices into the future when we politicize science and research to fit subjective parameters to frame scientific dialogues? I believe so.

You don’t have to agree with Elizabeth on repatriation. She’ll be the first to say as much. But silencing her with popular slogans of the day to shame and demean scientific research highlights a trend of squashing unpopular speech, that contributes to the crumbling foundation of “veritas” that has long been the cornerstone of both academic freedom and inquiry.


In the Hold my Drink — navigating culture with a chaser of civility, and Counterweight podcast, Episode 79, we continue our conversation with Elizabeth Weiss. In our first discussion Elizabeth gave us the backstory on her kerfuffle over the repatriation of bones that had her dismissed as the curator of skeletal remains at her university. In this podcast, she joins us with her lawyers from the Pacific Legal Foundation, to discuss the danger in stifling academic inquiry, especially research that is unpopular, in our continued search for accuracy and truth, no matter how uncomfortable. Disagreement, rather than stifling research, is often the heartbeat of discovery and breakthroughs, which is now in danger itself of flatlining. All discussed with a chaser of civility, of course, a beer, and a blackberry cider.

Hold my Drink welcomes all people with all kinds of beverages to join us as we explore the truths of a chaotic and beautiful world, together.

Find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or watch the conversation unfold on YouTube, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.


What Elizabeth is Reading:

Wampum: How Indian Tribes, the Mafia, and an Inattentive Congress Invented Indian Gambling and Created a $28 Billion Gambling Empire, Donald Craig

and watching to…

Rational Disputations, hosted by Frances Widdowson

What Jen is Reading:

Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, H.R. 5237, 101st Congress

Pickering v. Board of Education, The First Amendment Encyclopedia, David L. Hudson, Jr.


Dr. Elizabeth Weiss completed her B.A. in anthropology from University of California, Santa Cruz in 1996 and finished her M.A. in anthropology from California State University, Sacramento in 1998. She holds a Ph.D. from the University of Arkansas in Environmental Dynamics (an interdisciplinary program involving anthropology and the geosciences), which she completed in 2001. From 2002 to 2004, she was a post-doctoral research associate at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Weiss started at San José State University in 2004.

Weiss is also the author, with attorney James W. Springer, of Repatriation and Erasing the Past (University of Florida Press, 2020), which takes a critical look at repatriation laws and the ideology behind these laws. Her other books include Reading the Bones: Activity, Biology, and Culture (University Press of Florida, 2017) and Paleopathology in Perspective: Bone Health and Disease through Time (Rowman and Littlefield, 2014). 

Currently, both Repatriation and Erasing the Past and Reading the Bones: Activity, Biology, and Culture are deeply discounted over 50% off and free shipping with the code ARCH22.

You can read more from Dr. Weiss at: https://elizabethweiss74.wordpress.com/

And follow her on Twitter @eweissunburied

Lawsuit: The Pacific Legal Foundation is representing Dr. Weiss’ in her Free Speech lawsuit against San Jose State University, and they have put out these statements:

Tenured professor sues San Jose State University officials for stifling free speech and blocking research

Professor challenges university’s unlawful viewpoint discrimination