Grave Matters: The Controversy over Excavating California’s Buried Indigenous Past

Grave Matters: The Controversy over Excavating California’s Buried Indigenous Past
Paperback, 6 x 9, 264 pages.
ISBN: 9781597145596.

By Tony Platt

Whether by curious Boy Scouts and “backyard archaeologists” or competitive collectors and knowledge-hungry anthropologists, the excavation of Native remains is a practice fraught with injustice and simmering resentments.

Grave Matters is the history of the treatment of Native remains in California and the story of the complicated relationship between researcher and researched. Tony Platt begins his journey with his son’s funeral at Big Lagoon, a seaside village in pastoral Humboldt County in Northern California, once O-pyúweg, a bustling center for the Yurok and the site of a plundered Native cemetery. Platt travels the globe in search of the answer to the question: How do we reconcile a place of extraordinary beauty with its horrific past?

Grave Matters centers the Yurok people and the eventual movement to repatriate remains and reclaim ancient rights, but it is also a universal story of coming to terms with the painful legacy of a sorrowful past. This book, originally published in 2011, is updated here with a preface by the author.


“This tenth anniversary of Tony Platt’s extraordinary book could not come at a more important moment, when the precarity of the planet itself recalls the genocide unleashed by European and Euro-American colonialism. In his own grieving for a lost son, Platt enters a circle of grieving in the Yurok nation, becoming a powerful voice for decolonization.” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States
“Tony Platt’s book delves so deeply into the history of genocide, racism, and systems of oppression that serve as the foundation of the United States of America. We can all learn from his elaborate historical research on the Indigenous history of what is now known as California. Grave Matters is no less relevant now than when it was originally published. It should be required reading for everyone seeking out truth in 2021 and beyond.” Nazune Menka, M.S., J.D. (Athabascan & Lumbee), Tribal Cultural Resources Policy Fellow, Berkeley Law
“We have taught Grave Matters and it always worked tragically well. It has significantly influenced our thinking about California history.” Damon B. Akins and William J. Bauer Jr., authors of We Are The Land: A History of Native California
“This meticulously researched, nuanced, and powerful narrative weaves together social, cultural, and personal histories as it confronts the plundering of California Indian graves and recounts the indelible resistance of Tribes to the taking of their ancestors and belongings. This is a profound—and profoundly unsettling—work of critical history.” Seth Davis, professor of law, Berkeley Law
"This is how social and cultural history should be written." George Lipsitz, professor of Black studies, University of California, Santa Barbara; author of How Racism Takes Place
“A shocking exposé filled with entirely new material, and yet also much more: an indictment of some of 20th century anthropology’s most famous names; an account of tribal struggles for control over their dead; and a meditation about history, violence, and the tension between memory and forgetting. Tony Platt has given us an original, haunting, and necessary tour de force of a book.” Orin Starn, professor of cultural anthropology and history, Duke University; author of Ishi's Brain: In Search of America's Last ''Wild'' Indian
“A truly marvelous account. The conqueror usually writes history. Now, thanks to Tony Platt digging up the facts, everybody knows the truth.” Joy Sundberg, Cher-Ae Heights Indian Community of the Trinidad Rancheria
“A fine mix of the personal, the historic, the dispassionate, and the fierce.” Richard A. Walker, author of Pictures of a Gone City: Tech and the Dark Side of Prosperity in the San Francisco Bay Area
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About the Author

Tony Platt

Tony Platt

Tony Platt is the author of thirteen books and 150 essays and articles on race, inequality, and social justice in American history, among them Beyond These Walls: Rethinking Crime and Punishment in the United States; Bloodlines: Recovering Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, from Patton’s Trophy to Public Memorial; and The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency. His work has been translated into German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. In addition to scholarly books and publications, Platt has written for the Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Truthdig, History News Network, Z Magazine, Nation, Salon, Monthly Review, and the Guardian, and his commentaries have aired on National Public Radio.

Now a Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at Berkeley’s Center for the Study of Law and Society, Platt taught at the University of Chicago, the University of California, Berkeley, and California State University where he received awards for teaching and scholarship. He blogs on history and memory at He lives in Berkeley and Big Lagoon, California. Photo credit: Janis Lwein.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the page above are "affiliate links." This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."


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