Few people within the Stanford community likely have as much experience as university archaeologist Laura Jones with the issues involved in renaming university landmarks celebrating Junipero Serra, the 18th-century Spanish missionary who founded the California Mission system.

Laura Jones

Laura Jones is director of Heritage Services and university archaeologist. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

Jones, who is also Stanford director of Heritage Services, staffed the three committees that wrestled with the challenge of reviewing the request by Native American students – supported by the Associated Students of Stanford University – that Serra’s name be replaced on campus. They cited historic and ongoing harms of the mission system to the Native community.

Jones’ experience with Native American history in the Bay Area is deep, dating to her studies as a Stanford anthropology graduate student in the 1980s. She was, for instance, involved in the 1989 repatriation by Stanford of Native American remains to the Muwekma Ohlone, who once lived on this land.

Jones’ role in returning the remains at a time when archaeologists and anthropologists worldwide had yet to embrace repatriation meant she was unemployable at the museums to which she had aspired. Instead, she worked for the Ohlone, helping tribal members reclaim control over ancestral sites throughout the Bay Area. She returned to Stanford in 1994, where she is responsible for stewardship of the university’s nearly 100 archaeological sites and 200 historic buildings.

Jane Stanford Way

Jane Stanford Way is the new name of the university’s official street address. (Image credit: Kate Chesley)

The Muwekma Ohlone remain strong partners on many levels with the university, participating, for instance, in the ceremonial renaming of two buildings bearing Serra’s name. Two other buildings on campus, Muwekma-Ta-Ruk and Puichon, recognize the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe, and the university continues to collaborate with tribal leadership on additional programs to bring their story forward.

On Nov. 14, the Stanford community will celebrate the new Jane Stanford Way – once called Serra Mall. Jane Stanford Way is now the university’s official street address. As planning for the ceremony continues, Jones talked about the history of Native Americans in this area, the university’s historic relationship with the Muwekma Ohlone and the decision to rename landmarks honoring Junipero Serra.


What is the history of Muwekma Ohlone in the Bay Area?

In the pre-Spanish Colonial period, Native peoples lived here in multicultural communities of a few hundred. At least five languages were spoken in the Bay Area. The ancestors of the Muwekma Ohlone traded, traveled and intermarried throughout the Bay Area and Central California, where anthropologists believe there were dozens of political units.

When the three missions in the Bay Area were established – Mission Dolores in San Francisco, Mission San Jose and Mission Santa Clara – a different kind of community emerged. People still traveled and married between those missions, but the relationships were controlled by the missionaries. Members of the Muwekma Ohlone Tribe today trace their genealogical descent to these three missions.

During the American period, Native Californians were again assaulted by colonialism and they sought safe haven on the lands of Mexican land grantees who were more sympathetic than American settlers. A community of Ohlone people formed in Pleasanton, drawing people from all over Central California. There are today multiple descendant communities in the Bay Area, but the Muwekma Ohlone are the only one with a tribal government dating back to the 1800s.

The Stanfords were several generations of owners away from the dispossession of the land where the university is located. They bought their land from Americans who had bought it from Mexican land grantees, and the nearest Native American families were living in upper Portola Valley and Woodside.


There are some 65 prehistoric Native American sites on Stanford lands. What are some of the archaeological digs you’ve done? How do you study the sites while still preserving their integrity?

Plaque on Searsville Road

Plaque on Searsville Road describes the ancient Ohlone villages that once stood on what is now the Stanford campus. (Image credit: Kate Chesley)

Our goal is to preserve those sites. They vary from between 500 and 5,000 years old. One of the tensions in archaeology is that you learn more through excavation, but we minimize the intrusion into those sites. We do controlled excavation in small, rigorous samples.

In the past, it was not uncommon for Stanford archaeologists to excavate sites in search of human graves. But in the 1980s, the focus shifted. Our desire was to avoid disturbing human remains and to collect information about life ways, including economic and environmental adaptation. Our work revealed that the Ohlone lived in year-round, permanent villages. They didn’t move seasonally. That led some people to hypothesize that they must have specialized in their diet. But we discovered in a 20-year study of more than 70 cooking hearths that they preferred variety. That’s how they adapted to the drought cycle of California.


When you graduated from Stanford, you worked for the Ohlone Tribe. What did you do?

The Ohlone were interested in the preservation of ancestral cemetery sites and they had worked in partnership with us on the digs we were doing. But they wanted a more hands-on approach to the moving of cemeteries, which was a new idea. They needed a principal investigator with certain qualifications, and so they hired me.

I trained tribal members how to excavate and record gravesites. For instance, we worked together in South San Jose when Highway 85 was built. Studies had found no archaeological remains there. But during the second or third day of excavation, the Native American monitor called and said, “I think I see obsidian, stone tools and shells. I think there is a site here, but the archaeologists are telling me that I am wrong.” While I was driving to San Jose, they hit the first grave. The county allowed the tribe to manage the removal of the cemetery if they had a qualified investigator. So we moved 99 people, and that was the first example in California of flipped responsibilities, where the archaeologist deferred to the tribe rather than the other way around.


How did you come, as a graduate student, to deliver to the Ohlone in 1989 the hundreds of Native American remains stored at Stanford?

At that time, the Stanford collections were managed by a committee and overseen by graduate students, one of whom was me. Six women from the Muwekma Ohlone asked if they could visit to see baskets we had. The chair of the Anthropology Department told me to make sure they knew there were also human remains in the collection. At the end of their visit, they asked to see the bones. They were visibly upset about how many human remains were in the museum. They wrote to the university asking for more information and for the return of the human remains to the tribe.

Muwekma Ohlone members at Stanford Powwow

Laura Jones, middle, presented members of the Muwekma Ohlone a Faculty Senate citation celebrating the university’s relationship with the tribe during a Stanford Powwow. (Image credit: Courtesy Laura Jones)

What followed was a long process that attracted national news. Provost James Rosse named a committee to consult with the Ohlone community. Even the director of the Smithsonian flew out here to try to talk the university out of giving the remains back. The Ohlone were very generous. They gave us a year to determine if anyone wanted to make a research proposal. But their goal was to return these people to the ground. When it came time to do that, I rented a truck, put the boxes on the truck and drove it to the reburial site in the East Bay.

That was a real turning point in anthropology and archaeology. Stanford was an important player in the nationwide movement toward repatriation, which was gaining traction in the 1980s. But it was strongly resisted by anthropologists and archaeologists. Now museums face repatriation in a straightforward, collaborative way.


Returning the remains must have been challenging.

The handling of human remains is not like anything else. It’s not like stone tools or flowerpots. I had been in graduate school at Stanford for eight years, and I had seen four skeletons. I worked for the Ohlone for four years and saw 400. I have so much respect for the tribal Ohlone members who continued to do that work. It is a huge responsibility.


As staff for the renaming committees, you did research on Serra. What did you discover?

Serra’s ideas about Native Californians was as children who could never be allowed to govern themselves. Those ideas were out of step with contemporary societies in Spain and Mexico. The Spanish government intended that Native people, once they became Christians and learned Spanish, would be citizens of Spain and would govern themselves.

Father Serra was extreme even in context. His paternalism often took a violent form. He is responsible for dozens of other priests at these missions who, faced with hardship and challenges, resorted to violence as well. One of the misconceptions is that Father Serra represented Spanish colonialism, but his contemporaries objected to his methods. Everything he did was also unacceptable within the context of the Native societies. For instance, there was no corporal punishment in Ohlone society.


You supported the proposal to rename landmarks bearing Serra’s name. Why?

It was important to me that people on the committees drew their own conclusions.  And we provided multiple perspectives on the issues involved. But I already knew how devastating the missions were to the indigenous tribes. I am always looking to help Stanford recruit, retain and nurture diversity. And I didn’t see that celebrating Serra was helping.

There are some thoughtful people who see this as erasure. But I was swayed by the testimony of Native American students and other students of color who told me how the presence of Serra’s name made them feel – that they didn’t belong here.

This experience reminds us that we have to invest in relationships with groups such as the Muwekma Ohlone and we have to be prepared to be surprised and to learn and adapt, as I did after talking to Native American students. There is always a voice you haven’t heard from yet.