Native Americans claim P-22’s body (the Griffith Park mountain lion)

December 30, 2022 • 12:15 pm

P-22 was probably the most famous mountain lion (Puma concolor; aka “puma” or “cougar”) in the world because he lived in Los Angeles and many residents became fond of him. He has his own Wikipedia page, which says, among other things, this:

P-22 (c. 2009/2010 – December 17, 2022) was a wild mountain lion who resided in Griffith Park in Los Angeles, California, on the eastern side of the Santa Monica Mountains. P-22 was first identified in 2012 and was the subject of significant media attention, including numerous books, television programs and other works of art. P-22 was often recorded prowling in the Hollywood Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was monitored by a radio collar. P-22 remained in Griffith Park for ten years until he was captured then euthanized on December 17, 2022, after suffering traumatic injuries consistent with being hit by a car in combination with several longer-term health issues.

As you see, he was euthanized just recently, and there was a lot of sorrow (see a sample obituary here, which also announced a memorial service). The problem is that P-22’s body, for which scientists had plans (not to mount or stuff, but to study), is being claimed by Native Americans in the area, who want it turned over to them so they can give it a spiritual burial in Griffith Park.  Click on the screenshot to read the LA Times article:

There’s a federal law that Native American remains or artifacts be turned over to those populations who can show a cultural or genealogical connection to these remains. As archaeology professor Elizabeth Weiss describes it, it’s

. . . the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The law requires that federally funded researchers who discover or work with Native American human remains or cultural items must turn these finds over to such modern-day Native American tribes that can demonstrate a close ancestral or geographical linkage.

But as Weiss recounts in her story, which I heard at first hand at the Stanford free speech meetings (I introduce myself because she was wearing nice cowboy boots), the law has been used way too broadly, especially with respect to Weiss’s own research:

But as I have written previously, the law has been interpreted in an overbroad way, such that unearthed Paleoindian skeletons that are thousands of years old are now being successfully claimed by modern tribes that have little or no connection to the specimens in question.

As a result of NAGPRA—and its state-level counterparts, such as the California Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (CalNAGPRA)—scientists are being denied the opportunity to analyze such discoveries as part of their research. In some cases, moreover, laws such as NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA have become vehicles for activists to enforce their spiritual and religious beliefs at the expense of secular scientific research. As reported earlier this year in Quillette, this can include explicitly sexist religious or spiritual prohibitions on women handling (or even gazing upon) tribal artifacts.

I speak here from personal experience, as my own anthropological research at San José State University (SJSU) in California has been negatively affected by NAGPRA and CalNAGPRA. And I have come to regard these laws as a threat to free academic inquiry, especially since they’re now being used to repatriate Native American remains from museums and universities before they’ve been properly analyzed with modern scanning technologies. Denying researchers the ability to study unearthed human remains harms our ability to understand the past and help the living.

Weiss studies human remains up to 3,000 years old in California, and she’s been prohibited from studying the remains in her own university’s collection, or even studying X-rays of those bones (read the story). And, as she told me in Stanford, she’s not even allowed to show pictures of the boxes that hold the bones within. It’s a sad story that could be resolved with much less rancor if two things happened: the Native Americans could make a convincing case that remains are connected to their group, and if scientists were allowed a reasonable period to study the remains before they were handed over to the group to which they belong. Otherwise, we lose valuable knowledge about the past.

Weiss’s career has been considerably set back by her being forbidden by her own school from studying bones that have no clear geneaological connection to any present group. For a while the Native American groups were even demanding that she not be allowed to study bones from Tunisia!

In fact, thinking it over, I don’t automatically buy claims about any present-day “ownership” of ancient remains, or even whether a certain indigenous group can claim ownership of remains found on land that was once theirs. This is religiously based, of course, as it is with the case of P-22 (see below).  This differs from a case of returning cultural artifacts stolen from countries (like the Elgin Marbles), as the connection there is very clear: after all, the Parthenon is in Athens.

But although I haven’t decided about the repatriation of human remains, one thing I’m dead certain about is that Native Americans cannot claim the remains of a modern-day mountain lion and prevent scientists from studying it. There is no case to be made that a Native American group—in this case the “Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Ban of Mission Indians”—has either genealogical or cultural claim to a felid’s body and bones.

Here’s the kerfuffle in short:

Now that P-22 has been euthanized by wildlife authorities, it’s unclear what will happen to the remains of the famous mountain lion. While government agencies and museum officials consider the final resting place for the cat, the Native American community in Southern California wants P-22 to be buried near Griffith Park with a ceremony that honors his spirit.

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County received P-22’s body from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Friday. Although previously considered, museum officials said Thursday they do not plan to taxidermy P-22’s body or put his remains on display, which was a major concern for the Native American community.

But it’s still unclear what the future holds for the big cat.

Researchers were already in the process of collecting samples and performing a necropsy — a type of an animal autopsy — on P-22 when they learned about the concerns from the Native American communities. That process has been put on hold while the museum gathers more feedback from those groups. Several Native American people contacted by The Times said they had not initially been approached by the museum for feedback but have since been in talks about how to honor P-22’s remains.

Here’s why scientists want to study the remains:

Research on P-22’s body could show the firsthand effects of an urban setting on a mountain lion who managed to eke out his existence for more than a decade surrounded by humans, according to biologists. It’s not likely that there will be another like P-22, so he would yield unique information about his experience, conservationists say.

In fact, even though he won’t be put on display, the Native Americans don’t even want P-22 to be kept as a stored specimen so that future work can be one on the remains. Let me emphasize again: this beloved animal is an EX-CAT, singing with the Choir Invisible. Bereft of life, P-22 rests in peace. But at least the cat can still help us understand our world.  Not, however, if those with “other ways of knowing cats” have their say:

But the thought of P-22 going to a museum as a specimen fills tribal community members with dread. [JAC: DREAD? That’s a bit histrionic.]

“That’s not our way. That’s a scientific colonial way,” said Kimberly Morales Johnson, tribal secretary of the Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians. “That cat is a relative to us.”

The Tongva word for mountain lion is tukuurot. In their creation story, mountain lions were one of several animals that watched early humans grow and flourish.

I don’t think that’s sufficient to establish claim to the body.  But the fracas remains:

Members of the Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, Kizh Nation, have been asked to provide feedback for state projects built on their ancestral land numerous times, Indigenous biologist Matt Teutimez said. The process can include a blessing performed by tribal elders, and in other instances tribal members provide cultural and scientific feedback.

Native American input can often feel like an afterthought, Teutimez said.

“They usually just want our participation. They already have their minds made up with their Western thought of how to remedy the problem,” Teutimez said. “All they wanted was our tribe to get involved for the photo op.”

He’s hopeful that P-22 can provide a teachable moment on how Western culture needs to reevaluate its relationship with wildlife and consider it more than just animals.

Normally, if there were an obvious connection to a group, I’d be more charitable about offering them input into what to do with P-22’s remains. But I see no claim here except the demands of people who were colonized and the fact that P-22 roams over lands that were once roamed over by several Native American groups. If keeping the body behind the scenes for scientific study—and yes, putting it on display would bother everyone—is useful, then by all means keep it in the Museum. No group can say they have a spiritually based claim to wild animals.

Here’s P-22 in 2019 from Wikipedia. Note that you and I are exactly as closely related to this cat as are all the Native Americans in America.

41 thoughts on “Native Americans claim P-22’s body (the Griffith Park mountain lion)

  1. Why does it have to be either/or?

    If you leave your body to a medical school, they use it for dissection and then return the cremains to the family. Why not allow scientists to do their analyses, and then return the remains to the tribe(s) for their rituals?

    L

    1. They don’t really want the body back. They don’t even believe their own mythology.. They just want to obstruct the scientists. Another small petty victory over colonialism if they get their way.

      I suppose if you put the suggestion to them they’d find some objection that the animal’s spirit would be compromised if it wasn’t physically whole and intact.

  2. Maybe it’s time for the scientific community to do as The Satanic Temple does — establish themselves as a religion, and then make demands for religious accommodation. Like, in this case, assert that scientific knowledge belongs to everyone and it would violate its foundational principles to allow one group to deprive all of us of new discoveries.

  3. Perhaps universities in southern California could solve this problem by adding a Cat Acknowledgement to their Land Acknowledgments. On the other hand, pumas may not
    be the only animal relatives of the Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band. If their
    cousins also include all the local squirrels, raccoons, bats, birds, and so on, serious difficulties lie ahead for southern Cal.

  4. ““That cat is a relative to us.”
    The Tongva word for mountain lion is tukuurot. In their creation story, mountain lions were one of several animals that watched early humans grow and flourish.”

    Wait …….

    So … the cat evolved first and is primary to the human tribalists, right? Shouldn’t all corpses of the Tongva-speaking tribe be turned over to the Nation of Cougars for final disposition, including becoming lunch?

    1. Alternatively, since all humans (and bacteria, fungi, plants …) are related to other humans, then every human (and bacterial, fungal, plant) body in the “Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band” sphere of influence should be turned over to them for disposal. According to their rituals. At their cost.
      I predict that the changing of tune will happen while the second lorry is reversing into their parking lot, to off-load. You might struggle to hear the new tune over the “eeep! eeep! eeep!” of the reversing alarm, but it’ll be there.
      Does anyone know where the Los Angeles department of sanitation has their sewage sludge processing plant. Just divert a couple of their daily lorries to the Band’s parking space.

  5. Here in New Zealand recently when building some new roads Moa bones from over 100,000 years ago were found, some research was allowed and some DNA extracted, then they were given to the local Iwi and reburied. The odds are they’ll be destroyed by this.

    No future work can be done.

    1. The first humans arrived in New Zealand seven hundred years ago. When their descendants claim bones that are 100,000 years old, the correct response should be to laugh them out of court.

      1. Yeah, which is also why human remains are very easy to return to their decedents. But yeah, this and one other case should be a laugh out. And that one is Moa remains found in “middens” or rubbish dumps. When eaten they were discarded, and we can all agree no one has a right over the trash they threw out the night after the BBQ!

      1. No, that’s the basic story. Sure, a sampling was taken, and data gathered, and they were scanned. But that’s not the point, no future studies could be made, and religious BS was done on them.

    2. This is the unavoidable problem faced by every archaeological excavation. Once you’ve excavated a site – down to undisturbed bedrock or soil, “the natural” – that’s it, the site is gone. Oh, you can put any big stones back in place – but (for example) the potential for Optically-Stimulated Luminescence dating of the sediment under those stones, and most forms of micropalaeontological examination of those same sediments – that’s gone. Or seriously contaminated, probably beyond recovery.
      Which is why, typically, excavation of a site only covers part of the site (for example, the classical “Wheeler” scheme of excavating rectangular blocks separated by bulwarks of un-excavated ground), and is typically restricted to as small an area as considered necessary to answer specific questions.

      No future work can be done.

      Except on retained samples. Which is why samples are (and in your example, were) retained. At least, in a scientific excavation.

      1. Yeah, the site in question had no archeological value fortunately, it was just a flke they were found and surprised everyone involved.

        As it was an engineering site of a major road network the place was very well mapped out, so all the data apart from most the fossils (other than a few test samples removed) are preserved.

  6. Seems odd, but then so does the idea that all the swans and dolphins in/around the UK belonging to the Crown, or that all pandas belong to China (they were the ones that drove them to the brink of extinction, ffs!). I can’t say anything about the Tongva/Gabrieleno beliefs or practices, but there are plenty of examples of clans, bands, tribes that have animals sacred to them for various reasons and do consider them relatives. That’s the thing about culture; they all seem crazy except your own.
    Unfortunately, we are feeling the backlash to generations of looting and extremely unsavory acts by past generations of archeologists. The living zoos at 1904 Worlds Fair comes to mind. It’s not too different than the brits clinging to the Elgin Marbles, or any number of mummies and artifacts taken from Egypt, or Inca, Aztec, and Maya objects looted by the Spanish, and so on.
    There is the attitude here that science matters above all, but clearly that’s not the prevailing attitude for all cultures, even western ones. How many of you will donate your body to science? How many are squeamish about the idea? You may be fine knowing a great, great grandparent’s bones are in a museum drawer, but some will be disgusted by that. And where you draw the line on how many generations back should be considered your relatives won’t be the same as someone else’s. India and China are good examples of deep recorded ancestry. I’m not coming down on one side or the other here. It would take more than one article to make my mind up, and I’m sure I’ll get tons of pushback but all I’m saying is, it’s complicated.

    1. Is it really so complicated? P-22 doesn’t have a sacred spirit, it’s not a relative to the Tongva any more than it is to any other human, and tukuurot did not oversee the growth and flourishing of early humans. Those are uncomplicated true statements. The Tongva (and anyone else) can believe in whatever creation myths they like, but that belief doesn’t give them rights to possession of a euthanized mountain lion.

    2. or that all pandas belong to China

      As I understand it, that’s not a matter of culture, but of contract law. (Well, contract law is an aspect of culture…)
      Since before there was any successful breeding of pandas outside China, all pandas rented by China to zoos outside (and possibly inside) China have had a clause in the rental contract to the extent that any offspring of that serial-numbered livestock remain the property of the Chinese state. No deceit, no underhanded dealing, nothing but a contract entered into by two parties. Try breaking that and you’ll be facing a lot bigger opposition than the animal rights groups.
      (We’ve had a moderate amount of palaver on this point in the last few years about the Edinburgh panda(or pandas? I’d have to research it. I can’t even remember if they were there the only time I visited the place. They did have an amusing outdoor colony of Red Pandas though – I may have been photographing them while wife and her daughter went to see the b/w ones.) There is debate over whether the rental fee of the panda(s?) is economically worthwhile – do they generate enough bodies through the turnstiles to cover the rental fees. I suspect they’re trying to break the contract, but can’t afford the cancellation penalties. Bit of a cleft stick for them, but contractually it’s simple – the Zoo is stuffed.)

      You may be fine knowing a great, great grandparent’s bones are in a museum drawer, but some will be disgusted by that. I’m sure I’ll get tons of pushback but all I’m saying is, it’s complicated.

      Was it Herodotus who compared Roman cremation practices as being horrifying to Parsees while Parsee “sky funerals” were horrifying to Romans. O tempora o mores!

  7. Elizabeth Weiss – who spoke at the California conference is (almost singlehandedly) fighting back against indigenous defined changes and damage to the field of archeology. It is a grim story and the next big fight against woke nonsense.
    To wit:
    Woke Archaeology and Erasing the Past (Elizabeth Weiss)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F13Kdcvz57w
    D.A.
    NYC (FL)

  8. Mountain lions are legally hunted in most western states in the U.S., although not in California. They are also hunted in two western provinces in Canada. In California and elsewhere, they are of course sometimes killed by cars and some are dispatched because they posed a danger to humans. I don’t know if Indians ever demand possession of those, but I’ve never heard of it.

      1. My own tribe, the Northwest Coast Wlld Type Band, claims a spiritual relationship not only with mountain lions, but with the cars that kill them. We demand that such cars be turned over to us, so that we can perform the appropriate ceremony, and then drive those cars ourselves.

        1. Nice one mate! I’m sure some friends of mine may say that about some of the whales who wash ashore after being hit by ships. Just the other day there was a pod of Orca in Wellington Harbour.

          Politics and religion aside much of the mythology though is very beautiful in my book.

    1. some are dispatched because they posed a danger to humans.

      Because they purportedlyposed a danger to humans.
      Remind me again of the number of verified cases of mountain lion predation on humans. As distinct from cases of scavanging on already-dead humans.
      Is the score card significantly different from nil-nil?
      Do you need a hunting license for hunting for man-eating worms in graveyards?

  9. I have no doubt that the ancestors of today’s Kizh Nation felt an awe-full reverence for the puma. Anybody who has seen one in the wild does, and they would have been competing to hunt for the same deer and sheep.
    However I doubt whether they had many opportunities, even over millennia, to bury a puma carcass with a ceremony that honored its spirit. That–I could be wrong and if so I would be sincerely sorry–sounds like a contemporarily made-up thing to me.
    That said, I am also doubtful about what kinds of useful information could have been obtained by a necropsy. It was a damn shame and no fault of the cat’s that somebody made the decision to euthanize it in the first place. If the poor cat hadn’t had to wear a radio collar it would have just dies and rotted in the woods like every other dead puma always has. Better for everyone.

    1. However I doubt whether they had many opportunities, even over millennia, to bury a puma carcass with a ceremony that honored its spirit. That–I could be wrong and if so I would be sincerely sorry–sounds like a contemporarily made-up thing to me.

      Slightly creaking ice under your feet there, I fear. There’s a good enough archaeological record of things like bear’s claws and (cave) lion’s teeth in Neanderthal and Mesolithic AMH ritualised burial “grave goods” – at least in Europe and Asia, that I’d be pretty surprised if such things didn’t happen in the America too. (Actually, I’m getting a faint memory of South American comparable grave goods, but I’m more familiar with the Eurasian record.)
      A common trope associated with such grave good is that of the brave hunter carrying the relics of a honoured (but now dead) foe with him into his funeral rites. Which for an adult male might well work. Less so for a pre-juvenile child, who have also been found with (IIRC) bear claws.

  10. It’s doubtful that the native Americans have any jurisdictional claim to the corpse, but I hope the case doesn’t go to court. Surely some sort of resolution can be reached.

    1. True. Unfortunately, the Fish and Wildlife Service got off on the wrong foot by apologizing, implying that the tribes had a claim. The following (between the asterisks) is from the LA Times article:

      ********
      Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Jordan Traverso said in a written statement. “I acknowledge and accept we may have overlooked this important step.”
      ********

      I doubt that the tribes have a legal claim to the dead cougar. Sadly, this may end up in court.

  11. Ah, the Kenewicks resurface again! I’d like to know a bit more of what the “Tongva” (name invented by Merriam in 1905 per Wiki) traditionally did with cougar bodies. Quite sensibly, they most likely used what was usable, like any other brother/animal/thing. I’ve been following P-22 for a while, and this sort of Tongva nonsense is just childish nonsense.

      1. Mao Zedong

        … riffing off Karl Marx’s (any relation to the other 4?) acknowledgment of the problem of opiate overdoses in 1850s London.

        1. Mao, along with Lenin, Stalin and most of the rest of him would have Marx turning in his grave. I’m no Marxist (have been accused of) but neither were those who did stuff supposedly in his name.

          1. @Michael Sisley
            Has there ever been an example of a nation or region or ? which actually WAS designed, inspired, and run as Marx hoped? If so, what happened there?

            1. Good point. I should’ve said that maybe elements used under certain contexts by people who simply adapt to given circumstances is a better way.
              As I said before I’m not a follower but have no issue saying it has legit concerns and that those who gain power under his name are hypocrites who exploit the very people he had a legit concern over.

              So yeah, blindly following his stuff even by the honest ones has its problems as would those by Ayn Rand.

  12. This is a political issue, so reasonable discussion of the facts is not really the point. Politically, the (Not a federally recognized tribe) Tongva seem to want to establish a precedent giving them ownership of wildlife, and of course to use this as an exercise of power.
    The probably have no special need of another mountain lion carcass, but enjoy the process of denying access to Whitey.

  13. The Europeans didn’t introduce colonization, colonialism & slavery(including chattel) to North America & South America. Those three things were already here when they came to this side of the planet.

  14. This made me think about the situation with eagles in the United States. Any eagle or eagle part (including feathers) has to be turned into the government (which then turns it over to native Americans) or you can face jail and/or fines. The Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, passed in 1940, makes it illegal to possess, sell, purchase, barter, offer to sell, offer to purchase or barter, transport any bald eagle alive or dead, or any part, nest or egg with a penalty of up to a year in jail and/or $100,000 fine. All are sent to the National Eagle Repository in Colorado for processing since 1970. Only native Americans can apply to have eagles or eagle parts for religious purposes (there is a Native American Religious Purposes Form to do this). Approved Native Americans can order 1: up to one whole Golden or Bald eagle or equivalent parts, 2: loose feathers, 3: A pair of wings, 4: A whole tail, 5: A head, pair of talons, or trunk. There is about a year wait time to get these items currently. Interestingly, the US government allows scientists to perform research and necropsies on the birds. Here is an article on the Repository: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/national-eagle-repository-eagles-go-to-native-american-tribes-and-science-180960306/. Seems to work for eagles, should work for other animals too. This case seems to be a tribe looking to make some noise. The cat could be buried on a tribal site after research and necropsy are done.

  15. Maybe the “owners” of the magnificent creature’s remains could ask the spirits some questions written by the scientists that they really want to know the answer to and simply share the results after they communicate with the spirits?

    No?

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