Excavated Inuit bones returned to Avataq Culture Institute

by Rachel Pakianathan | 9/13/18 2:35am

This past summer, the College returned bones that were excavated from Inuit gravesites by a Dartmouth anthropologist in 1967 to the Avataq Cultural Institute. Representatives from the Institute visited the College in June to take part in a repatriation ceremony to receive the bones and return them to their original resting place in Nunavik, Quebec.

The Inuit remains were originally excavated from the eastern region of the Hudson Bay by Dartmouth anthropology professor Elmer Harp in a National Science Foundation-funded survey and remained in Harp’s possession until his death in 2009, according to anthropology professor Deborah Nichols. The gravesites were estimated to be between 200 and 400 years old. At the time of excavation, there were few regulations concerning the excavation of graves, she said. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act went into effect 23 years after Harp and his team excavated the bones. The Act now establishes procedures for the discovery and planned excavations of Native cultural items on federal or tribal lands, protecting artifacts and assisting in the repatriation process.

“Harp’s son went through his things a couple of years ago and brought [the remains] to the [anthropology] department,” Nichols said. “Once I discovered what they were, that they were from burials in Canada, I felt they should be returned to Canada.”

The formal ceremony included speeches and prayers from Dartmouth faculty including Native American studies professors Maurice Crandall and M. Bruce Duthu, Avataq Cultural Institute president Josepi Padlayat and William Fitzhugh ’64, curator of the National Museum of Natural History’s Arctic Studies Center who was involved with the excavation. Representatives from the Institute lit a traditional Inuit oil lamp known as a “qulliq” during the ceremony, according to Nichols.

Avataq Cultural Institute executive director Rhoda Kokiapik said that she and others at the Institute were honored to take part in the ceremony and return the remains to the Inuit community.

“It was shocking to learn that human remains were taken from the community and were in the [United] States,” Kokiapik said. “I was born and raised in that community, so the [repatriation] was something quite close to my heart.”

According to Nichols, the ceremony held in June was the first of its kind organized by Dartmouth’s anthropology department. She said the College’s legal counsel and Fitzhugh, a former student of Harp, helped direct the College to the Avataq Cultural Institute as the appropriate intermediary to contact the relevant Inuit community.

“Canada’s the country where the research was done, but Canada doesn’t have a national law or a national set of procedures for returning human remains,” Nichols said.

Prior to the formal ceremony, and Jack Mourouzis ’18 and Holly Patterson ’19 worked with forensic anthropology professor Bruno Frohlich to identify and analyze the contents from Harp’s collection.

Patterson said the process of identifying the remains required a heightened sense of respect and understanding.

“You need to have this sense of respect and know exactly what it is that you’re doing,” she said. “Because we are handling a person — actual human remains.”

According to Patterson, the analysis of the collection found at least six individuals, some of whom were children.

Kokiapik said the Institute plans to return the bones to the ground in Qitjirivik by the end of September.

“It’s sad that these remains were not at their resting place for such time,” she said. “We do have the coordinates, and we will try to bury them where they were buried — under the rocks.”