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The Dartmouth
April 15, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Community reacts to College’s announcement of recently discovered Native remains

The College’s announcement last week came after two separate cataloging re-inventories.

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The announcement last Tuesday that the College had discovered Native remains in its possession felt like a “slap in the face” to the Native community on campus, according to Virginia Snake-Bumann ’24, who is Ho-Chunk from Winnebago, Nebraska. Native students on campus have come together as College administrators begin an external audit to identify Native American remains in its collections and pursue repatriation, according to Hood Museum curator of Indigenous art Jami Powell. 

Powell, who became the College’s NAGPRA officer, said that the external reviewers are “experts in the field” who work under the guidelines of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, which mandates that institutions return Native American cultural artifacts to the appropriate federally-recognized tribe or Native Hawaiian organization. Powell said that the College had asked the reviewers to conduct a re-inventory of its collection prior  to the discovery of the remains but were unable to do so due to the COVID-19 lockdown.

When Congress initially passed NAGPRA in 1990, the law required all institutions receiving federal funds to submit an inventory of Native American osteological and funerary remains in their possession by 1995, Powell noted. She added that NAGPRA did not allocate funding or provide standards for the inventories, which led to oversights.

“Since the [1990s], there’s been more consistency in terms of the kinds of things that institutions submit to the NAGPRA program,” Powell said. “But in the [1990s] … I think people were more concerned about getting them done on time than requesting more time to make sure that they did it right.”

As Dartmouth’s NAGPRA officer, Powell’s effort to ensure compliance with the law precipitated Dartmouth’s most recent review of its collections, which began in fall 2020 and led to the recent discovery of the remains of 15 Native Americans.

“A lot of the initial inventories that had been completed by institutions had errors both in terms of the number of individuals reported or listed as culturally identifiable,” Powell said. “Knowing this, I wanted to work on a re-inventory to ensure that we had reported the correct number of individuals.”

Powell said that due to “discrepancies” in the Hood’s cataloging, the museum had no record of the whereabouts of some ancestors who were listed as missing or withdrawn from the collection. According to the College’s press release on March 28, when the Hood opened in 1985, artifacts from various academic departments were consolidated into its collection “with little or no documentation regarding their movements.”

Upon reaching out to anthropology department chair Jeremy DeSilva, who had been working on a similar inventory of the anthropology department’s collection, Powell and NAGPRA research assistant Emily Andrews ’22 found that bones in the anthropology collection shared catalog numbers with those missing from the Hood’s inventory.

“We were finally able to connect the dots in mid-November,” DeSilva said. “When that happened, we immediately went through the entire collection, bone by bone, to identify any that had … College museum accession numbers.”

The College organized a gathering for the Native community to announce the news on Native remains ahead of the College’s official announcement. 

Dartmouth’s strong Native community was the reason Snake-Bumann chose to attend the College, making the news more painful, but the fallout more supportive, she added. 

“With all of this happening, I feel like we’ve all kind of grown together in one way or another,” Snake-Bumann said. “I’m just really thankful for our community.”

At  the gathering, president Phil Hanlon left the event early, leaving some students feeling unsettled, according to Snake-Bumann. 

“[It] didn’t really come off the right way,” she said.

After its 1995 review, the College believed “with good faith” that there were no Native American remains in the collection, according to Provost David Kotz. The initial audit was complicated by a lack of information on the provenance of the remains and changing cataloging systems. 

“Dartmouth has been receiving — collecting, or receiving as donations — these kinds of materials for over 200 years,” Kotz said. “Not only were attitudes different, perhaps, back then, but also the records of where these things may have come from … were lost. I think what’s happening now is a much more in depth, comprehensive effort to track that down.”

According to DeSilva, the remains discovered by the anthropology department had been part of a teaching collection used in ANTH 43: “Human Osteology” and ANTH 50: “Forensic Anthropology,” both of which have been removed from course offerings as a result of the findings. He added that the anthropology department has removed all the bones in its teaching collection — including those of non-Native origin — and is working to create a new teaching collection of ethically sourced bones through the Geisel School of Medicine’s anatomical donor program.

“Although this wasn’t deliberate, it is the most recent example of a long history of our discipline causing harm to Native communities,” DeSilva said. “We are committed to making this right … and the only way to assure that this can never happen again is to never again teach with human skeletal remains unless you know exactly where they came from.”

Anthropology major Sydney Hoose ’25, who took ANTH 43 in the fall, said that DeSilva and Powell communicated the discovery to Native students in the class before speaking to the Native community at Dartmouth as a whole. Hoose is enrolled with the Cherokee Nation but also identifies as Skidi Pawnee and Chickasaw.

“They wanted to tell us more personally in a small group because … we were handling our ancestors,” Hoose said. “I’m glad they told us beforehand.”

Hoose added that the professors did not know there were Native American bones in the collection, overtly telling students in the class that there were not. She said that though she was “extremely disappointed” by the news, she appreciates the steps the College has taken to remove the bones from campus and support the Native community.

Beyond auditing the College’s collection and suspending certain osteological classes, the “next step” for Kotz is to create a working group “to coordinate the actual hard work that is ahead.” They are in the process of hiring a project manager to help handle the process of repatriation, which Kotz said may look similar to the 2018 effort to return Inuit bones found in the College’s collection to Nunavik, Canada. 

While other institutions like Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley have had similar incidents in recent years, Dartmouth has a specific obligation to make amends and repatriate the remains, according to Kotz. The Dartmouth charter, written in 1769, describes the College’s mission as “for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land,” which was deemed  “necessary and expedient for civilizing and Christianizing children of pagans.”

“It is clear from our history, literally from our founding, that Native Americans are an important part of our essence,” Kotz said. “To me, it feels ethically [and] morally all the more important that we do this work well and that we do it thoroughly, and we do it thoughtfully – and we do it in partnership with the Native Americans.”

Native Americans at Dartmouth president Ahnili Johnson-Jennings ’23 wrote in an email statement that there was “grief and sorrow” in the Native community in response to the announcement, and that they hosted internal events “focused on communal togetherness, [which] included some cultural traditions.” 

“Moving forward I think the College needs to continue to give support to the Native staff, faculty and students,” Johnson-Jennings wrote. “They have a plan to reach out to the tribes impacted and cleanse the area according to our cultural mandates. It is my hope the College can mitigate any further damage and continue to handle the situation to their best ability.”

The administration waited to make the announcement until students were back on campus after spring break, according to Kotz. Following the news, the Native American community on campus came together, convening students at the Native American House with fry bread and soup, he added.

“I see this as both a looking backward and a looking forward activity,” Kotz said. “There’s an effort to look backward at our history and to reconcile with that, which in some cases includes repatriating remains. I also see it as an opportunity and a duty to look forward to make sure we put systems into place that will prevent this kind of thing from happening again.”