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The Dartmouth
February 20, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Verbum Ultimum: More Than Just Remains

Students should educate themselves on the cultural significance of mishandled Native remains without relying on Native students for explanations.


Last week, the Dartmouth community learned that the College possesses the remains of 15 Native American individuals — a discovery resulting from the re-inventories of the Hood Museum and anthropology department archives. Since then, the College has created a task force to ensure these remains are returned to their respective tribes. This announcement directly impacted students who had interacted with these bones in ANTH 43: “Human Osteology” and ANTH 50: “Forensic Anthropology” last fall. In addition, many Native students on campus grieved in reaction to the news — and rightfully so. 

The discovery revealed the College’s inexcusable failure to comply with NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. For Native students, this is more than a federal violation by the College — it is the mishandling of ancestors. To give our Native classmates a space to mourn, students and faculty should educate themselves on the historical and cultural significance of this discovery using other resources.

Following the announcement, several Native students created Instagram stories asking non-Native students to educate themselves rather than asking Native students for explanations. The burden of educating campus should not fall on the shoulders of the Native American community. We urge the community to take the initiative to educate themselves on the repatriation and the importance of Native bones held by institutions like Dartmouth. We urge students to do their own investigations, not only to encourage understanding of our fellow community members, but because this is our historically inherited responsibility due to the College’s troubled and often paradoxical history with Native students.

We have all heard, at one time or another, the following words from the College’s charter: “for the education and instruction of youth of the Indian tribes in this land.” However, for approximately 200 years after the College’s founding, fewer than 100 Native students attended Dartmouth, a figure that demonstrates the College’s failure to fulfill its stated purpose. When the College recommitted itself to its original mission in 1970 under former President John G. Kemeny, he proclaimed that a “significantly greater” number of Native students would be enrolled. To that extent, Dartmouth has earned a reputation as the “Native Ivy.” Native students now comprise 4% of the current student population, the highest percentage of Native students at any Ivy League school. 

Despite the College’s more recent recommitment to its original mission, it has continued to let down Native students. For example, when Native students arrived at Dartmouth under the Kemeny administration, many were disturbed by the prolific and offensive usage of Native imagery, especially the unofficial Dartmouth Indian mascot. Although the College urged the “voluntary discontinuance” of the mascot in the 1970s, people continued to use the image decades later, and the College only removed other offensive symbols within the last few years. 

For years, Native students also demanded the removal of the weather vane which formerly sat on top of Baker Tower — which depicted a stereotypical and patronizing image of a Native American smoking a pipe in front of Dartmouth’s founder, Eleazar Wheelock. Still, it wasn’t until 2020 that the College finally removed the weathervane. The mere existence of the weather vane, along with other Native imagery, indicates a pattern — although one not exclusive to Dartmouth itself — that relegates Native people to characters in myths and traditions.

While the discovery of Native remains in the College’s inventories may be news to some, Native students are all too familiar with the topic. According to federal documents, the College returned some remains in a series of repatriations after 1996, with the last returns occurring a mind-boggling 20 years later in 2016. The fact that there were still more remains following the prior repatriations reveals the College’s lack of oversight. Had the College been more diligent, students would not have unknowingly used Native American bones in anthropology classes, and Native students would not have experienced grief yet again.

In light of these events, what should non-Native students do? The answer is not to contact Native students seeking information about the subject — unless, of course, these communities reach out on their own to offer their wisdom and personal experiences. Many Native students are grieving, and among some communities — such as the Navajo or Diné — it is taboo to even speak on the topic. The discovery of the remains is deeply personal for the Native American community. As our recent news coverage shows, these remains are peoples’ ancestors, and each individual’s response to the news may be different. It is important to give Native students the respect and space they need to process and grieve. Yet, if Native students do choose to speak up, non-Native students should listen to what they have to say. 

Non-Native students must work to educate themselves on the cultural significance of remains, rather than relying on their Native peers. Many of us grew up with a woefully inadequate understanding of Native peoples, through a lack of Native American representation in our school systems and through popular stereotypes and misconceptions of Native peoples. A good place to start is by reading this informational comic book series on NAGPRA, published in collaboration with the Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture & Lifeways. In addition, articles on NAGPRA from Indian Country Today, a newspaper on Indigenous affairs globally are highly informative. These resources are not comprehensive nor complete, but we hope students will use them as a way to begin learning more about this topic.

Needless to say, the non-Native members of this editorial board are not experts on the matter — one of our members, who is Mixtec, does not consider themselves an expert either. However, we encourage students to educate themselves on repatriation and other issues impacting Native peoples in the United States. We have the privilege of attending Dartmouth, yet many of us do not fully understand the College’s history with Native peoples. In an interview, Provost David Kotz claimed that Native Americans are an “important part of [the College’s] essence.” However, we hope that the College recognizes that the large community of Native students on campus today does not excuse the College from its troubled past. Likewise, the recently discovered Native remains are more than just remains, and it is time non-Native students take their share of the responsibility for building a better future.

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, the executive editors and the editor-in-chief.