Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism. Support independent student journalism.
The Dartmouth
April 19, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

After discovery of Native remains last spring, anthropology department and Hood Museum make progress on accountability

The College launched a group to delineate future procedures regarding the handling of Native remains, while the anthropology department and Hood Museum are hiring new individuals to manage their inventories.

Hoco_Remains_DarrenGu.jpg

This article is featured in the 2023 Homecoming special issue. 

The anthropology department and the Hood Museum of Art have taken steps toward addressing the presence of unethically obtained Native remains at Dartmouth since their discovery was announced in late March, according to anthropology department chair Jeremy DeSilva. 

The College announced the discovery of the skeletal remains of 15 Native American individuals in the Hood Museum’s collections after examining the anthropology department’s osteology collection. Following the discovery, the College held a cleansing ceremony in several buildings conducted by a Navajo medicine man, according to previous reporting by The Dartmouth.

According to Hood Museum curator of Indigenous art Jami Powell, earlier this year, Provost David Kotz launched the “Working Group on Human Remains at Dartmouth,” a group of faculty and staff, including DeSilva and Powell herself. The group’s mission is to identify the human remains within Dartmouth’s collection and create a framework on future procedures regarding the use of human remains in teaching and research at the College. 

To realize these goals, DeSilva noted that the anthropology department hired external auditors with expertise in forensic anthropology to review the College’s osteology collections. The collection includes archaeologically excavated bones and bones donated from the medical school, which have physical differences. 

“When a bone has been in a body in a medical school and been prepared in that way, in a laboratory situation, it looks different than a bone that has been in the ground and has been sort of excavated,” DeSilva explained.

Additionally, DeSilva said that the department hired anthropological geneticist Raquel Fleskes to ensure future work with human remains meets ethical guidelines. 

“[Fleskes] has really set the tone for the anthropological community on how to work with human remains in a respectful and ethical way,” he said. “She works very closely with communities and is a real trailblazer.”

DeSilva added that the department was in the process of hiring an archaeologist specializing in Indigenous America who will “likely have an affiliative appointment with the Native American and Indigenous Studies program,” emphasizing that it will help “bridge” both departments.

“That will help us bridge anthropology and NAIS in ways that are really important to us,” he said. “[NAIS is a] department that we really work with and care about, and this discovery was really painful for us, but more for them. It’s important for us to rebuild that relationship and that trust.”

According to Powell, NAGPRA — or the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — was a law passed in 1990 mandating that federally funded institutions return Native American cultural items that are “sacred or of cultural patrimony” to federally-recognized tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. 

According to DeSilva, the osteology collection had been “cobbled together from a variety of different sources,” including alumni donations, archaeological expeditions and contributions from the medical school. He added that remains would often end up in the anthropology department with either “no documentation” or only an unclear “series of numbers.”

In correspondence with Hood Museum employees, several of these numerical series were found to be correlated with documents indicating that they had originated from Native peoples, DeSilva said. He noted that he and others took action to pull Native remains from the department’s collections and move them to an offsite facility immediately following the discovery.

DeSilva said the anthropology department reacted to the discovery of the remains with “devastation.”

“We were all under the impression that, in the 1990s, when a survey was done of our collection … any remains that were of Native ancestors were removed from the teaching collection, and that our teaching collection was as ethically sourced as could be,” he said.

Koii Johnson-Jennings ’27, a member of the Quapaw, Choctaw and Sac and Fox tribes and a member of Native Americans at Dartmouth, said he heard about the discovery following his college acceptance during weekly discussions at his high school. He noted that he was “disappointed given Dartmouth’s mission to educate Native American students and provide a safe space for them.”

“While it was a little bit of a shock to hear about it, it wasn’t really surprising,” Johnson-Jennings said. 

Kaillani Sirois ’27, a member of the Colville Confederated Tribe and the Poundmaker Cree Nation who is also involved with Native Americans at Dartmouth, said that “it was pretty disturbing to find out” about the discovery of the remains.

“I immediately thought of these ancestors, their families, and how long they’ve been away from their people and their tribe,” she said. “It was very saddening.”

Sirois noted that historically, Native American remains had frequently been used in higher education for the purpose of “instilling white supremacy.”

“There were a lot of institutions that used Native American skulls to show that their skulls were smaller than white skulls,” Sirois said. “Thus meaning that they’re less smart, which was why they went extinct. Although of course, we’re not extinct.”

Powell expressed a similar sentiment, noting that the College’s charter indicates that it was founded for the education of “Indian youth,” but that this contradicts much of Dartmouth’s history.

“It’s well documented that for the first 200 years of the college, it didn’t really live up to its charter,” she said.

Sirois added that while both “old racism” and “new racism” are still “apparent within the institution,” the Native American community at the College is “very strong.”

“It’s very much like a supportive family where we back each other up.”

In addition to next steps by the anthropology department, Powell said that the Hood Museum, which has largely taken over projects related to the repatriation of remains, also hired new individuals to handle the College’s human remains collections. The Hood Museum obtained a project manager for “Osteology and Repatriation” named Kerianne Armelli, who will “oversee the completion of the inventories and manage the administrative tasks related to ensuring that this work is done properly,” she said. Powell added that the hiring process for the individual had included collaboration with Shontay Delalue, Dartmouth’s senior vice president and senior diversity officer.

As a result of the discovery of Native remains, the anthropology department has ended the use of human remains in teaching by indefinitely discontinuing its human osteology courses, according to DeSilva.  

“We’re not teaching osteology until we can guarantee to our students that the bones you’re working with are from people who wanted you to learn from them,” he said.

Although DeSilva refrained from providing a timeline for reintroducing osteology courses, he noted that the department is considering collaborating with the medical school’s “anatomical gifts program,” which allows people to contribute their remains to Dartmouth after death. 

“People already donate their bodies to Dartmouth so that our medical students can learn from them, and the idea is, what if we added to that the option of having the body also be skeletonized?” 

DeSilva said that once “between 20 and 50” human remains are voluntarily donated, osteology classes could likely be offered once again. However, he added that hiring a full-time curator would be a prerequisite for restarting such courses.

“One of the reasons that we found ourselves in this situation is because we had an osteology collection, but no curator,” he said. 

“There are lots of schools that have osteology collections,” DeSilva explained. “They’re all problematic in various ways, but many of them have curators. If we’re going to have bones on campus again for teaching and for research, there has to be a curator.” 

DeSilva said that some “colleagues at other institutions” sometimes tried to excuse the presence of Native remains in their collections, calling such behavior “despicable.” He added that the “only silver-lining” to the discovery of the human remains in the department’s collection was the unity in the College’s response.

“Everyone has been in lockstep, from the anthropology department to the Hood Museum, and Jami Powell, Emily Andrews to the Communications Office to the Dean’s office, the Provost’s Office and right to the President,” he said.

Johnson-Jennings agreed, noting that “from what I saw at Dartmouth, they tackled it head on.”

“We’re all singularly focused on getting this right and in doing the right thing,” DeSilva said. “And that to me is incredibly encouraging.”