BOSTON – As a citizen of the Quapaw Nation, Ahnili Johnson-Jennings has always seen Dartmouth College as the university for Native American students.
Her father graduated from the school, founded in 1769 to educate Native Americans, and she had come to rely on its network of students, professors and administrators. But news that the Ivy League school in New Hampshire identified partial skeletal remains of 15 Native Americans in one of its collections has Johnson-Jennings and others reassessing that relationship.
“It’s hard to reconcile. It’s hard to see the college in this old way where they were taking Native remains and using them for their own benefit,” said Johnson-Jennings, a senior and co-president of Native Americans at Dartmouth.
The remains were used to teach a class as recently as last year, until an audit concluded they had been wrongly catalogued as not Native. Native American students were briefed on the discovery in March.
“It was very upsetting to hear, especially when you’ve just felt so supported by a school and they’ve had that secret that maybe no one knew about, but still, to some sense, was a secret,” Johnson-Jennings said.
Dartmouth is among a growing list of universities, museums and other institutions wrestling with how best to handle Native American remains and artifacts in their collections, and with what these discoveries say about their past policies regarding Native communities.
Until the 20th century, archeologists, anthropologists, collectors and curiosity seekers took Native remains and sacred objects during expeditions on tribal lands. Some remains, including Native skulls, were sought after in the name of science. Bodies were collected by government agencies after battles with tribes. Museums wanted them to enhance their collections, and academic institutions relied on Native bones as teaching tools.
“One-hundred years ago, it was OK for a professor, for an alumni to go into the lands of a Native community and dig up their ancestors,” said professor Jeremy DeSilva, a paleoanthropologist and chairman of Dartmouth’s anthropology department.
“It’s amazing that folks didn’t recognize how harmful that was,” he continued.
For Native tribes, the loss of the remains and cultural items still inflicts significant pain. The remains, most believe, are imbued with the spirit of the ancestor to whom they belong and are connected to living citizens of those tribes.
Tribes could go to court or negotiate with an institution for remains to be repatriated. But it wasn’t until the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, in 1990 that a process was created for their return. It requires federally funded institutions, including universities, to return remains and funerary items to rightful communities.
More than three decades later, some 884,000 Native American artifacts — including nearly 102,000 human remains — are still held by colleges, museums and other institutions, according to data maintained by the National Park Service.
Critics complain that many institutions move too slowly, invoking an exception in NAGPRA for remains they label as culturally unidentifiable. That puts the burden on tribes to prove the remains are their ancestors, an expense many can’t afford.
Dartmouth has repatriated skeletal remains of 10 Native Americans along with 36 burial objects since 1995. The NAGPRA database says the 15 sets of skeletal remains and 46 “associated funerary objects” were taken from counties in Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, California and Florida. It lists the geographic origin of two sets of remains as unknown.
In February, Cornell University returned to the Oneida Indian Nation ancestral remains that were inadvertently dug up in 1964 and stored for decades in a school archive. Colgate University in November returned more than 1,500 items that the Oneidas had buried with their dead as far back as 400 years ago.
“It is hard to overstate the importance of repatriations to the Oneida people," said Ray Halbritter, Oneida Indian Nation Representative.
“When our ancestors’ remains and their cultural artifacts are restored to us, we are not only able to lay them to rest according to our traditions — we regain nothing less than the history of our people and the ability to tell our own stories,” Halbritter's statement said. "Each repatriation represents another step forward on a long journey toward recognition of our sovereignty as a Nation and our dignity as people.”
The University of California, Berkeley tops the list of institutions still holding artifacts, according to the Park Service; followed closely by the Ohio History Connection, a nonprofit organization working to preserve the state’s history; and Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
The process of returning remains to affiliated tribes can be complex and complicated, but Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive of the Association on American Indian Affairs, a national group that assists tribes with repatriations, said it's racist to refuse.
“It just says that they value the idea of Native Americans as specimens more than they do as human beings,” said O’Loughlin, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.
The remains held in Dartmouth's teaching collection in Silsby Hall were identified as Native in November in an audit led by Jami Powell, curator of Indigenous art at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum.
The bones have been moved from locked cabinet in the basement to a secure off-campus location. Dartmouth has hired a team of independent experts to determine their origin, a review that will take months.
It also is studying an additional 100 bones that may be Native American and working with tribes to repatriate additional bone fragments related to three individuals whose remains were repatriated in the 1990s.
“For me as an Indigenous person, it’s always important in my work that I treat these ancestors with the utmost care and respect and that an essential part of my function is helping them return home,” said Powell, a citizen of the Osage nation.
Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon said in March that he's “deeply saddened by what we’ve found on our campus.” His statement apologized for the college’s wrongful possession of the remains and pledged “to take careful and meaningful action to address our situation and consult with the communities most directly impacted.”
The Department of Anthropology’s teaching collection is believed to have included bones purchased from biological supply companies; from donated cadavers used by medical students; and archeological remains, some of which came from Native American burial mounds and were given by alumni.
Until November, Dartmouth officials said they had believed Native American bones had been removed from the school in the 1990s.
“Nobody had really taken the time or the effort to fully document what we had. This was around a time where our whole discipline was beginning to reflect a little more deeply on what it meant to be in the care of, or caring for human remains,” said DeSilva, the anthropology department’s chairman.
DeSilva acknowledged mistakes in documenting Native American remains, but said they weren’t malicious, and no one was to blame. He said he hopes the most recent discovery will force a reckoning over past practices.
The college is now reevaluating its whole collection of human remains and plans to “build an ethically sourced collection that complies with legal standards” to be used in osteology — the study of bones and skeletal systems, DeSilva said.
The college is also working to repair its relationship with Native students and alumni. That includes accommodating Native students uncomfortable going into Silsby. A Navajo medicine man aso held a cleansing ceremony on campus that included the anthropology building.
Native Americans now represent about 1% of Dartmouth's 4,458 students. Though the school was formed to teach Native Americans, it wasn’t until 1972 that Dartmouth created a program tailored to them, one of the first in the country. Still, symbols of insensitivity lingered on campus, including a set of murals that the school said it would move into storage in 2018.
Shawn Attakai, co-president of the Native American Alumni Association of Dartmouth, said he's disappointed about the discovery, and sad that some of the remains could be from his own Navajo Nation, where he is a tribal lawyer.
“Native Americans have a history of injustices in this country starting from it’s founding all the way to the present,” said Attakai.
Johnson-Jennings appreciates the efforts, but said justice requires a person or entity to be held accountable. Allowing the remains to be mislabeled for so long, she said, "is a mistake that us Natives are paying for, the tribes that those ancestors belong to are paying for.”