Native Americans demand accountability for ancestral remains identified at Dartmouth College

BOSTON (AP) — As a Quapaw citizen, Anili Johnson Jennings has always viewed Dartmouth College as a college for Native American students.

Her father had graduated from a 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 an Ivy League school in New Hampshire has identified the partial remains of 15 Native Americans from one of its collections has caused Johnson Jennings and others to reassess that connection.

“It’s hard to reconcile. It’s hard to see colleges in this old way of taking Aboriginal remains and using them for their own benefit,” said the senior and co-president of Dartmouth College’s Indigenous Department. Johnson Jennings said.

It was concluded that the corpse had been used for teaching classes until just last year, when an audit mistakenly identified it as non-native. Native American students were briefed on the discovery in March.

“It was very upsetting to hear about it, especially when I felt very supported by the school and the school had secrets that probably no one knew about, but which were still kind of secret.” said Johnson Jennings. .

Dartmouth College, museums and other institutions struggle with how best to handle Native American remains and artifacts in their collections, and what these finds tell us about past policies regarding Native communities. It continues to grow in the list of things I do.

Until the 20th century, archaeologists, anthropologists, collectors and curiosity seekers brought back Aboriginal remains and sacred items from their expeditions to tribal lands. Some remains, including Aboriginal skulls, were sought in the name of science. After inter-tribal fighting, the bodies were collected by government agencies. Museums wanted to expand their collections, and academic institutions relied on Aboriginal bones as educational tools.

“100 years ago, it was okay for professors and alumni to go to the land of indigenous communities and unearth their ancestors,” says professor Jeremy DeSilva, a paleoanthropologist and chair of the Department of Anthropology at Dartmouth College.

“It’s amazing that people didn’t realize how harmful it was,” he continued.

For indigenous peoples, the loss of archaeological sites and cultural properties continues to cause great pain. Many believe that the corpses are imbued with the spirit of their ancestors and that they are connected to the living people of those tribes.

The tribe could go to court or negotiate with the agency for the repatriation of the remains. However, it was not until the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990 that a process for their repatriation was created. The law requires federally funded institutions, including universities, to return cremated remains and grave goods to legitimate communities.

More than 30 years later, about 884,000 Native American artifacts, including about 102,000 human bones, are still held in universities, museums and other institutions. Data managed by the National Park Service.

Critics complain that many agencies are moving too slowly, applying NAGPRA exceptions to sites they classify as culturally unidentifiable. As such, tribes are obliged to prove that the remains are their ancestors, a cost that many cannot afford.

Since 1995, Dartmouth has repatriated the remains of 10 Native Americans and 36 burial items. According to the NAGPRA database, 15 sets of remains and 46 “related grave goods” are from Alaska, Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, California and Florida. The geographic origin of two sets of sites is listed as unknown.

In February, Cornell University returned the ancestral remains of the Oneida Indian Nation that had been accidentally exhumed in 1964 and kept in the school’s archives for decades. Colgate University in November returned more than 1,500 items that the Oneida family buried with the dead 400 years ago.

“The importance of repatriation to the Oneida people cannot be overstated,” said Oneida Indian National Representative Ray Hallblitter.

“When the remains of our ancestors and their cultural artefacts are restored to us, we not only can enshrine them according to tradition, but also the history of our people and our ability to tell our own stories. We will take it back,” Halblitter said in a statement. “Each repatriation represents another step in a long journey towards recognition of national sovereignty and human dignity.”

According to the Park Service, the University of California, Berkeley tops the list of institutions that still hold the artifacts. It is followed by the Ohio History Connection, a non-profit organization working to preserve the state’s history. Harvard University Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology.

The process of returning remains to tribal affiliations is complex and complex, but Shannon O’Loughlin, chief executive of the American Indian Affairs Association, a national group that helps tribal repatriations, said refusing to do so is racist. said.

O’Loughlin, a national of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said, “It’s just that they value the idea of ​​Native Americans more as specimens than as people.”

The remains, which are kept in the Dartmouth Educational Collection at Silsby Hall, were identified as Native American in November in an audit led by Jamie Powell, curator of Native arts at the Hood Museum in Dartmouth.

The bones were removed from a locked cabinet in the basement to a safe off-campus location. Dartmouth has hired a team of independent experts to determine its origin, and the investigation is expected to take several months.

It is also investigating an additional 100 bones that may belong to Native Americans and is working with tribes to repatriate additional bone fragments related to three individuals whose remains were repatriated in the 1990s. .

Powell, an Osage citizen, said, “As an indigenous person, treating my ancestors with the utmost care and respect has always been important in my work, and helping them return to their homeland has always been important to me. is an important part of the role of

Dartmouth College president Philip Hanlon said in March that he was “deeply saddened by what was discovered on campus.” His statement apologized for the university’s illegal possession of the remains and promised to “take prudent and meaningful action to address our situation and consult with the communities most directly affected.” bottom.

It is believed that the Anthropology Department’s teaching materials collection contained bones purchased from a biological supply company. From donated cadavers used by medical students. Some of the archaeological remains are from Native American burial mounds and were provided by alumni.

Dartmouth officials said until November they believed the Native American bones were taken from the school in the 1990s.

“No one has put the time or effort into fully documenting what we have. It was about time we started thinking a little bit more deeply about what it meant,” said de Silva, dean of the anthropology department.

DeSilva acknowledged the errors in the records of the Native American remains, but said they were not malicious and that no one was to blame. He said he hopes the latest findings will reassess past practices.

The university is currently reassessing its entire human remains collection and will “build an ethically sourced collection that complies with legal standards” for use in osteology (the study of bones and the skeletal system). de Silva said.

The university is also working to repair relations with native students and alumni. This includes dealing with native students who are reluctant to enroll at Silsby. Aso, a Navajo shaman, conducted cleansing ceremonies throughout the campus, including the Anthropology Building.

Today, about 1% of Dartmouth’s 4,458 students are Native Americans. Although the school was established to teach Native Americans, it was not until 1972 that Dartmouth created the nation’s first program tailored to Native Americans. Still, symbols of insensitivity remained on campus, including a series of murals that the school announced would be moved to storage in 2018.

Sean Atakay, co-president of the Dartmouth Native Alumni Association, said he was disappointed with the find and regretted that some of the Navajo remains, for which he is a tribal attorney, may be from his hometown. said he thinks

“Native Americans have a history of being mistreated in this country from its founding to the present day,” Atakay said.

Johnson-Jennings appreciated the effort, but said that individuals and groups need to be held accountable for justice. Leaving bodies mislabeled for so long, she said, “is wrong for us indigenous people to pay the price, and the tribes to which their ancestors belonged. are paying for,” she said.

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