- By Jenna Kunze
Dartmouth College has unknowingly been using the bones belonging to Native American ancestors to teach with as recently as fall 2022, the college announced this week.
The discovery came about during an internal collections review between the anthropology department and the school’s Hood Museum of Art in November 2022. Museum staff realized that acquisition numbers for the human remains documented in their collection for eventual return matched numbers cataloged by the anthropology department, where at least 23 individuals—and as many as 123—were used as teaching materials for classes on bones.
In some cases, the bones of individual Native American ancestors were split between the department and the Hood museum. At least three individuals had already been returned to their tribal nations in the late 1990s.
College faculty are unclear about how the ancestors came to the anthropology department because documentation is limited or nonexistent over the university’s two-and-a-half century history, according to Jerry DeSilva, Dartmouth’s Chair of Anthropology.
Most of the material from the anthropology department’s roughly 3,000-bone teaching collection —including professionally prepared bones purchased from biological supply companies; and bones from local cadavers who donated their remains to science—was acquired from alumni donations since the college was founded in 1769, DeSilva told Native News Online.
“One of the mistakes that we are reckoning with right now is that we were teaching with materials when we didn't know where they were from,” DeSilva said. “We still thought it was OK to teach with them. That's never going to happen again here, and it shouldn't happen anywhere.
“The only way to teach bone biology and skeletal anatomy would be with bones of individuals who willingly donated their bodies for this purpose.”
Dartmouth paused its human osteology class on Tuesday and removed every bone from its teaching collection.
“We are not teaching human osteology until we, from scratch, develop an ethically sourced teaching collection,” DeSilva said. “That’s underway.”
Additionally, Dartmouth Provost David Kotz on Tuesday announced the formation of a task force to address institution-wide issues of the handling and repatriation of ancestral remains, including non-Native American human remains from other countries that were also part of the teaching collection. The college will also hire a project manager to work with anthropology, Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art, and the Division of Institutional Diversity and Equity on the identification and return of Native American ancestors and their artifacts.
The discovery came about by museum staff cross-comparing new inventories of the anthropology department, Jami Powell (Osage Nation), curator of Indigenous Art at the Hood, Museum told Native News Online.
Powell was hired five years ago and immediately prioritized a re-inventory of the museum’s collection of human remains and burial objects, a process she said brought forward “more questions than answers.”
In the early ‘90s, Congress passed a law that required all universities and museums receiving federal funds to catalog and return Native American human remains in their collections.
Dartmouth reported a collection of 15 Native American human remains originating from Alaska, California, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, and New Mexico that have yet to be repatriated. They also cataloged 46 sacred burial items, the vast majority of them originating from Cochise county in Arizona.
The college has repatriated ten additional Native American ancestors and 36 burial objects to their tribal nations, including one Native Hawaiian organization, since it completed its inventory in 1996. Five of those repatriations happened in 1996, and the last in 2016, according to federal documents.
In their re-inventory, Hood Museum staff working with a forensic anthropologist found that the minimum number of human remains had been miscounted. There were 27, not 15, and some of the ancestors had no information about where they were taken from at all, Powell said.
Around the same time of the Museum’s re-inventory, the anthropology department conducted its own re-inventory of its osteological teaching collection in preparation for a move to a different floor in its building, DeSilva said. Through this process, staff flagged the parts of 23 individuals who had accession numbers, or numbers assigned to items when they are added to a collection.They an additional 100 bones as “potentially problematic” for showing signs of having been dug out of the ground.
When the departments shared their inventory lists with one another, the items’ unique accession numbers from the anthropology department teaching collection corresponded to accession numbers for Native American human remains at the museum — some of which were already repatriated to their tribal nations, or listed as missing in museum records.
“We knew exactly what those numbers were and that they corresponded to things that were listed as missing or withdrawn in our record,” Powell said.
The 23 ancestors from the anthropology department includes:
- Partial remains of five individuals previously listed as “missing” or “withdrawn” from the Hood Museum’s records.
- Partial remains of five individuals matched to unrepatriated ancestors already in the Hood Museum’s collection.
- Partial remains of ten individuals that had National Park Service accession numbers.
- Partial remains from three ancestral individuals that were repatriated by the college in the 1990s.
“We are actively working with those tribal nations and Native Hawaiian organizations as well as the National NAGPRA Program to correct these unfortunate errors and to return these remains as soon as possible,” Powell said.
The “Native Ivy”
Dartmouth administration met with the school’s Indigenous population before the news went public on Tuesday.
Dartmouth College—which has a reputation among Ivy League schools for being the most inclusive of American Indians—currently has around 200 students who self-identify as Native American, Alaska Native, or Native Hawaiian on campus, or 4% of the total student body. That’s significantly higher than most Ivies, where the American Indian population makes up less than one-half of one percent, according to Indian Country Today. By comparison, Harvard University this year has 331 Harvard students that self-identify as Indigenous out of about 25,000 students—making up about 1% of its student body population.
“My immediate reaction was disappointment that the college had …used bones that they didn’t know what the origins were,” said Ahnili Johnson-Jennings, a Dartmouth senior and a member of the Quapaw, Sac and Fox, Choctaw, and Miami tribes. She’s also the co-president of Native Americans at Dartmouth, a group supporting the Indigenous student body on campus. “I felt that that was irresponsible.
Although Johnson-Jennings—a government and Native American studies dual major— never took an anthropology class herself, her government classes were housed in the same building as the anthropology department.
“It was shocking to think, in a building I go to for class pretty regularly, there were those remains in that building,” she told Native News Online. She said that some of her Indigenous classmates are anthropology majors, and had likely unknowingly handled the remains of possibly even their own ancestors.
“It was hard for students to hear,” Johnson-Jennings said. “It’s hard when it’s Dartmouth College. To us, that means somewhere that supports Native students. To us, that means somewhere that supports our culture and us being here on campus for a large span of history. We are the Native Ivy and to hear that, it was a hard thing to grapple with when you see your school as being so supportive.”
Shannon O’Loughlin (Choctaw), chief executive and attorney for the Association on American Indian Affairs, told Native News Online that it’s not surprising that one division of a university does not know what another division of a university is doing—it’s just particularly upsetting given Dartmouth's positive reputation throughout Indian Country.
“At Dartmouth, this is more egregious considering that Dartmouth holds a special place in the eyes of so many Native students and alumni that have held Dartmouth in such high esteem and as a safe place and community,” O’Loughlin said.
The school’s Indigenous staff have arranged for a medicine man to clean the space where the bones were kept, and have organized community gatherings for students throughout the week.
The goalpost keeps moving
Dartmouth is not alone in its recent discovery of Native American human remains. In the past year alone, a handful of universities and museums have made similar discoveries of Native American human remains in their long forgotten or never recorded catalogs.
In August 2022, The University of Alabama completed its inventory of more than 10,000 Native American human remains in its possession, the largest number of human remains ever reported in a single notice.
That same month, the University of North Dakota (UND) announced it discovered “dozens” of Native American human remains and several hundred objects taken from Indigenous communities that the school failed to ever report under NAGPRA.
In September 2022, staff at Kansas University’s natural history museum discovered 380 culturally unaffiliated human remains and 554 associated funerary objects. Although the ancestors and belongings had been reported in the 90s under NAGPRA, the university had never returned them, and eventually they fell through the cracks.
Earlier this month, ProPublica reporters Mary Hudetz (Crow Tribe) and NBC’s Graham Lee Brewer (Cherokee Nation) published an investigative report—part of a larger repatriation project— into University of California Berkeley’s longtime anthropology professor who taught his students using bones that likely belonged to Native American ancestors.
In 1995, museums reported a collection of more than 208,000 Native American human remains. But in the past 32 years, not even half have been returned. Today, institutions still hold roughly 108,000 human remains, according to the federal government’s database.
As institutions like Damrouth re-inventory and re-prioritize NAGPRA, that number grows each year, said Melanie O’Brien, who directs the National NAGPRA program, which is responsible for facilitating the return of certain ancestors and their belongings. The goal post for returning Indigenous ancestors back to their homelands after decades—and often centuries—away keeps getting further and further, O’Brien said.
The solution, as she sees it, is twofold.
“The department feels that we can get close to the goalposts, but at least dealing with the human remains we do know about that have been reported,” she told Native News Online. “There's 108,000 ancestors that we know about, so let's at least resolve those, and then the process can continue with the additional ones that are found.”
Additionally, she said museums and institutions should focus their efforts on updating their inventories, which will very likely result in the discovery of additional ancestors.
“I think that the increased attention could highlight cases like that at Dartmouth, where if a university administration puts out a call to be sure that everything is reported and identified, then there might be more identified than had previously been thought.”
For Powell, the curator at the Hood Museum, the discovery demonstrates the importance of institutions re-examining their own holdings and inventories done decades before.
“The reason that I (became) an anthropology major and later got a PhD in anthropology—as ambivalent as I often feel about it, because of these histories—was from my freshman year of college when I learned about NAGPRA and the work that needed to be done within institutions to return our ancestors home,” she said. “I think this is an important moment for Dartmouth as an institution to reckon with that history, and it's been affirming for me to see the level at which my colleagues are taking this seriously and wanting to make this right and moving forward in a good way.”
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