Dartmouth Indigenous curator ‘shocked, not surprised’ with recent discovery of remains
Dartmouth College recently uncovered the skeletal remains of at least 15 Native American individuals in its academic collections. College officials have pledged to identify and repatriate the remains where possible.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, also known as NAGPRA, requires institutions that receive federal funds to catalog and potentially repatriate ancestral remains and cultural objects.
Academic institutions and museums across the country took inventory of their Native American collections after Congress passed the law in 1990.
But Jami Powell, the curator of Indigenous art for Dartmouth’s Hood Museum, says those inventories were often full of errors.
“And so, I approached my colleagues and college leadership about being more proactive about the work we were doing with the Native ancestors in our care.”
Powell requested a fresh inventory of the college’s collection when she was hired in 2018. That along with another inventory from Dartmouth’s anthropology department led to the recent discovery of approximately 100 bones, some of which were used in teaching labs as recently as last fall.
NHPR's All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa asked Powell more about Dartmouth’s next steps and why the remains of Native American individuals were at the college in the first place. Below is a transcript of their conversation.
Jami, some folks may be wondering why the remains of Native American individuals were at Dartmouth in the first place. What did the college use them for?
I think there's a lot of people who have asked why Dartmouth has certain things in its possessions, in its care. And I think the terminology we even use to describe the ancestors we’re talking about, gives part of the answer, that for a really long time, Native peoples and other people of color were not considered to be fully human, and therefore, available for study.
The foundations of universities and museums and North American anthropology are really entangled in the colonial project. And for North American anthropology in particular, this kind of salvage ethnography and the archeology of indigenous societies was really at the core of this entire academic discipline. Think about how not having these things in collections or available for research has long been an issue that has been debated through legislation [like] NAGPRA. I think the ethics of our field and the ethics of our institutions are starting to catch up with the work that Native people have been pushing for for a long time in terms of returning our ancestors, but also, objects from our communities that never should have been in these collections in the first place.
What does the process of repatriation look like to Dartmouth? What's happening now to make that happen?
The most important part of the repatriation process is consultation with tribal nations. In my role as the NAGPRA officer for the college, I really see myself as a facilitator. The NAGPRA legislation provides guidelines, but not the details of how all of this looks in practice. And so for me, as both a museum professional and an indigenous person, as a citizen of the Osage Nation, I am really a facilitator to make sure these ancestors get home and work on behalf of the institution of Dartmouth, but in service to the tribal nations with whom we are consulting and from whom these ancestors came to us from.
Jami, what has your response been to this personally?
I think that my response is similar to a lot of other Native colleagues and students. I was shocked but not surprised that these errors happened. It's why I wanted to do the re-inventory in the first place, because I knew that these mistakes [were] because of the way the legislation was passed and institutions were given five years to complete these inventories. It was kind of, here's something that has to get done, but we have to do it in the next five years and we're not getting any extra people or extra funding to make it happen. I think people did their best and unfortunately it led to errors like the one we found here.
Front and center for myself, but also my colleagues, has been the well-being of our indigenous students here at Dartmouth and making sure that they are taken care of during this really difficult time. But I've also felt a lot of affirmation around my interactions with my colleagues and Dartmouth leadership. They're approaching this with empathy and also resources to make sure that we get the work done right this time.
Dartmouth is not necessarily alone in this situation. Other academic institutions have also faced criticism for only recently turning over the remains of Native American individuals. What should institutions be doing so that this is resolved now and not decades later?
As we had conversations internally about this, one of the things I kept reassuring my colleagues of is, we aren't the only ones. This is happening all over the nation. But I think as it happens more and more, institutions are starting to be more proactive in terms of their re-inventory process. So we weren't required to redo our inventories. We knew that it needed to happen because we might have mistakes in the same way these other institutions did. But I also believe that the new regulations that are currently under review [to update NAGRA] will require institutions to go back to those inventories and re-evaluate things that, for instance, were once marked as ‘culturally unidentifiable’ but that there can be more research done to determine an affiliation.
And Jami, Dartmouth, the institution, has a long history of committing harm against Native American communities and this is a chapter in that. What is Dartmouth's commitment moving forward?
As someone who also teaches in the Native American and Indigenous Studies department and works often with our indigenous students, I often remind my students—not that they need it—that this institution wasn't built for us. It was built to erase us. And the history of Dartmouth being founded for the education of Indian youths and the erasure of Samson Occom from recognition in his founding of the college has long been a point of contention for Native peoples.
But within the last 50 years, with Dartmouth's recommitment and rededication to its original charter, we just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Native American program and now, Native American and Indigenous Studies Department. There has been a lot of changes. Even within the last five years, with the removal of the Hovey murals and the weathervane and the repatriation of Samson Occom's papers, there is a real recognition and commitment that I'm seeing to the original charter – not a tacit commitment, but a tangible commitment that I think is not going away.