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Universities, museums face new pressure to return Native American human remains

todayMarch 12, 2024

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ABC News

(HANOVER, N.H.) — Founded as one of the first schools to educate Native Americans, Dartmouth College is now at the forefront of an effort to rectify what some tribes say has long been an atrocity in plain sight.

The school last year revealed that dozens of Native American human remains and burial objects had been discovered in its private collection of art and artifacts. Some had been put on public display and even handled by students in classrooms — all without the permission of the individuals’ ancestors or their tribes.

“You can’t help but be in, like, disbelief and shock but also be hit with a thousand other emotions that range from frustration to disappointment to sadness,” said Paige Nakai, a senior co-president of Dartmouth’s Native American student group.

The Ivy League institution is among dozens of American universities, historical societies and museums in possession of Native human remains despite a 30-year-old federal law ordering them to inventory the sacred objects and immediately return them to tribes.

“Dartmouth is 255 years old, older than the United States itself, and many of the bones were donated to Dartmouth by people who had collected them elsewhere and then gave them to us,” said Dartmouth Provost David Kotz. “So, sorting out the provenance of these has been challenging.”

Nationwide, compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA), has been painstakingly slow.

Of the more than 200,000 remains reported since the law was enacted around 100,000 are still being held by institutions today, according to the Interior Department, which administers the law.

Government records show UC Berkeley, the Ohio History Connection, and Harvard’s Peabody Museum top the list of those with the most artifacts awaiting repatriation.

Dartmouth has repatriated eight sets of remains since 1995, but approximately 60 more still need to be returned, according to findings from an inventory of the school’s 67,000 pieces of art and artifacts shared with ABC News.

“Museums and academic institutions both were part of the colonial process, and they were created at a time when people didn’t think Native Americans were going to be around any longer. Dehumanization of native and other peoples is part of what allowed these collections to be formed,” said Dr. Jami Powell, a citizen of the Osage Nation and the curator of indigenous art at Dartmouth’s Hood Museum.

“People should ask themselves, what if this was one of my ancestors whose remains were dug up and used for research and study without the permission of our family?” said Powell. “I think once people put themselves in the shoes of native peoples and ask these difficult questions, it’s not hard to understand why there has to be a change.”

Schools and museums are facing growing pressure to accelerate compliance with NAGPRA by hiring more staff to resolve cases and proactively reaching out to tribes to facilitate repatriation rather than waiting for a Native group to make a claim.

“The onus was on tribes to prove that somehow these were their ancestors. It allowed universities to sit on these remains for decades. Tribes often lack the resources to be able to say these are, in fact, our ancestors. So the law, without intending to be, was stacked against tribal interests,” said Professor Bruce Duthu, who chairs Dartmouth’s Native American and Indigenous Studies Program.

Some institutions have recently announced progress. Colgate University last November returned more than 1,500 funerary objects to the Oneida Indian Nation, while Cornell University repatriated Oneida remains dug up in 1964.

“Essentially, afterlife is very sacred,” said Raylen Bark, a senior co-president of Dartmouth’s Native American student group. “You become one with the community and with the landscape. And so when you die, you go back into that ground into that land.”

Top museums from New York to Cleveland to Chicago have been closing exhibits or covering up sacred Native objects displayed without tribal consent.

But some tribal leaders and Native advocates allege there are institutions deliberately resisting compliance in the name of science and research.

In late 2023, the Biden administration announced stricter regulations meant to give NAGPRA new bite: a five-year deadline for institutions to re-inventory their collections and return Native human remains or else face steep fines. The new rules also require proactive consultation with tribes and express consent before any sacred objects are displayed or researched.

“That is a form of accountability that universities never had to worry about before and now they do,” said Duthu. “I think universities are always looking over the fence to see how their neighbors are doing, and the tide has changed, and I think that has to continue because no one now wants to be the outlier.”

Dartmouth has appointed a high-level working group to oversee repatriation efforts, accelerate compliance with the law, and facilitate outreach to tribal members on campus and nationwide. School officials say they are committed to returning all of the remains as soon as possible.

“To me, the most important thing is to work with the tribes and the Native American representatives who understand the deep cultural, spiritual value of these ancestors, and to ensure that we do what is most appropriate in their eyes, in handling and returning these ancestors,” said Kotz.

Powell said she cannot guarantee that all of the Native human remains uncovered at Dartmouth will be repatriated in the next five years as required by law — or that other sets of remains would not be discovered in the future. But she said there is sincere intention to honor the law and the tribal communities.

“We’re confident that the steps are being taken to make sure that there is some type of trust that Dartmouth is doing the right things,” said Nakai.

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