Dartmouth has invited a Native American medicine man to conduct a series of ceremonies next week to spiritually cleanse Dartmouth facilities recently found to have housed Native American ancestral remains.
“The discovery of previously unaccounted-for ancestral remains on campus was shocking and painful, especially for the Native American and Indigenous community on campus and beyond. These ceremonies are a way to help the healing process begin,” says Provost David Kotz ’86. “This is one of many steps Dartmouth is taking to be accountable and to ensure that our campus is a welcoming place for all.”
In March, President Philip J. Hanlon ’77 apologized on behalf of the institution for Dartmouth’s possession of the ancestral remains and for the pain the discovery has caused to the Native community.
On Friday, April 28, Wilson and Carpenter Halls will be closed to faculty, students, and staff who are not directly involved in the ceremony. On Saturday, April 29, Silsby Hall, including the Rockefeller Center, will likewise be closed.
Silsby is the current home of the Department of Anthropology, where the remains were discovered; Wilson and Carpenter formerly housed anthropology, archaeology, and the Dartmouth College Museum, which preceded the Hood Museum of Art.
Herbert Wilson, a citizen of the Diné, or Navajo Nation, from Thoreau, N.M., will conduct the ceremonies, assisted by Shawn Attaki ’95, a Diné citizen and co-president of the Native American Alumni Association of Dartmouth.
Depending on Wilson’s assessment of what the facilities require, the ceremonies may begin as early as sunrise and continue throughout the day, says Mabelle Hueston ’86, interim assistant director of the Native American Program, who has helped organize the events. Hueston, who is also Diné, will represent Dartmouth as the patient being healed by the ceremonies.
Hueston says the ceremonies are a response to what Native students have been asking for, and are important because many Native and Indigenous cultures, including her own, have taboos that require individuals to avoid spaces where a death has occurred or where remains are located. While the ceremonies are derived from Diné culture, the hope is for future events to reflect the Dartmouth community’s many tribal nationalities.
Hueston says the Native community is talking about a possible Mohegan medicine woman visiting campus in the fall, a Native Hawaiian person coming to campus in the future, and other types of ceremonial visits.
“For me, it’s been difficult to feel welcome in these buildings after this discovery, and I know many others feel the same, especially Native students,” she says. “Cleansing is a way to open the community back to the full usage of the school and building. It’s a ceremony that is used to bring you back into balance after an illness, accident, natural disaster, or other disturbing event—something not in your control.”
“It’s used for returning soldiers to help them reengage with their community. It creates a process for understanding what happened and trying to get to the other side of grief and fear and anger. It gives you the means to be able to move on without any mental boundaries.”
The ceremonies will include smudging—burning sage or other sacred herbs as incense—inside and outside of the buildings, as well as prayer and other ritual activities. Smoke detectors and sprinkler systems will be turned off while the ritual takes place.
While Native and non-Native community members, especially those who have been affected by the discovery, are welcome to observe, the event “is not a show-and-tell situation,” Hueston says, and no photographs will be taken during the ceremonies.
“The ultimate goal is to help Native students to be here at Dartmouth as the students they are meant to be, and to be able to move on,” she says.
After an internal audit found that some human remains previously believed to be non-Native are in fact Native American, Dartmouth has undertaken an external review of all skeletal remains in its possession. Dartmouth has worked to communicate directly with all current students, faculty, and alumni who may have unwittingly handled the ancestral remains or taken classes in buildings where the remains were previously housed. The ancestral remains have been moved to a secure off-campus site managed by the Hood while museum staff consult with tribal communities and work to repatriate the remains, following the legal framework established by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The provost is convening a task force to address institution-wide issues that go beyond NAGPRA, including the handling and repatriation of ancestral remains determined to be non-Native American and those from other countries.
Dartmouth community members who have questions can write to firstname.lastname@example.org.