Statement from Vassar to parents, alumnae/i on NAGPRA compliance

Dear all,

I am writing to inform you of a disturbing matter and to let you know what we are doing in response. Last semester, a professor of Anthropology told the Dean of the Faculty, who told me, that the professor suspected Native American human remains and cultural items were being stored in Blodgett by a faculty member, who had retired several years ago. We now believe that the remains were collected for research in the 1980s and 1990s at the request of the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), who owned the land and was concerned that looting and erosion were imminent.

When we were alerted to the issue, we immediately began our investigation. We took steps to safeguard the remains and notified the authorities that administer the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). It has taken time to understand (and we are still learning) the scope of the human remains and cultural items; time to secure them properly; time to collect all the records relating to them; and—most important—time to identify the communities with which the remains belong. At every step of the way, we have been guided by NAGPRA as we undertake the long process of repatriation.

The remains of these Indigenous peoples have not been afforded the dignity and respect that they deserve. This is not in keeping with the values that underpin the College, and it is not aligned with the community that we aspire to be. On behalf of the College, I apologize.

Passed by Congress and signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990, NAGPRA is premised on the principle that human remains “must at all times be treated with dignity and respect,” and that human remains and other cultural items removed from Federal or tribal lands “belong, in the first instance, to lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.”

We are committed to ensuring, now and in the future, that Vassar fully, faithfully, and promptly adheres to NAGPRA. In addition, we have begun working with officials from the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), which is in contact with the tribal communities from which the remains came, to return them as soon as possible. We have learned from a NAGPRA expert and Indigenous cultural consultants that many specific considerations are critical to ensure that the repatriation is handled appropriately, and have been advised this will take some time. Please know that this is a priority for the College. We are proceeding with the utmost compassion and respect, following protocols set by NAGPRA, USFWS, and Indigenous cultural consultants.

Among the issues we have learned about in the process, for example, is that we should not identify the communities from which these remains came, but rather allow the tribal contact from the USFWS to speak first to the descendants in the villages. Thus, while some have asked us to identify the communities, please understand that out of respect for this process, and these communities, we cannot do this at this time.

While moving ahead on repatriation, we are also conducting a campus-wide assessment to determine whether other materials covered by NAGPRA exist on campus, and if so, make sure that they are repatriated properly. Additionally, we have started a Task Force (led by the Associate Dean of the Faculty, Kate Susman) to develop procedures and guidelines so this situation will not be repeated.

My heart goes out particularly to Vassar’s Native American students, faculty, administrators, staff, and alumnae/i, and I acknowledge and profoundly regret the pain that this has caused to the entire community. We are committed to affirming our responsibilities to Indigenous peoples in and of our community. We are also dedicated to intentional processes of healing.

Since the campus community was notified last week, we have taken a number of steps to reach out to members of our community. The history department has already convened a faculty and student conversation about what happened as well as how we can better support Native American and Indigenous communities and education in the future. The anthropology department has scheduled such a discussion with faculty and students. The Dean of the College, Carlos Alamo, and I attended the Vassar Student Association (VSA) Senate meeting to answer questions, and I held an Open House in the President’s House for the community to be present with one another and share our disappointment, anger, and sadness. Dean Alamo and the team in his office continue to meet regularly in small groups and one-on-one with students who need support. Next week, Vassar will host Dr. Rae Gould, who is a Nipmuc National Enrolled Tribal Member and Associate Director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Brown University, and the ALANA Center will convene for a talkback the day after the lecture.

Several people have asked why we did not notify alumnae/i or parents a week ago when we notified the campus community. Perhaps we should have; however, we focused first on the process of attentively informing students and faculty, face to face, before turning our attention to talking with the wider world.

As we go through this process, we are committed to being transparent; however, USFWS and previous requests from the communities have asked us to go slowly and not overshare details of the situation out of respect for the communities. We considered creating a website where we could post updates; however, because of our concern that such sharing would interfere with USFWS procedures and potentially be viewed by the affected communities as disrespectful, we do not plan to do this at this time.

In closing, I am immensely grateful to the professor who discovered this information and brought it to our attention. It gives us as an institution the imperative to examine the ethics of how knowledge is generated more broadly. The sadness, sorrow, and pain this has caused are unfathomable.

As always, if you want to be in touch, please reach out by email and I am happy to talk further.

— Elizabeth H. Bradley, President

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