As College works to comply with NAGPRA, community interrogates institutional, academic history

Above, two plaques in the Blodgett Hall archway. The building was originally home to Vassar's Euthenics Department and several eugenicist classes in the early 20th century. The plaque on the right is curiously blank.

[CW: This article discusses eugenics, anti-Black racism, and anti-Semitism and references a history of genocide.] 

 Vassar College is situated on Delaware Nation, Delaware Lenape Tribe and Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican lands. 

On Wednesday, Feb. 12, President Elizabeth Bradley released an emailed statement to the faculty and student body detailing the discovery of Native American human remains and cultural artifacts in a campus building. She stated that storing the remains, which had been acquired in the 1980s and 1990s, violated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). NAGPRA was enacted by the 101st U.S. Congress in 1990, and dictates that human remains—which fall under the classification of cultural items—shall be expeditiously repatriated to the direct lineal descendants of the individual or tribe who controlled them (Cornell Legal Information Institute, “25 U.S. Code § 3005. Repatriation,” 11.16.1990). 

Bradley affirmed that Vassar is committed to complying with NAGPRA guidelines moving forward, beginning with the repatriation of these remains and cultural artifacts. As Vassar has contacted NAGPRA authorities about this violation, it is now officially in compliance for the next six months. The first step in adhering to NAGPRA standards is contacting the relevant tribes about the objects, a process known as “summaries.” Native groups, not the College, are responsible for determining which items are of cultural significance. Vassar is currently working with a NAGPRA consulting firm, Bernstein and Associates. Bernstein and Associates is contacting the Alaskan Office of Fish and Wildlife, who in turn are contacting the community from whom the remains were taken. This regional branch of Fish and Wildlife is the same branch that requested the professor excavate the remains in the 1980s, and they have asked to write summaries of the objects in place of the College. 

Regarding the ongoing efforts, Bradley stated, “We are moving as fast as NAGPRA is allowing us to move … We will not be the ones slowing it down.” Since Congress passed NAGPRA in 1990, permits allowing the collection of Native artifacts have changed. Explaining how human remains came to be on campus, Bradley described, “The professor collected these as part of their research, under permits that were legitimate at the time, but are absolutely not now. These are old, worked on long ago. The permits are very clear, and were attained in a way that had some regulation around it, but clearly other things should have happened in 1990.” The NAGPRA infraction is not due to the acquisition, but due to the fact that the professor did not adhere to the terms of the excavation by returning the materials after NAGPRA was passed.

Bradley also expressed sympathy toward Vassar’s Native American community in her emailed statement: “We are also dedicated to intentional processes of healing. Let us be present with each other and mindful of how this may affect our community.” She offered to open her house to students on Sunday, Feb. 16 as a place for discussion. Dean of the College Carlos Alamo-Pastrana contacted students whom the College lists as Native American/Indigenous/Alaskan Native in another email following Bradley’s in which he encouraged them to reach out for any support they felt necessary and informed them of upcoming events regarding NAGPRA. 

In an interview with The Miscellany News, Associate Professor of Anthropology April Beisaw explained that she was the first to raise concerns related to the storage of remains in the basement of Blodgett Hall. Beisaw teaches the only undergraduate course in the country that solely focuses on repatriation and has published multiple papers on the subject. “It’s been difficult for me as my suspicions turned into assurances, and as I tried to get to the point where I had enough evidence to convince my colleagues that I knew what I was talking about and that I wasn’t wrong,” she described. 

Beisaw was hired to replace Professor Emerita of Anthropology Lucille Lewis Johnson, who had gathered the remains as research materials during excavations in Alaska. Johnson, who joined Vassar College in 1973 and retired in 2014, taught ethnography, defined as the descriptive study of living or recent cultures, in multiple archaeology and Native studies classes, though none specialized in Alaskan Native studies. She also published a paper titled “An Archaeological Survey of the Outer Shumagin Islands, Alaska” through Vassar in 1984. Her biography on Vassar’s Anthropology Department page states, “Her archaeological research has taken her to many parts of the world with particular focus on insular Alaska and the mid-Hudson Valley and has been supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society and Vassar” (“Faculty and Staff,” Vassar Anthropology). 

When she was first hired, Beisaw noticed that boxes of items were disappearing from Johnson’s office but no tribe representatives had come to campus to retrieve them. She brought these concerns to her superiors in the Anthropology Department. “Some of my questions weren’t being answered to a level that I was completely comfortable with,” she said. “But it’s hard to put an actual time on it, because a lot of times my questions were answered, and in a way I thought it was fine.” 

Only recently did Beisaw realize she had evidence to substantiate her suspicions. When moving boxes in Blodgett last year, she saw items that gave her pause: “I started seeing things that were raising more questions, so I started asking more questions last year. [Johnson] stopped having answers.” After Beisaw convinced the department that enough evidence existed to claim Johnson had remains and artifacts in her possession, the department contacted Dean of Faculty Bill Hoynes in October 2019. Hoynes proceeded to contact the administration. “There wasn’t ever a time where there was an intentional cover-up, but there were 30 plus years of someone who was a respected member of the community reassuring people not to worry,” Beisaw summarized.

On Friday, Feb. 8, five days before Bradley emailed the student body, Johnson finally provided a list of her collections. Beisaw indicated that she and other members of the Anthropology Department with archaeological backgrounds spent the weekend explaining the findings to administrators. 

“Even now we don’t completely know what we have, because only she knows what’s in all the collections,” said Beisaw. Alamo-Pastrana confirmed that remains and artifacts, which include remains from more than one individual, were from Alaska, although neither he nor Bradley confirmed the name of the tribe to which the remains belong, the precise location of their origin, nor that Johnson had procured them. In deference to the tribe or tribes with whom the items belong, The Miscellany News will not disclose their name or names, and discourages members of the College from searching for or releasing such information. 

In a Feb. 16 Vassar Student Association (VSA) senate meeting, Bradley, as well as Alamo-Pastrana, spoke to dozens of students in attendance about how the discovery of the remains and artifacts on campus was first brought to her attention, as well as the ongoing efforts to comply with NAGPRA. Bradley commented, “Dean Hoynes worked with [Associate] Dean [of the Faculty Kathleen] Susman to get NAGPRA involved immediately … We did not disclose it at the time, although we began taking care of it immediately.” The stated focus during this period was to ensure that all appropriate measures were undertaken properly. Speaking to this delayed reaction, Beisaw later noted, “I would have liked for things to move faster, but we didn’t have all the evidence until very recently.” A statement was released to parents and alumnae/i on Tuesday, Feb. 18. 

Beisaw, like Bradley, emphasized that bringing collections into compliance with NAGPRA is a long process. “Some things other than bodies in Native culture are alive and are treated as if they are human beings or ancestors, so it’s not something that an amateur could just look at,” she said. Beisaw explained that the standard form of contact is government to government, saying that “President Bradley is our government, and communications that come from Vassar should come from her instead of every individual.” She stressed that students should not at any point try to contact the tribe.

At the same VSA meeting that Bradley and Alamo-Pastrana attended, students offered comments on Vassar’s response. Phoebe Davin ’23 stated, “The amount [the College has] tried to protect the institution instead of the people we’ve robbed, especially their ancestors? I’m so disappointed in this institution.” Several other students voiced the criticism that administrators had failed to maintain appropriate levels of transparency with students, faculty, parents and alumnae/i about the ongoing process of repatriating the remains under NAGPRA. Nika McKechnie ’21, who identifies as a Native woman, said, “Native people on this campus have so deeply been erased and violated to objects as past study.” She described the storage of the remains as “a violation of humanity, and of personhood, and it flattens these individuals until they’re nothing—just bones in a basement.”

Xade Wharton-Ali ’22, a Native-identifying student, shared similar sentiments during the period before the College notified parents and alumnae/i of recent events: “That the school kept this situation private for so long is extremely inappropriate and makes it seem like they value their reputation, how they look, more than their students. Also, the fact that [the administration] has not informed parents or alumnae/i of the situation points to the same lack of consideration.”

Additionally, many students pointed out the dearth of Native faculty members and programming to support Native members of the College. Referencing the Exploring Transfer program, Alamo explained, “We learned that [Native students] had specific needs about being back in touch with their homes and their communities that differed from the needs of other marginalized groups on campus.”

Immediately following the news of the discovery, the Native and Indigneous Student Alliance (NAISA) was reinstated by the VSA. Gabrielle James ’22, a Diné student, will serve as president. She described reviving NAISA as important in giving underrepresented members of Vassar’s community a voice and creating a safe space for Native and Indigenous students. James stated, “NAISA will play a vital role regarding the promotion of education and awareness of Indigenous issues on campus and within the community.” 

She continued, “Recruiting more Native American students and hiring more Native American faculty should be a priority. Until last week, I knew one other Native American student on this campus. It’s unacceptable that it takes a horrible event like this for me to meet other Native American and Indigenous students at Vassar. Now, more than ever, our presence and voice is crucial on campus.”

In a later interview with The Miscellany News, Associate Professor of English and Director of American Studies Molly McGlennen, the sole faculty member who teaches Native Studies full-time, further emphasized not only the need for representation of Native people across all areas of the College, but for structural change to the College’s very academic practices: “Where is the Indigenous intellectual leadership in any of this, when will this happen, when will this come? When will Native Studies be taken seriously? When will we have other Native professors and intellectuals on this campus to bring that leadership—to unsettle the colonial foundation, which continues to allow for this and justify these types of scholarly practices?”

The issue extends beyond regulatory changes or a single professor’s research. Vassar has not only failed to adequately engage with Native communities in the present, but has participated in—even been at the forefront of—a long history of exploiting human bodies for purported academic ends. 

Blodgett Hall, where the remains were stored, was originally purposed as Vassar’s euthenics building. It also housed eugenics classes. Euthenics, which is defined as “racial improvement through environment” (Vassar Quarterly, “The Clearinghouse Dedication of the Euthenics Building,” 05.01.1929) was founded by Vassar alumna Ellen S. Richards, who noted that the euthenics and eugenics would “go hand in hand” and that “by developing them together it will inevitably create a better race of men” (Richards, “Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment,” 1910). 

Vassar’s particular history with race science and the dehumanizing use of human bodies for academic purposes neither began nor ended in Blodgett. In 1914, The Miscellany News’ premier weekly issue included a “Faculty Notes” section which describes case work for charitable foundations in the following manner: “The work extends more widely than the individual case which is investigated, having a very definite relation to larger movements, such as the movement for eugenics. The interest in case work is steadily increasing and its future is even greater than its past. But it must be strengthened by the assistance of college graduates as workers” (The Miscellany News, “Faculty Notes,” 05.08.1914).

While most mainstream academic institutions recognized eugenics as the fringe science it was—Harvard, for example, declined a $600 donation to found a course in eugenics in 1927 because “it cannot pledge itself to teach any particular branch of that subject” (The Miscellany News, “Harvard Rejects Legacy,” 11.05.1927)—race science was entrenched in the Vassar curriculum and faculty throughout most of the early 20th century. During the period between 1915 and 1937, as documented in Vassar Special Collections, Professor Aaron Treadwell of the American Eugenics Society taught the popular course “Heredity.” The course was described as “a study of heredity…and results of recent investigations and their application to Eugenics.” In 1951, the language was changed to “how genes may be applied to some sociological, medical, and economic problems.” In 1964, the language was removed entirely. The Zoology Department, predecessor to the Biology Department, housed classes called “Advanced Physical Anthropology,” “Anthropology of the Negro” and “Anthropology of the North American Indian.” Examining the phenotypes and heredity of non-white bodies was a component of these classes. 

Vassar’s Sister Schools had professors who participated in race science on an individual basis, and published papers in several eugenics publications, such as one paper that compared the decreased birth rate of educated women educated at Wellesley, Bryn Mawr and Mount Holyoke to those of non-educated women. At Vassar, Professor of Economics and Sociology Joseph K. Folsom alluded positively to the “far-reaching sterilization policy…of the Third Reich” as late as 1934, when he published his sociology textbook “The Family,” by which time national interest in the eugenics movement had mostly evaporated. Dr. Elizabeth B. Thelberg, who served as Vassar’s college physician for 47 years (The New York Times, “Ends 47 Years at Vassar: Dr. Elizabeth B. Thelberg Is Honored as She Retires,” 10.31.1930) gave public lectures in which she spoke about “shutting off the flood of defective races rapidly swamping the country,” in the 1910s, in a personal report to then Vassar President James Taylor. Treadwell of the Zoology Department noted that his students were “hoping…to be able to control race themselves” for all “its strengthening and perfecting” (The Miscellany News, “College News: Lecture: Biology by Professor Treadwell,” 05.01.1911). Vassar remains the only Seven Sisters college to include mentions of eugenics in their course catalogue.

Faculty were not alone in their propagation of race science on campus; students participated fully and enthusiastically as well. Several Vassar students in the early 20th century worked in the field after graduation by participating in a campus internship program hosted by leading eugenicist Charles Davenport (PBS, “The Eugenics Crusade,” 10.16.2018). One alumna, Elizabeth Howe, was elected to the Council of the American Eugenics Society (Vassar Quarterly, “Contemporary Notes,” 07.01.1931), of which Folsom would become chairperson in 1937 (Marriage and Family Living, “News and Notes,” 05.1941). While at Vassar, some students invited proto-feminist Margaret Sanger to campus under the title “Mrs. Margaret Sanger, President of the American Birth Control League for Racial Betterment” (Vassar Quarterly, “Babies, Brains, and Euthenics,” 01.09.1926). A science club was also devoted to “racial improvement,” which The Miscellany News spotlighted in an article chillingly titled “College Women Put Culture First” (The Miscellany News, 11.09.1921). 

The broader field of anthropology itself has its roots in imperialism. When Europeans first came into contact with societies in the Pacific, the Americas, Africa and Asia, they not only extracted economic and thus social benefits from colonial hegemony, but sought to study the scientific and cultural evolution of so-called “exotic” societies. Many anthropologists in the 19th and early 20th centuries used models of human evolution to justify European biological superiority (Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia, “Anthropology,” 2003). Eugenics found many supporters among anthropologists during this time period (Journal of Heredity, “Anthropology and Eugenics: A Review of Some Recent German Publications.” 09.1931). As Beisaw noted, “No discipline is necessarily innocent in the acquisition of other cultures, the use of bodies for teaching.”

The history of the academic disciplines and Vassar’s institutional history permeates through to the present: Bradley indicated that the reason she did not disclose the name of the building at which the remains and cultural artifacts were placed in her initial email was that the College must first “make sure that it isn’t just related to one place, that this isn’t one building,” suggesting that the College is uncertain if Blodgett is the only location that retains items in violation of NAGPRA. 

Beisaw expressed further concern about other possible NAGPRA violations on campus. Specifically, she pointed to the collection at the Frances Lehman Loeb Arts Center, which does not list a NAGPRA compliance policy on its website. One item in particular, a Hopi katsina acquired in 2011, troubled Beisaw.

“Some Hopi katsinas are made for the art market, some art made for the tourist market for $5…but the actual real kastinas are sacred, and the only people who are supposed to see them are the people who are in the society representing the katsina,” she said. “When this collection was acquired, did anybody do the NAGPRA compliance on it? It might have already been done. But it might not have been.” Beisaw outlined the importance of taking this incident as a learning experience and ensuring that all departments examine their collections to verify compliance.

Alongside these specific investigations, McGlennen pointed to the need to interrogate colonialism inherent in educational structures. She explained, “We are all complicit in this whether we knew about it or not, because we are tied to this institution. If we truly acknowledge and honor Native peoples as we say we do in land acknowledgements, if we are serious about our Engaged Pluralism Initiatives, then we have to see that this is not just one person who made a mistake or a bad actor. That, in fact, we have all turned a blind eye to this, ignored that this could take place in a colonial institution, when we know very well that this is what colonialism allows for.” 

Moving forward with the case itself, Beisaw emphasized the importance of returning power to the tribe or tribes to whom the remains and artifacts belong—this transfer is at the root of the word “repatriation.” “The [tribe or tribes] are the ones in control now,” Beisaw explained. “And if we try to push them to do things fast, to make decisions…then we’re going to do more harm than good.” Once the community has made their assessment, the College will be responsible for returning the remains through a courier service of which the tribe approves.

While she and Bradley acknowledged that NAGPRA compliance would take time, Beisaw is certain that the repatriation of the Alaska collection will proceed. “That will occur, and I will take full responsibility to make sure that it happens,” she said. She also expressed that racism, not academia, was the primary culprit—archaeology was responsible both for taking these remains and for beginning the process to return them to their proper home.

To create spaces for students to react to the findings, the History Department and History Majors Committee co-hosted an open conversation about President Bradley’s announcement and NAGPRA on Friday, Feb. 14. The Anthropology Department plans to host a similar discussion on Friday, Feb 21. On Thursday, Feb. 20, Friday, Feb. 21 and Monday, Feb. 24, the students of Biesaw’s class Museums, Collections, and Ethics will host “crash courses” on NAGPRA and repatriation open to all students. In addition, the History Department announced that Dr. Rae Gould, a member of the Nipmuc Nation and Associate Director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Brown University, would discuss NAGPRA on Tuesday, Feb. 24 in Blodgett Hall Auditorium. Gould will speak at an ALANA Center gathering the following day. 

Beisaw listed ways in which she believed students could help right this transgression. “Generally Americans—and not everyone on this campus is an American—are only taught about Native culture and history in third and fourth grade. It’s like playtime. And then everything else in their lives…can just be a reinforcement that Indians are gone … But the exact opposite is true. There’s all of these vibrant cultures,” she said. “The students can’t go through the boxes and identify what is tribally important … They can’t subvert the system and push for things to get done faster. But they can keep asking how the progress is going, and keep the pressure on that way, and they can become informed, at least on the areas here. They could invite guest speakers and they could ask for some sort of actual relationship between Vassar and Indigenous people in our area.”

The discovery of Native remains and their repatriation holds a two-fold significance in the history of the College. In addition to violating what is now long-standing federal law, the storage of the remains demonstrates casual disregard for the humanity of Indigenous people. When taken into consideration alongside the College’s physical presence on unceded Native land and past studies on eugenics, the remains emphasize the necessary labor that must be taken by Vassar College to correct previously accepted encroachment upon Native spaces. The case is currently being processed by federal officials of NAGPRA and any professors involved will undergo a research misconduct review.

[Notices and Corrections (02.17.2020): A previous version of this article quoted a student who mischaracterized the means through which the Native American remains were obtained. While the quote was accurate to the student’s original statement, the quote has been truncated to reflect new information. That same version misstated which Vassar president Professor Elizabeth B. Thelberg addressed in a personal statement. It was James Taylor, not Henry Noble MacCracken. Additional citations have been added to this piece to substantiate its assertions. Finally, our opening territory acknowledgement has been updated in consultation with Professor April Beisaw to include greater specificity about the tribes that once held the land on which Vassar is situated and to remove the reference to Wappinger land. The Wappinger people were a confederacy of nations that organized in opposition to Euro-American incursion, and do not have formal nation status.

(02.18.20): Language in this article has been altered to indicate that Blodgett Hall was purposed for euthenics, but was also home to eugenicist courses. The portion of the article which cites 1914 “Faculty Notes” from The Miscellany News was updated to include a greater portion of the relevant quote. Ellen S. Richards was not a faculty member at Vassar, but an alumna. Greater specificity was added to the citation “(Richards, 1910)”; it now reads “(Richards, “Euthenics: The Science of Controllable Environment,” 1910).” Dr. Elizabeth B. Thelberg was not a professor, but was instead the College physician. A citation was added to substantiate this information.

(02.20.20): This article has been revised and expanded.]

8 Comments

  1. Free association between a word carved on Blodgett Hall, its history, and the work of a serious archaeologist/anthropologist whose lab was inside it. Sophistry. F.

  2. As a Vassar alum who was born and raised in Alaska and knows Professor Johnson, the tone of this article is disappointing. As another reader noted, the free association between a plaque on a building and Professor Johnson’s work as a scientist is fallacious. I hope that the Administration and current student body take the time to get all the facts before rushing to judgments and conclusions. Professor Johnson dedicated much of her career to studying Alaska Native history and advancing knowledge of Alaskan Natives. I remember Professor Johnson as a brilliant teacher and a very warm and caring human being.

    • Just because someone is warm and caring does not mean that they can bring harm to marginalized communities and reinforce colonialism.

      • Absolutely! Many thousands of warm and caring people from the fields of archeology and anthropology greedily helped themselves to the contents of our Native burials to further their vested interests and careers. It was wrong then and it’s wrong now, and pretending there was no racism or devaluation of Native peoples involved in the process is also wrong. The issue at Vassar is more than a tempest in a teapot — it became a big deal when NAGPRA items began to disappear from the professor’s office after the ancestral remains were discovered by a colleague. It seems the warm and caring professor did not want to comply with the law, like so many before her. I also take issue with the following: “She (Beisaw) also expressed that racism, not academia, was the primary culprit—archaeology was responsible both for taking these remains and for beginning the process to return them to their proper home.” Archeology had nothing to do with beginning the process to return our ancestors – it was Native people who began this process, and we were met with stiff, racist and disdainful opposition from the discipline. I know. I was there. And the academy is most certainly one of the culprits – it fueled the theft of our ancestral burials for dubious research! They fought us every step of the way and many engaged in underhanded dealings like hiding the ancestral remains and burial property they wanted to keep. People should just stop trying to rewrite the history of the repatriation and reburial issue, you only make yourselves look worse when you do.

  3. This is just an embarrassing. This is tempest in a teapot; an anthropology professor neglected to repatriate some remains. The writer arrogantly and ridiculously uses this opportunity to go off on a completely unrelated screed on eugenics, which has zero to do with this particular incident. Not to mention the conflation of euthenics with eugenics. The Misc should take this down.

  4. First let me say that I worked on a reservation for 5 years and continue to maintain many friendships with those with whom I worked. The issues are much more complex than the writer understands. At the same time, I agree with the “former Misc writer” that this is a “tempest in a teapot.

    To illustrate how complex this issue is, guess which teams are most popular on the New Mexico reservation where I worked – the Redskins, Indians, Braves, Eagles (eagles and their feathers are sacred) and Cowboys. With all the brouhaha about the names of sports teams being so culturally insensitive, I was surprised to learn that! So I asked one of the chiefs of the tribe and a few other elders why this was so. Their response – those complaining are not Native American, and those who are, have lost touch with the roots and their culture (slightly paraphrased). This is a very short version of the explanation provided, but I did not wish to belabor the point. Those were their words, not mine, so if you disagree, please don’t shoot the messenger.

    • This is gross, ill-informed, and plays into tokenistic and abstract liberalistic fallacies in regards to race. If you can’t see a connection between this finding and the history of eugenics at Vassar, then please do some research and actually engage in learning about this subject before spouting ignorant opinions. This goes for every single person that’s commented. I’m so disgusted right now.

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