Gabrielle James grew up in New Mexico and is now a student in a very different world, elite Vassar College in New York. It’s been a bit lonely. In two years she has only met one other Native student.
Then two weeks ago even that world changed.
Vassar College President Elizabeth Bradley emailed students and faculty on Feb. 12 to inform them of “a disturbing matter.” Human remains had been found in a campus building, stored in an office space in Blodgett Hall by a retired faculty member.
Bradley says she learned about the remains last fall, but only sent the email recently.
Since then, Vassar has funded an expert to help them collect information about the remains including how many there are and where they come from. Vassar says it does not have any information on the specifics of human and cultural artifacts.
Vassar says it is complying with federal law, called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, that says Native human remains and cultural items must be “treated with dignity and respect.” It mandates that items are returned to the lineal descendants of the place they belong to.
Bradley says she is learning more every day.
“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,” Bradley said in an email to faculty and students.
It is alleged that the remains were gathered by Lucille Lewis Johnson, a Professor Emerita of Anthropology, who retired in 2014, after she gathered the remains as research materials during an excavation in Alaska, The Miscellany News reported.
Bradley did not confirm the name of the professor, but did say that the professor has been “very cooperative” by sharing the official permits she used to collect the materials.
Bradley also said the professor had been using Blodgett Hall as a lab and office space even though she was no longer teaching. Vassar sometimes lets “emeriti” professors continue to stay in their offices after they retire, which was the case in this situation.
Recently Bradley said the college has changed the locks on the professor’s office while the investigation is being done. She said the school will decide consequences in the future after they’ve completed a due process.
“… We’ve asked her to be out of her office and not really working,” Bradley said. “I mean she’s retired, so you can’t really put a retired person on leave.”
Before Vassar reported the incident, Gabrielle James, Diné, could be found attending class in the same building where the remains were found. Or in meetings to reinstate an organization to support Native students on campus.
Now James, along with other Native students and faculty at Vassar find themselves thrust into an unexpected spotlight in handling this situation.
“I’m still processing the news and information,” James said. “I feel that [Vassar administrators] could have handled the situation a lot better.”
Bradley has issued a formal apology on behalf of Vassar College. There have also been several events for students and community members affected by the news including an “open house” at Bradley’s home. Vassar administrators say they attended a student senate meeting to answer questions.
Most recently, Vassar’s Anthropology Department hosted Nipmuc scholar Rae Gould, the associate director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at Brown University, to talk about NAGPRA.
“I feel as if we should have done better and this was unacceptable,” Bradley said “… I think the larger picture is that Vassar is looking at this as a moment in which we can learn. And it opens an opportunity to, in the future, learn even more about what the Native American experience on our campus has been.”
For James, the “Native experience” at Vassar has meant that she didn’t meet any other Native students until she attended the crisis events hosted by the college.
“It takes a situation like this for Vassar to listen to the issues of Native people,” James said. “If other Native students hadn’t put pressure for more information, they would’ve kept details private.”
That was a major critique of students who expressed concern. In the initial reports of the incident, Vassar only sent a message to students and faculty. They did not include alumni, parents, or the general public.
“Perhaps we should have [included everyone]; 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,” Bradley said in the campus message.
Another critique from students has been that Vassar was trying to “curb the outrage” by issuing apologies immediately following reports. But some Native students say they weren’t grieving; they were angry.
“I don’t feel the way [Vassar administrators] think I do because I’m not sad,” said Xade Wharton-Ali, a Diné sophomore at Vassar. “I am angry and upset. The human remains don’t belong to my tribe. They don’t have any relation to me other than they are Indigenous remains. I’m not necessarily grieving but upset with how they are handling this.”
“The emails say ‘this is a hard time for all of us’ but that statement speaks for Native students,” Wharton-Ali said. “It erases our feelings by assuming that.”
Among the other responses to the investigation, Vassar says they will work as “fast as we can” to complete a full investigation. They will not publicly share the name of the tribal nation whose remains were taken in an effort to be respectful in honoring the community affected.
Vassar says they have also started a task force to develop and formalize procedures to avoid this in the future, though Bradley believes this is the first time remains have been found at Vassar. They are also conducting a campus-wide assessment to determine whether there are other items that need to be repatriated. Bradley says that Vassar’s art museum has confirmed that their collections are in compliance with NAGPRA.
“This is a meaningful moment for us,” Bradley said.
There has also been concern from Native faculty.
Molly McGlennan, Ojibwe, is an associate professor of English and Director of American Studies at Vassar. “Before all of this happened, there were only a few of us who even knew what NAGPRA was,” she said.
McGlennan first learned of the incident two days before students and other faculty knew. She says she was called into the dean’s office where Vassar administrators told her about the incident.
“I just wept,” McGlennan said. “It was just really really sad. But I was also mad.”
Since then McGlennan says she has tried to use her emotions as a way to advocate for greater resources for Native people at Vassar. McGlennan says a way to do that is through hiring.
“It has been my fight in the last 12 years to hire more Native faculty,” McGlennan said.
Another way is through educating, which she does in the Introduction to Native Studies class she is currently teaching. All 22 of her students are non-Native, she says. Since the incident happened, McGlennan says they have been reviewing repatriation laws, what it means and how it happens.
This fight is also difficult, she says, because there are so few Native students on campus. She estimates only five or six students are active on campus.
“The Native students just don’t have a critical mass to address these issues which makes it really difficult,” McGlennan said. “A lot of students come into my classes thinking colonialism happened in the past but now they’re seeing this up close and personal on campus … and I tell them colonialism continues to happen in the present day.”
Overall, she says, this whole chapter has been “emotionally taxing.”
“To be thrown into translating information between students and administration is not something I thought I would be doing,” McGlennan said. “But here I am. And I’ll continue to do it.”