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July 9th, 2018

Repatriation of human remains from Dartmouth College

By Michel Patry

During June 2018, a team from Avataq Cultural Institute travelled to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire to collect human bones that had been removed from two graves in 1967. This was the first such undertaking for both Avataq and Dartmouth – both sides worked diligently to determine the most legal and sensitive ways of moving these skeletons across an international border.

In 1967, archaeologist Elmer Harp travelled along the eastern Hudson Bay coastline visiting sites located between Umiujaq and Kuujjuaraapik. After visiting and excavating sites in Richmond Gulf (Umiujaq), he and his team travelled southwards along the coast. Bad weather drove them to camp roughly halfway between modern Umiujaq and Kuujjuaraapik for a few days, where they came upon two grave cairns. These were traditional Inuit style graves in which the bodies were covered with large piles of rocks. One contained a single skeleton under a layer of spruce logs, which were covered with rocks; the other grave contained a mixture of bones. A sample of bones was selected from both of these graves and brought back to Dartmouth College. Recently, these were identified in the forensic anthropology lab of Dartmouth and found to include at leastsix individuals, including one young baby, one small child, two adult males and two adult females. This is a minimum estimate, and the actual number could be higher than this – since the skeletons are incomplete.

There were no regulations in 1967 governing the excavation of graves. Harp returned with these bones, along with archaeological material that he had collected from other sites during his field season. He died in 2009 and the human remains were discovered by his son Douglas Harp, who accompanied his father as a boy during the 1967 field season. He notified Dartmouth College and they, via Smithsonian archaeologist William Fitzhugh got in touch with Avataq’s archaeologist Tommy Weetaluktuk. A visit was arranged in order to repatriate the bones and bring them back to Nunavik for reburial.

Avataq’s President Josepi Padlayat with his family, Executive Director Rhoda Kokiapik, Local Cultural Committees’ Coordinator Nancy Palliser along with archaeologists Susan Lofthouse and Elsa Cencig, travelled to Dartmouth where they were warmly received. A handover ceremony with speeches and lighting of the qulliq took place. The skeletons, which had been carefully packaged, were transferred to the care of Avataq.

Great efforts were made to ensure that all legal ends were tied – contact was made with Canada’s Department of Heritage who provided a letter confirming their knowledge of the event, the Canadian Border Services, and Dartmouth’s legal consul who investigated all channels and drafted the handover document. The Canadian Consulate in nearby Boston sent a representative to the handover ceremony and he ensured that the border crossing was smooth for the Avataq team’s arrival.

A trip is being planned for August with the NVs of Umiujaq and Kuujjuaraapik to return to the two sites. These bones will then be reburied in their initial graves so they will be laid to rest.


Rhoda Kokiapik

Executive Director

Avataq Cultural Institute

1 866 897-2287

Photo 1

Avataq President Josepi Padlayat and Executive Director Rhoda Kokiapik greet Dartmouth anthropology department chair Ken Watanabe at handover ceremony.

Dartmouth College/Rob Strong

Photo 2

Josepi Padlayat and Rhoda Kokiapik sign handover document while Susan Lofthouse, Elsa Cencig and Nancy Palliser look on.

Dartmouth College/Rob Strong

Photo 3

Back row (L to R): Marc Jacques (Senior political and economic affairs officer of Canadian Consulate in Boston), Maurice Crandall (Prof. of Native American History), Elsa Cencig (Avataq Archaeologist), Jami Powell (Curator of Native American Art), Susan Lofthouse (Avataq Archaeologist), Douglas Harp (son of Elmer Harp), William Fitzhugh (Smithsonian Institute Archaeologist);

Front row (L to R): Josepi Padlayat (Avataq President), Nancy Palliser (Avataq Local Cultural Committees’ Coordinator), Rhoda Kokiapik (Avataq Executive Director), Deborah Nichols (Prof. of Anthropology), Ken Watanabe (Chair of Anthropology Department)

Dartmouth College/Rob Strong

Photo 4

(L to R) Jay Satterfield (Chief Archivist at Dartmouth Library), Elsa Cencig, Rhoda Kokiapik, Nancy Palliser, William Fitzhugh (Smithsonian Institution Archaeologist), Susan Lofthouse.

Dartmouth College/Rob Strong