Native American leaders call on Harvard to return human remains

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While Harvard University acknowledges that its museum’s collection has held the remains of thousands of Native Americans for generations, some Native American leaders say the university is moving too slowly to release those remains to tribes for burial.

The student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, reported last week on a leak of a draft report from a steering committee examining what human remains are in the archives of Harvard’s Peabody Museum. According to the newspaper, the draft report says Harvard holds the remains of about 7,000 Native Americans, along with at least 19 people who were likely enslaved.

Harvard collected the remains during the era of British colonialism and legal slavery to conduct scientific research “to promote false and racist ideas”, the report acknowledges. A federal law in force since 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, obliges universities and museums catalog human remains in their collections and return them to affiliated tribes upon request.

Two Native American leaders said Harvard had enough information about the remains to turn them over, while another pointed out they shouldn’t have been collected in the first place. A fourth expressed appreciation for Harvard’s efforts so far.

The Harvard Crimson cites the report as saying that identifying the provenance of the remains “could include DNA or other analysis for the express purpose of identifying lineal descendants.”

But Shannon O’Loughlin, CEO of the Association on American Indian Affairs and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, said that shouldn’t be necessary because most remains have enough associated geographic information to determine. where they are. of.

“It’s a pretty simple process,” O’Loughlin said. “It’s not a scientific investigation. It doesn’t require any research or DNA evidence. In fact, the law specifically says no further research is needed. The museum is supposed to use the information it already has and consult tribes, and the tribes share the information they have, and the repatriation takes place.”

Federal law requires that remains be repatriated to “culturally affiliated” tribes, meaning that there is a shared cultural identity that can be historically traced between the remains and a current tribe.

Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, president of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, said Harvard is using the requirement as an excuse to slow repatriations.

“From our perspective, it’s just a way of these facilities — whether it’s the Harvard Peabody Museum or any other museum or conservation facility — it’s a way of hanging on to our ancestors and saying, ‘Oh , we don’t know who to give them back to,” she said. “Yeah, you do. [The federal law is] pretty clear about that.”

Federally recognized tribes in the Northeast, she said, have enough cultural affiliations to handle many repatriations.

“We are related by blood, we are related by tradition, we are related by culture and we are related by language. So anyone in the Northeast who is an Algonquian-speaking person would be considered culturally affiliated. “, she says.

The Crimson cites the report as calling for a space on campus where the remains can be observed and studied with respect.

“There’s no such thing as ‘regarded and studied with respect’ when you’re talking about the human remains of our ancestors,” Andrews-Maltais said. “It’s absolutely repugnant in most Indigenous communities, let alone the rest of the world. So I don’t understand how Harvard, after all these years of working with us, can even verbalize something so offensive to the dignity of our ancestors. .”

The remains shouldn’t have been collected and stored on shelves in the first place, said Jessie Little Doe Baird, founder of the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project and former member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council.

“The people’s bones that they hold on the shelves are people’s mothers, daughters, sons, fathers, sisters and brothers,” she said. “Unless I donate my body to science, it’s never okay for someone to keep a shelf for me, to keep my remains on a shelf.”

Baird said she was not surprised by the number of individual human remains in the Harvard collection, noting that the collection at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, is several times larger. In 1987, just three years before lawmakers passed the repatriation law, the Smithsonian held approximately 34,000 skeletal remains, 14,500 of which were of Native North Americans. The institution has since repatriated the remains of more than 6,000 people.

In a written statement, Evelynn Hammonds, a professor of the history of science and African and African-American studies who chairs the Harvard steering committee studying the issue, focused on the leaked draft report.

“It is deeply frustrating that the Harvard Crimson chose to publish an initial and incomplete draft report of the Committee on Human Remains,” she said. “The release of this project is an irresponsible report and deprives the Committee of the finalization of its report and associated actions, and jeopardizes the thoughtful engagement of the Harvard community. in its output. Additionally, he shares an outdated version with the Harvard community that does not reflect weeks of additional information and committee work.”

She said the committee looked forward to sharing the report “responsibly and inclusively” once it is complete.

John Peters Jr., executive director of the Massachusetts Indian Affairs Commission, said he was in the room where Harvard stored the remains, when he was working to recover members of his own tribe – the Mashpee Wampanoags.

“It was quite an experience to go in there,” he said. “Boxes stacked on the ceiling from different ancestors around the world. It was quite emotional to be in there. Quite emotional.”

Peters credits Harvard with making an effort to repatriate the remains.

“There were a few issues over the years, but I think they finally realized it was in their best interests to do their best to return those ancestors,” he said.

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