In early 2021, the Harvard Peabody Museum issued a statement apologizing for its reluctance working with Tribes to return some remains and funerary objects. The social unrest of 2020 had reignited the conversation of returning ancestral remains and sacred objects to their people.
Since contact, Indigenous people and settlers have had a contentious relationship, particularly as settlers appropriated items from traditional Native homelands. These items included totem poles, funerary and cultural objects — even remains of Indigenous ancestors.
Examples include the Edward Harriman Expedition removing a Teikweidi memorial pole from Southeast Alaska in 1899. Or when anthropologist Aleš Hrdlička, an early 1900s Czech-born anthropologist known for unorthodox collection methods such as stripping decomposing flesh from bones, discarded the remains of an infant found in a cradleboard and sent it to the American Museum of Natural History.
“They didn’t have any shame, you know, taking even from graves,” said Rosita Worl, president of Sealaska Heritage Institute, a private non-profit cultural organization based in Juneau, Alaska.
Worl earned her master’s and doctorate in anthropology from Harvard University.
“They just came and took things off of graves,” said Worl, who carries the Tlingit names Yeidiklasókw and Kaaháni, and is Tlingit, Ch’áak’ (Eagle) moiety of the Shangukeidí (Thunderbird) Clan from the Kawdliyaayi Hít (House Lowered From the Sun) in Klukwan. “You think about Southeast, it was amazing that we even had anything left.”
Often remains would be removed from Tribes without consent or consultation and stored in university or museum collections — and even in international institutions.
“I mean, museums themselves are institutions of colonialism,” Worl said. “They came in, they expropriated cultural objects, human remains and more, often without the permission of Native American Tribes and others. What they saw as art, we saw as cultural objects.”
And the Indigenous peoples in the United States did not have much recourse until the early 1990s.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act — NAGPRA for short — gave Tribes a legal avenue to pursue the return of remains and some funerary objects.
NAGPRA requires publicly funded universities and museums to document and report the remains and funerary objects within their collection. The summaries are searchable by institutions, states where the remains are held and states and general regions of origin.
After a year that saw growth of the Black Lives Matter movement and toppling of colonial monuments and statues, the Peabody Museum announced in January it had about 15 remains of African Americans or those of African descent who likely lived before 1865 and may have been enslaved.
According to museum director Jane Pickering, the museum pledged to try to return those remains to the appropriate communities.
“We felt that this was the moment that the university really needed to engage with this issue,” Pickering said during a interview via virtual teleconference. “There are other institutions that have been thinking along these lines as well, but that it was time for us to really face up to that history as a university, as an institution.”
The release stated that a steering committee would help direct a “multi-year, cross-departmental initiative” to assess its procedures.
The Harvard Peabody collection includes several Alaska Native cultural objects and at least one report of remains from the Aleutians West region.
In a statement, Harvard Peabody said it was working toward consultations with Tribes to return remains and funerary objects in compliance with NAGPRA. And it pledged to develop better policies to address its previous reluctance of turning over some objects.
But Tribes and Native-based organizations like the Association of American Indian Affairs pushed back, questioning the museum’s process.
Shannon O’Loughlin is a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the chief executive and attorney for the association, which formed in 1922 to serve Indian Country by protecting sovereignty and preserving culture.
“Harvard tends to cause delay, refuses to make decisions. And often causes extensive burden on Tribes by forcing them to produce evidence of cultural affiliation so they have a long history,” she said.
O’Loughlin says she’s concerned Harvard-educated students would go on to other institutions and perpetuate the same harmful repatriation practices and procedures.
“They have developed their inventories out of alignment with what NAGPRA requires,” she said. “They’ve done so by failing to consult with tribes before they completed their inventory process.”
O’Loughlin says that Harvard Peabody categorized some remains and items as culturally unidentifiable — which means Tribes must provide even more evidence to make a claim.
“That a people can have control and dominion over other peoples to the extent of outlawing their religions and cultures and taking away those things that support that culture’s identity and health is its thinking about that, you know, today that institutions still carry on that that racism,” O’Loughlin said. “Much of their collections may be obtained from the theft and violence of other peoples. We wouldn’t allow that [today].”
Phil Deloria (Standing Rock Sioux Tribe) is a history professor at Harvard University, where he teaches subjects like environmental history and the American West. Deloria says a 2010 amendment to NAGPRA was supposed to lay out other pathways to repatriate culturally unaffiliated — or unidentified — remains.
“In that early moment, museums, institutions were required to prepare inventories to consult with Tribes on these inventories with the goal of identifying as many kinds of remains and cultural objects that could be culturally affiliated with tribes,” said Deloria, who also currently chairs the Peabody’s NAGPRA faculty committee.
“And there’s a certain kind of set of standards of evidence that suggests and many, many things end up in this kind of bucket of the culturally unidentified,” he said.
The Association of American Indian Affairs sent a letter urging Harvard Peabody to change its practices — and O’Loughlin hopes that Tribes have greater opportunity to go through the disposition process.
More than 600 people and organizations signed on in support of the association’s efforts.
Deloria says he recognizes the amount of work a Tribe must go through to make a claim, but it’s an important part of the process.
“I have come to the perhaps odd view that the bureaucratic process, the administrative apparatus, the research, the collaborative things, is a really important part of doing a kind of form of justice and honor to the to the objects and to the human remains,” Deloria said. “It’s also the case that an institution needs to make sure that they repatriating to the right people.”
Harvard Peabody claims it has repatriated about 30% of its collection. The Association of American Indian Affairs says that number is closer to 15%, and the museum may be counting remains it’s coordinating with other museums.
But for Sealaska Heritage President Rosita Worl, who worked in the Harvard Peabody Museum, the overall impact is clear.
“To see that they had 5,000 human remains after 30 some years, you know, I was horrified when I saw that,” she said.
NAGPRA was intended to give Tribes a pathway to return and repatriate cultural objects and remains. But it isn’t without its problems – and Tribes still have a lot of work to continue fighting for repatriation.
This is the first of a three-part series. The series in its entirety and an extended audio podcast can be found at knba.org.