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The Crime Scene of Stolen Objects at the Peabody

By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board.

Last month, the Peabody Museum gained our trust and support with their careful formation of a steering committee, serving as a swift and actionable response to their discovery of potential remains of enslaved people within their museum collections. But today, our faith in the museum has morphed into a tainted brand of withdrawal and doubt, as we are disappointed and appalled to discover that the same level of dedication and care has not been taken with the museum’s treatment of Native American human remains and cultural objects.

This disappointment emerges against the backdrop of the Association on American Indian Affairs’ recent letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow, which alleged that Harvard is in violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The letter detailed several legal and ethical missteps in Harvard’s handling of Native American human remains and cultural objects, including a failure to consult with tribal nations when completing inventories of collections.

Regrettably, it is within this context that the museum’s commitment to countering the effects of colonization and fighting broader injustice has begun to appear half-hearted, emerging as a discretionary form of dedication at best, and at worst, as an empty, futile promise.

Perhaps most pernicious about the University not returning such critical remains to their rightful holders is Harvard’s circumvention of the reality that it should not have been able to wield control of these items, to begin with. The University’s claim that these remains are “culturally unidentifiable” is what has allowed Harvard to maintain possession of these sensitive objects for so long. And yet, this claim is based upon a determination process that has excluded the participation of tribes themselves. In fact, of the “culturally unidentifiable” remains in Harvard’s possession, 96.75 percent have geographical identifiers that would enable tribal consultation and repatriation, according to AAIA. Inevitably, this underscores the superficiality of Harvard’s claims that they wholeheartedly seek to grapple with the troubles that have permeated the University’s past and present.

Indeed, the University’s failure to include tribal nations in their object identification process offers a worrisome, glaring testament to the entrenched colonial perceptions that have guided their treatment of rightful Indigenous property. The fact of the matter is that Harvard researchers are not the experts on Indigenous artifacts — tribes are.

Beyond that, all items which were not explicitly donated to Harvard are essentially stolen property — rendering their display not only misguided but dissolute. Even in pixelated form on their website, the University has no right to display the Native American items they possess, many of which are ceremonial and hold sacred value to Indigenous peoples.

To that end, the Peabody Museum must seek out the necessary consultation for these items to be returned to their rightful homes. Beyond that, the Peabody Museum also needs to engage with the more specific demands put forward by AAIA — from hiring an NAGPRA expert to help affiliate all “culturally unidentifiable” objects, to repatriating the countless funerary items it has misguidedly chosen to keep. In its current failure to meet such pressing demands, the Peabody Museum has displayed the same levels of entitlement that have empowered the deceitful acquisition of such precious artifacts in the first place.

For far too long, the Peabody Museum has placed academic research and intellectual inquiry over the most basic, fundamental requisites of restorative justice and decolonization. In fact, the museum’s intellectual pursuits have become dependent upon the imprisonment of Indigenous cultural and spiritual property, with their explorations relentlessly propounding systemic depravities in the name of academia. As we consider such realities, the museum’s past promises and attempts to reform their academic operations — such as their expressed efforts to more effectively consider the needs of tribal nations within their institutional framework — begin to seem glaringly unpropitious, as they do nothing to address the inherently problematic backbone of the museum’s overarching intellectual mission.

Beyond that, it is impossible to overlook the stark contrast between the museum's reactivity in responding to Native demands and their proactivity in beginning to repatriate the remains of enslaved people found in their collections. Indeed, in response to increasingly loud objections and demands, the University has begun to bolster its commitment to reckoning with its sordid ties to the institution of slavery; but still, it has markedly failed to extend that same consciousness to Harvard’s less discussed — yet equally perturbing — history of settler colonialism. Indigenous people hold substantially less agency within Harvard’s political framework, and these power dynamics are reflected in the Peabody’s neglect of their concerns.

Moving forward, it is our sincerest hope that the University develop better practices to acknowledge its part in a long, difficult history of institutional and physical violence against Indigenous people. This work must begin with meeting the immediate demands asked of the Peabody, but it also requires a much larger reconciliation: a reckoning with the implications of being situated on the traditional and ancestral lands of the Massachusett people and a genuine effort to dismantle the inflammatory missteps that have, as it stands, served to aggravate the traumas of a cruel and unrelenting past.

The Peabody Museum cannot serve an ethical and academic purpose so long as it remains a crime scene.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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