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Harvard Pledges to Return Hundreds of Native American Hair Samples Housed at Peabody Museum

The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was founded in 1866.
The Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology was founded in 1866. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Tarah D. Gilles, Crimson Staff Writer

Harvard’s Peabody Museum on Thursday pledged to return hundreds of hair samples taken from Native American children who were enrolled in government-run schools in the 1930s and apologized for keeping the clippings in its collections.

The hair collection, amassed by anthropologist George Edward Woodbury between 1930-1933, includes samples from around 700 children spanning 300 native tribes.

“The Peabody Museum apologizes to Indigenous families and tribal nations for our complicity in the objectification of Native peoples and for our more than 80-year possession of hair taken from their relatives,” the museum’s director, Jane Pickering, said in a statement released Thursday.

The Peabody, which houses Harvard’s primary collections of anthropological artifacts, pledged to return the hair samples to families and tribal nations. The museum is in communication with tribal nations to begin facilitating the repatriation, Pickering said in an interview Thursday.

On a website the Peabody published Thursday about the Woodbury collection, it released a list of the Native tribes represented in the collection and named the U.S. Indian Boarding Schools where the clippings were taken. The museum has not made public the names of any individuals.

“We recognize that for many Native American communities, hair holds cultural and spiritual significance and the Museum is fully committed to the return of hair back to families and tribal communities,” Pickering said in the apology statement released Thursday.

Woodbury, who died in 1973, collected the hair samples while “researching potential connections between Indigenous communities to study human variation and support early anthropological theories around the peopling of North America,” according to the Peabody’s website. He left the hair samples to Harvard after he came to the school in 1935 to serve as an anthropology lecturer. They have remained in the Peabody’s collections since, housed in envelopes with the individuals’ biographical information.

Anthropological research conducted with hair samples in the early 1900s was often “carried out to support, directly or indirectly, scientific racism,” the Peabody’s website said. “Descriptions and measurements of hair types were used to justify racial categories and hierarchies.”

Woodbury published a 1932 paper based on the samples.

The returns are not covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items to their original owners’ descendants.

The announcement comes roughly two months after Harvard pledged to return the human remains of 19 likely enslaved people to their descendants when it released its long-awaited report on Human Remains in University Museum Collections. The report revealed that Harvard holds the human remains of an estimated 7,000 Native Americans in its collections — despite the 1990 NAGPRA requirement that it return them to their descendants. In accepting the report’s recommendations, the school agreed to speed up its return of the Native American remains.

The Woodbury collection hair samples were taken from students in the U.S. Indian Boarding Schools, institutions established in the mid-nineteenth century at which Native American children were often abused and mistreated.

“The Woodbury collection really felt like something that should be prioritized given the significance to those communities, given the history, given the connection to the Indian boarding schools,” Pickering said in the interview Thursday.

—Staff writer Tarah D. Gilles can be reached at tarah.gilles@thecrimson.com.

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