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Last Thursday, the Peabody Museum apologized for holding a collection of hair samples taken in part from Native American students at government-run boarding schools in the 1930s. Unfortunately, they are about nine decades late. The return of the samples to the families and tribes of the victims does nothing to erase the nonconsensual seizure of their genetic material, which took place under horrific conditions of abuse and cultural erasure; nor does it undo the collection’s likely contributions to the development of racist pseudoscience during the 20th century.
Nevertheless, we appreciate the Museum’s commitment to participating in the ongoing, University-wide reckoning with Harvard’s cruel stewardship of the human remains and cultural artifacts of enslaved people and Native Americans. It’s unfortunate that the return of these hair samples took so long, but we’re glad that it’s happening now.
This case is evidence that the Peabody is moving down a difficult and important path of institutional self-reflection. In the past, we’ve been critical of the Museum’s handling of Native American remains — especially its insufficiently proactive approach to identifying and returning them to their descendants and tribal communities. Just last year, pressure from outside advocacy groups like the Association on American Indian Affairs was necessary to prod the institution toward action on its duties per the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act; today, it’s heartening to see internally-prompted improvement on this front. For the Peabody to truly move towards ethical curation, it must continue to actively search its catalogs for evidence of historical malfeasance. It cannot wait for outside pressure before acting.
As Harvard re-evaluates its institutional relationship with Native American peoples, the University must hold cultural context paramount in its self-evaluation. On a naïve reading, the actions in this case — collection of hair samples and their use in anthropological study — may seem innocuous or even commendable in the pursuit of scholarship. However, in this case, the wrongdoing is clear because of the cultural context in which such actions occurred.
The samples came from students at horribly abusive boarding schools run for Native Americans; children were taken from their families, unable to consent to their enrollment in the schools or their treatment therein. Furthermore, many Indigenous communities place special cultural and spiritual value on hair. The immorality of keeping the samples is rooted in the context in which they were collected. As the Peabody and other Harvard museums rigorously evaluate their past, they must keep that lesson in mind.
We are pleased with the Museum’s announcement as a signal of the institution’s genuine dedication to acknowledging its past wrongs and working toward restoration. We hope this work will continue as rapidly as is feasible. All remains of Indigenous peoples held by Harvard must be returned to their rightful holders — and the Peabody ought not to rest until this task is completed.
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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