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The Reality of Harvard’s Commitment to Indigenous Repatriation

By Hannah Eliason, Contributing Opinion Writer
Hannah Eliason is a first-year master’s student in Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School.

While most of our student body was busy working during Indigenous People’s Day, a gathering of over a 100 people celebrated with speeches, dances, and activities. However, this joyous occasion is darked by Harvard’s continued delay in returning Indigenous sacred artifacts and remains that reside across the institution.

Earlier this year, Harvard’s role in slavery and colonialism boiled to the surface with the release of the 2022 Harvard and The Legacy of Slavery Report. While the publication of the report was certainly a positive step towards rectification, it must be supplemented by an active commitment by students, professors and Harvard affiliates to ensure real change occurs at all levels of the institution. This commitment includes following the United States Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires the federal government and federally funded institutions to return Indigenous sacred objects, funerary objects, and human remains. Under the original act, institutions had until 1995 to catalog and return any and all objects that fell within the criteria. Yet, 27 years after the inventory’s deadline, the Legacy of Slavery Report states that at least 6,400 Indigenous remains reside at Harvard, along with some 13,600 sacred and funerary objects that aren’t affiliated with any specific tribe, according to federal NAGPRA databases. It is therefore clear that the NAGPRA Act is not being enforced effectively at many federally funded institutions — Harvard included.

Numerous Indigenous leaders have called out Harvard for the prolonged delay in the return of these remains and artifacts. Many federally funded institutions continue to draw out the lineage process of Indigenous sacred artifacts and remains, despite NAGPRA explicitly stating that in cases of unidentifiable remains and items, the pertinent stakeholders must return them to tribes from the Native lands from which the artifacts and remains were originally taken. This June, following the leak of an unfinalised version of the University report, the CEO of the Association of American Indian Affairs, Shannon O’Loughlin, expressed that the process of identifying the appropriate destination for remains was “not a scientific investigation,” and called on the University to follow the law that explicitly states that “no additional research is necessary” and that “the museum is supposed to use information it already has and consult with tribes” before conducting unnecessary, delay-ridden research.

Likewise, in 2021, the Association of American Indian Affairs explicitly stated in a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow that “you have significantly more deceased Native people in boxes on your campus than the number of live Native students that you allow to attend your institution,” a mathematical certainty. When Ancestors cannot be buried and sacred items are not returned, long-established trends of America’s colonial history of ‘othering’ Native populations and their traditions are reproduced, whether intended or not.

Despite Harvard’s promise to reckon with its legacy of slavery and colonialism, affiliates across the institution have expressed that there is not a strong commitment to acting with efficiency, as demonstrated through the delayed completion of the NAGPRA guidelines for 27 years. Although Harvard created a Human Remains Returns Committee in September 2022, it is unclear whether this would speed up the process or purely provide another bureaucratic hoop to jump through. Throughout academia there is a long history of institutional forces being intertwined with white supremacist agendas. Therefore, in the creation of this committee, the potential influence of institutional forces that may inherently undermine the committee’s progress must be taken into account. A committee of this nature should exist at our institution in the effort of repatriation, but a major issue facing this committee would be that the governing body and investigating party are one and the same. There needs to be a third-party, independent committee that ensures the University is abiding by NAGPRA.

It is important to acknowledge that implementing NAGPRA is a widespread problem across universities, museums, and other federally funded institutions. Reclaiming artifacts is a lengthy and often expensive process for various Indigenous communities in the United States. As repatriation request processes differ from institution to institution, there is no uniform waiting period for communities receiving their rightful property. Some schools, like Harvard, have struggled in parting with history, leading to delayed repatriation. However, others have recently moved forward the communal effort of returning remains and sacred items. During the period from August 2020 to August 2021, UC Berkeley “[transferred] at least 297 individuals and 15,792 of their belongings back to tribes.” Similarly, earlier this year Vassar College completed its return of all Indigenous artifacts in their archaeological collections. These schools follow the lead of others like UNC Chapel Hill and Stanford, among others, in the rightful return of stolen items and remains. These universities prove that prompt, careful attention to detail of Indigenous artifacts is possible if the commitment to doing so is sincere and devoted enough institutional resources.

Harvard’s decisions and actions in the following months will demonstrate its sincerity — or lack thereof — to repatriate Indigenous remains and sacred artifacts. Harvard’s recent pledge to return the hair samples taken from Native American children in Peabody Museum to the rightful tribes is a positive act, but it is not enough. The wellbeing and success of Indigenous students currently at Harvard must be prioritized as well. As Ph.D. candidate in Harvard’s History Department Anthony M. Trujillo, expressed in The Crimson, “this university just can’t ignore Indigenous life, thought, creativity, if it wants to be a leading institution in the next years and decades, centuries to come.” Returning the hair samples, in addition to the remainder of Indigenous remains currently in the University’s possession, cannot be the end all of Harvard’s commitment to its Indigeneous affiliates. More action must be taken to support and center Indigenous voices as well. This lack of creativity in finding solutions hampers everyone and we, as Harvard students, need to decide what kind of institution we want to cultivate.

As Harvard continues to drag its feet, it is up to us, both Indigenous people and allies, to amplify the voices of our Indigenous classmates. Speak out against the injustices and violence that continues against Indigenous communities as time passes by. If we commit to shining a constant spotlight on Harvard’s moral hypocrisy in returning property to Indigenous communities, especially given the broader context of Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery Report, then there is a great possibility for change and transparency across the institution.

Hannah Eliason is a first-year master’s student in Theological Studies at the Harvard Divinity School.

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