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Editorials

Removing Native Artifacts Isn’t Enough

Last week, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology removed around 40 Native American and Indigenous artifacts from its exhibits.
Last week, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology removed around 40 Native American and Indigenous artifacts from its exhibits. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By The Crimson Editorial Board
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.

After years of slow-walking, Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has finally made a half-step toward ethical stewardship.

Last week, the Peabody removed around 40 Native American and Indigenous artifacts from its exhibits to comply with new regulations requiring consent from tribal groups for the display of some objects.

Harvard made the right decision in complying with the regulations, but legal compliance is the floor — not the ceiling. This step does not by half address the long, sordid history of Harvard’s colonial violence against Native and Indigenous peoples.

In its early years, Harvard and its affiliates perpetrated countless bloody atrocities against local tribes, christianizing them, enslaving them, and expanding onto their lands. Now, 400 years on, the University continues to hold and display many of the cherished objects expropriated in the process.

Harvard has long faced challenges over these holdings. A 2019 lawsuit challenged the University’s refusal to return daguerreotypes of a slave to a woman with credible claims to being his descendant. A 2021 letter from the nonprofit Association on American Indian Affairs accused Harvard of noncompliance with the federal statute governing Native remains and cultural objects.

In short, to redress its history of violence against Native and Indigenous peoples, Harvard has a long way to go.

That can begin with the very institutions whose display cases colonial violence has so often filled: museums.

Museums play an essential role in telling the story of cultures less known by the general public. The Peabody, for example, receives more than 250,000 visitors per year. Given this broad reach, this moment presents an opportunity for Harvard to consider how it can engage with Indigenous artifacts and their return in ways that will bolster — not hamper — education.

As it does so, Harvard must solicit and heed the perspectives of Native communities, with whom the Peabody should nurture standing, communicative relationships. On their request, the University should readily remove and repatriate Indigenous artifacts.

These relationships need not just be transactional, though — they can be generative. Collaborations with Native communities can produce new, innovative, and respectful ways of teaching Indigenous history, including through video, virtual reality, and other new media. With these techniques, museums can replace repatriated material objects and, often, convey aspects of history they can’t easily represent, like oral traditions.

Such an approach doesn’t just respect Native autonomy — it allows for a more authentic, immersive, and dignified telling of Native history.

Still, Indigenous education ought not end at the Peabody’s doors.

University-wide, Harvard must realize its untapped potential for the study of Native American culture and history. The University should increase Indigenous representation among tenure-track faculty, which counts just a single tenured Native American professor among its number, establish an ethnic studies department, and provide greater support to the Native American Program.

It’s said that the future is history. At Peabody, we are reminded that how we teach history can be the future, too. To reckon with Harvard’s crimes against New England’s original inhabitants, the University and the Peabody still have much to do.

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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