"A Very Intimate and Painful Reckoning"

Dean Claudine Gay on the Native American hair clippings in Harvard’s holdings

Peabody Museum
Peabody MuseumImage courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Daderot

During her regular remarks at a Faculty of Arts and Sciences meeting on Tuesday, Dean Claudine Gay took a few moments to address a recent “difficult revelation” from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, about hundreds of hair clippings taken from Native Americans during the 1930s. Anthropologist George Woodbury, a Harvard lecturer, amassed hair samples from Indigenous people around the world, including from approximately 700 Native American children attending U.S. Indian boarding schools. Woodbury’s collection was donated to the Peabody in 1938. In early November, museum officials published a website listing dozens of tribal nations represented in the collection and naming the boarding schools where hair samples were taken (the children’s names are also included in the collection, but have not been made public). A statement from museum director Jane Pickering, released along with the website, apologized to Indigenous families and tribal communities and pledged to return the clippings.

In her comments this week, Dean Gay went further, expressing remorse and offering a blunt across-the-board assessment of not just the Woodbury Collection but of other human artifacts in Harvard’s possession: “To state it plainly, at Harvard, the issue of whether Native American ancestors should be in our collections is clear—they should not.” Until now, that view had not been expressed so openly and comprehensively by Harvard administrators.

This recent news is part of a larger, decades-old controversy over compliance by Harvard and other universities with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), passed in 1990, which requires institutions to identify human remains, funerary objects, sacred items, and objects of Native American cultural patrimony as a first step toward returning them. In January 2021, President Lawrence S. Bacow announced in an email to the University community that a review by the Peabody Museum had found the remains of 15 possibly enslaved individuals of African descent within its collections, and that those holdings are among more than 22,000 sets of human remains possessed by Harvard. Bacow convened a steering committee to examine University policies regarding human remains in its museum collections, and the University apologized after receiving a February 2021 letter from the Association on American Indian Affairs, which accused Harvard of moral and legal violations for failing to fully identify and voluntarily return some funerary objects and human remains. 

Earlier this fall, the steering committee released its final report, revealing that the University still holds the remains of more than 6,500 Native Americans in its collections, despite NAGPRA requirements, and that in addition to the 15 people of African descent identified in Bacow’s original email, the Peabody Museum’s holdings also include the remains of four enslaved individuals from the Caribbean Islands and Brazil. Among the report’s recommendations was that the University “accelerate its implementation of NAGPRA legislation and the ethical and moral imperative it represents.” 

In her remarks on Tuesday, Gay cited the broader issue of NAGPRA compliance and the effort to speed up the process of repatriating human remains and Indigenous objects: “This includes doubling the size of the office that handles returns of Native American remains in the Peabody Museum,” she said, adding that, “The Museum has really dedicated itself to the ongoing process of addressing a history of early anthropological practices that essentially viewed and treated Indigenous peoples as objects of study.”

Turning to the Peabody’s collection of hair samples, she acknowledged “the painful and deeply personal impact this announcement has had for many Native American members of our community” and noted that the University is working with the Harvard University Native American Program, the U.S. Department of the Interior, and tribal nations to return the clippings to relatives. She also spelled out in plain terms the particular cruelty contained in this collection: in many Native communities, hair holds great cultural and spiritual significance, and during the colonial era, it became “a deeply contested site of meaning and struggle.” This struggle was particularly visible—“stark,” as Gay put it—in the federally run boarding schools for Indigenous children, which operated at 400 sites across the country between 1819 and 1969. Oral histories, she said, “detail the humiliation and grief of forced haircuts imposed on children—which were often a very powerful first step in forced assimilation, and it’s an act that has not been forgotten.” Today, most Native American families, she added, have relatives who attended these schools. 

“This collection has really personalized these painful legacies, and students—as well as faculty and staff, for that matter—have family, community, and tribal ties and histories that will shape the way they process this information,” Gay said. “We already know for a fact that there are several of our students and staff [who] have ancestors in the collections. Even for those who do not, the long roster of names for them to search through has nonetheless forced a very intimate and very painful reckoning.” She informed faculty members that just before the Thanksgiving break, the Harvard University Native American Program hosted a meeting with Native American members of the Harvard community to talk about the Woodbury Collection. “It was a very emotional discussion,” Gay said. “I share all of this with you because my hope is that we as faculty will pay attention and provide the support they may need at that time.” 

Emphasizing the continuing, present-day effect of a museum decision made nearly a century ago, Gay concluded, “This collection is a salient, and in some way only the latest, reminder that Harvard’s long history of various and shifting academic pursuits has created conditions that continue to have an impact on our current community. And we have a responsibility to those histories, many of which caused pain and harm to Indigenous communities.”

Read more articles by Lydialyle Gibson

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