Harvard University’s Peabody Museum apologized on Thursday for its ownership of hair taken from hundreds of Native American children and announced a commitment to return it to their families and tribal nations.
“The Peabody Museum apologizes to Indigenous families, communities, 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 said in a statement.
Anthropologist George Edward Woodbury collected the hair samples for a study and donated them to the museum in the 1930s. A majority of the hair belonged to about 700 Native American children, representing about 300 tribal nations, who attended U.S. Indian Boarding Schools.
“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,” the statement said.
According to the museum’s website, communication with tribal officials is underway, and a process for the return of the hair is being developed. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federally funded agencies and institutions are required to repatriate cultural artifacts and belongings to Indigenous communities, as well as perform inventories of human remains and funerary objects in a collection.
The Peabody’s apology and announcement to return the hair collection comes a year after the Association on American Indian Affairs accused the Peabody of being in violation of NAGPRA.
“The actions of Harvard’s Peabody regarding NAGPRA and research practices are undeniably procedural forms of institutional racism and colonization that continue to cause great harm,” the Association on American Indian Affairs wrote in its letter to the museum in 2021. “Repatriation of Native American Ancestors, their burial belongings, and other sacred and cultural patrimony is absolutely a form of healing.”
Failure to comply with NAGPRA can result in a civil penalty. But more than 30 years after the law was enacted, colleges, museums and other institutions across the U.S. still own about 870,000 Native American artifacts, including nearly 110,000 human remains, according to a review conducted by The Associated Press on data from the National Park Service. In July, Founders Museum in Barre, Massachusetts, revealed a collection of items allegedly taken from Native Americans massacred in 1890 at Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota.
The Department of the Interior recently proposed revised regulations to improve the implementation of NAGPRA.