Harvard has human remains of 7,000 Native Americans: report

Harvard University is in possession of the remains of nearly 7,000 Native Americans – despite a 1990 federal law that requires the remains and cultural artifacts of Indigenous peoples to be returned, according to a leaked report.

The school’s newspaper, the Crimson, said it had obtained a draft report prepared by the steering committee on human remains in the Harvard museum’s collections, urging the Ivy League institution to expedite the return of the remains to the Native American tribes and descendants.

The Ivy League institution also holds the remains of at least 19 people of African descent who were likely enslaved at the time of their deaths.

“Our collection of these peculiar human remains is a stark depiction of structural and institutional racism and its long half-life,” the April 19 draft reads in its introduction, according to the outlet.

The committee was tasked in January 2021 to study how Harvard should handle human remains, the Crimson said.

A leaked report claims that Harvard University is in possession of the remains of nearly 7,000 Native Americans.
AP Photo/Charles Krupa

In the draft report, the committee said the remains “were obtained under the violent and inhumane regimes of slavery and colonialism” and that they “represent the University’s commitment and complicity in those systems. categorically immoral.

“Furthermore, we know that skeletal remains have been used to promote false and racist ideas of difference in order to confirm existing social hierarchies and structures,” he continued.

The remains are mostly housed at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology & Ethnography.

A mummified body about to be dissected at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in 1978.
A mummified body is prepared for dissection at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in 1978.
Photo by George Rizer/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Harvard President Lawrence Bacow, who commissioned the report, apologized “for Harvard’s role in collection practices that placed the academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency,” said reported the Crimson.

However, Professor Evelynn Hammonds, chair of the steering committee, blasted the Crimson’s decision to publish the leaked report, saying in a statement that “it is deeply frustrating” that the publication “chose to publish an initial draft report and incomplete”.

“The publication of this draft is an irresponsible report and deprives the Committee of the finalization of its report and associated actions, and jeopardizes the thoughtful engagement of the Harvard community in its publication,” Hammonds wrote.

The report of the Steering Committee on Human Remains in the Harvard Museum Collections urges Harvard to return the remains.
The report of the Steering Committee on Human Remains in the Harvard Museum Collections urges Harvard to return the remains.
Photo by George Rizer/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

The draft report listed 16 committee members, including several prominent scholars such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Philip J. Deloria and Randall L. Kennedy, according to the Crimson.

“Members of this committee have worked tirelessly to address a very sensitive and important topic within the Harvard community,” Hammonds wrote.

“The committee worked with the utmost respect for the subject and the people involved, as indicated in the leaked report,” the committee chair added.

In addition to the return of remains, the draft report calls on the university to create “a purpose-built space on campus” where human remains ethically stored by the university can be viewed and studied as “individuals.”

“Treating the remains of all individuals as one group for commemorative purposes is problematic and disrespectful,” the draft report states, according to the Crimson.

The leaked report also recommends that Harvard develop courses that address “problematic collections and how they reflect the university’s history.”

Hammonds said the committee plans to release its report once its work is complete.

“Once the Committee is ready to release our final report and recommendations, we look forward to the University sharing them publicly in a responsible and inclusive manner,” she wrote in the statement Monday.

News of the draft report comes about a month after Harvard pledged to spend $100 million to find and repair its close ties to slavery, The Washington Post reported.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 requires institutions that receive federal funds to return Native American cultural objects to the descendants of their original owners.

Nohemi M. Moore