Harvard University holds the human remains of at least 19 individuals who were likely enslaved and almost 7,000 Native Americans — collections that represent “the University’s engagement and complicity” with slavery and colonialism, according to a draft University report obtained by The Crimson.
The unfinalized draft report, produced by a committee charged with studying how Harvard should treat human remains in its museum collections, calls on the University to return the remains of individuals who were likely enslaved to their descendants — one of 13 initial recommendations. It also urges the school to accelerate its return of Native American human remains, which has been required by federal law since 1990.
The draft report, obtained by The Crimson last month, was created by the University’s Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections, which was formed in January 2021. The draft, dated April 19, is unfinalized, meaning its language, findings, and recommendations may change as the steering committee finishes its process.
Still, the draft report offers insight into the work of a committee grappling with one of the most fraught ethical questions Harvard faces today.
“Our collection of these particular human remains is a striking representation of structural and institutional racism and its long half-life,” the draft report’s introduction reads.
In a statement Monday, the steering committee’s chair, professor Evelynn M. Hammonds, wrote that “it is deeply frustrating that the Harvard Crimson chose to release an initial and incomplete draft report of the Committee on Human Remains.”
“Releasing this draft is irresponsible reporting and robs the Committee of finalizing its report and associated actions, and puts in jeopardy the thoughtful engagement of the Harvard community in its release,” Hammonds wrote. “Further, it shares an outdated version with the Harvard community that does not reflect weeks of additional information and Committee work.”
The steering committee was created after a review of the Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology found the museum housed the human remains of at least 15 individuals of African descent who were likely alive when slavery was legal in the United States. University President Lawrence S. Bacow apologized “for Harvard’s role in collection practices that placed the academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency.”
Bacow charged the steering committee with comprehensively surveying all human remains in Harvard’s museum collections, developing a new school-wide policy on the stewardship of the remains, and creating processes to address memorials and possible returns.
The draft report listed 16 committee members, including faculty, administrators, and museum staff. The group includes several prominent scholars, including Henry Louis Gates Jr., Philip J. Deloria, and Randall L. Kennedy.
“The members of this Committee have been working tirelessly together to address a highly sensitive and important topic within the Harvard community,” Hammonds wrote. “The Committee has been working with the utmost respect for the subject matter and the individuals addressed, as noted in the leaked report.”
The committee focused primarily on the human remains of Native Americans and 19 individuals who may have been enslaved, held principally in the Peabody.
“They were obtained under the violent and inhumane regimes of slavery and colonialism; they represent the University’s engagement and complicity in these categorically immoral systems,” the draft report says. “Moreover, we know that skeletal remains were utilized to promote spurious and racist ideas of difference to confirm existing social hierarchies and structures.”
Harvard’s vast museum collections contain approximately 30 million items and specimens, including the remains of more than 22,000 individuals. The draft report recommends the University create a new Human Remains Returns Committee to determine how the school should treat the human remains of non-Native people and individuals who were not enslaved.
In addition to the 15 individuals who were likely enslaved within the United States identified in the Peabody’s initial review, the committee discovered four individuals from the Caribbean and Brazil — areas closely associated with the trans-Atlantic slave trade — who were also likely enslaved, bringing the total to 19.
“For too long, these remains have been separated from their individuality, their history, and their communities,” the draft report reads. “To restore those connections will require further provenance research and community consultation. In addition, research might include DNA or other analysis for the express purpose of identifying lineal descendants.”
The committee defined “descendants” broadly: The draft report says descendant communities should be consulted about return options when the University cannot locate lineal descendants.
“The best outcome of provenance research would be identification of lineal descendants but, if that is not possible, research should aim to ascertain descendant or affinity groups that have a direct social, emotional, family, or place-based connection to the individual, that is people who feel a direct responsibility or interest in the individual themselves,” the draft report reads.
Returns could mean the transfer of the remains to descendants, burial at an appropriate cemetery, repatriation of the remains to the individuals’ “home communities,” or continued care at Harvard upon request, the draft report says.
Since 1990, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act has required institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items to their original owners’ descendants. The Peabody Museum has a committee that processes returns under NAGPRA, but the museum has yet to return the remains of nearly 7,000 Native Americans, per the draft report.
On the same day Bacow convened the steering committee, Peabody Director Jane Pickering — a member of the group — apologized “for the practices that led to the Peabody’s large collection of Native American human remains and funerary objects” — an apology she said was long overdue.
In addition to the return of human remains, the draft report calls on Harvard to create “a purpose-designed, on-campus space” where human remains can be respectfully viewed and studied and to develop courses that explore “problematic collections and how they reflect the University’s history.”
The draft report also says Harvard should review its practices for teaching and research involving human remains and work to memorialize the individuals whose remains have been kept in University museums.
“Treating the remains of all individuals as a single group for the purposes of memorialization is problematic and disrespectful,” it reads. “The University’s focus should be on restoring individuality as far as possible through provenance research to open the possibilities of engaging specific, appropriate communities to consider memorialization.”
In her statement Monday, Hammonds wrote that the committee intends to release its report publicly once it concludes its work.
“On behalf of the University, we apologize to those parties who will be negatively impacted by the draft’s premature release by the Harvard Crimson,” she wrote. “Once the Committee is ready to release our final report and recommendations, we look forward to the University sharing it publicly in a responsible and inclusive manner.”
—Staff writer Cara J. Chang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CaraChang20.