Harvard agreed to return the remains of 19 likely enslaved individuals to their descendants in a report published last week. But some descendants of enslaved individuals and Native American scholars voiced concerns about a lack of specificity on repatriation timelines.
Tamara K. Lanier — the plaintiff of a high profile lawsuit alleging the University illegally possesses daguerreotypes of two of her enslaved ancestors, Renty and Delia — condemned Harvard for “saying all the right things” while failing to return the photographs to her.
“They have to recognize that now they are under an obligation to do the right thing and can no longer cover up their past indiscretions, how they have in the past flouted the law,” Lanier said.
Lanier questioned Harvard’s motivations in promising to ethically steward and repatriate human remains in its collections in light of her own court battle with the University.
A Harvard spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, Harvard is required to return the human remains and associated cultural items removed from Native American lands to their descendants. Since 2020, a separate NAGPRA committee housed within the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography has overseen the returns of Native American human remains.
Last week’s report urged Harvard to accelerate the return of approximately 6,500 Native American human remains at Harvard. Some Native American scholars and advocates called for the immediate return of Native American human remains and voiced concerns about the language used to describe Native American ancestors.
University of Cincinnati Associate Professor Kenneth B. Tankersley wrote that the University has not published “timelines when all Native American remains, funerary objects, and items of cultural patrimony will be repatriated.”
Harvard should “cease all research on the collections and repatriate all of the Native American and African American human remains,” Tankersley wrote.
Anthony Trujillo, a Harvard Ph.D. candidate in American Studies and member of the Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, also said the University should prioritize returning the human remains within its collections immediately.
In October 2021, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography announced an interim policy that bars any research, including analytical sampling, on Native American human remains or associated funerary objects “without permission from authorized Tribal representatives.”
The moratorium applies to both culturally affiliated artifacts — referring to the 30 percent of the Peabody’s collection of Native American ancestral remains that have been connected to at least one tribe — and those deemed culturally unidentifiable.
The report on human remains also recommends a research and teaching moratorium on any human remains referred to the newly created Human Remains Returns Committee, a group charged with repatriating the human remains of the 19 individuals who were likely enslaved and overseeing the return of other human remains.
Colleen Medicine, program director of the Association on American Indian Affairs and member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, also said she felt the report has a “very cold” tone and does not include the language Native Americans use.
“We always capitalize the 'A' in Ancestors,” Medicine said. “We were taught that when you do use that capital, it lets our ancestors know that we’re still thinking of them in that sacred way.”
Kiani Ku'uleimomi Akina ’25, a Native Hawaiian student, also wished the report had included an acknowledgment of stolen Indigenous land, given how Harvard is located on the ancestral lands of the Massachusett Tribe.
Still, Trujillo said he was grateful that the report criticized Harvard’s practices in obtaining and caring for the remains.
But he added that he hoped for more specificity in the report regarding next steps. As Harvard works to implement its new policies and return human remains, Trujillo said he wants the University to provide regular progress reports on an annual, if not biannual, basis.
Jaidyn J. Probst ’23, co-president of Natives at Harvard College and member of the Lower Sioux Indian Community, also said she would like to see concrete evidence of returns and dialogues between the University and tribes.
While the vast majority of human remains are housed at the Peabody Museum, Trujillo and Probst both said repatriation is a University-wide issue.
“At the end of the day, it’s an institutional problem,” Probst said.
In a message to affiliates earlier this month, University President Lawrence S. Bacow described the report as a “clear roadmap for our community as we seek to fulfill our obligations to those individuals whose remains are held by the University.”
But the implementation of the report’s 13 recommendations — as well as the administration of Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery initiative and its $100 million commitment — will largely be left to Bacow’s successor when he leaves the role in June.
Trujillo said he hopes the repatriation of the human remains is “front and center” in the presidential search.
—Staff writer Isabella B. Cho contributed reporting.
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