Speakers criticized Harvard for continuing to hold the human remains of thousands of Native Americans in its museum collections at a conference hosted by the Harvard University Native American Program and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study last week.
The conference — titled “Responsibilities and Repair: Legacies of Indigenous Enslavement, Indenture, and Colonization at Harvard and Beyond” — followed a recommendation from the Institute’s 2022 report detailing Harvard’s role in the enslavement and subjugation of Indigenous peoples.
On the first day of the conference, comedian and activist Dallas Goldtooth of the Mdewakanton Dakota and Diné tribes spoke about the importance of representation as an Indigenous actor and criticized Harvard’s failure to return the remains of Indigenous people in his keynote address.
In summer 2022, a draft report obtained by the Crimson revealed that the University held the human remains of at least 19 individuals who were likely enslaved and almost 7,000 Native Americans, housed primarily in the Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology.
Though the University is in the process of returning the remains, as required by federal law since 1990, the repatriation process has progressed slowly.
In-person registration sold out for the opening night event, which was moderated by assistant professor of History of Art and Architecture Shawon Kinew.
In his address, Goldtooth drew upon his background as a sketch comedy artist to address Harvard’s past failures to honor Indigenous people.
“How fucked up is Harvard’s past?” he said, prompting applause from the audience. “On a scale of one to 10, I’d say 9.5.”
“The audacity to do a report, name a whole conference ‘Legacies of Indigenous Enslavement,’ and y’all still got bodies in the building, still got remains up in your hands — you guys are saucy,” he added.
In her opening remarks, Harvard President Claudine Gay addressed the calls for repatriation and said she has expanded resources to expedite the returns and requested quarterly updates on the progress of the efforts.
“Today, I acknowledge that history, the pain and harm it has caused, and the responsibility it creates for this institution and its leadership. At the same time, I share my hope for repair, for enduring and meaningful connections and actions that enable a better future for all of us,” Gay said.
“Native American ancestors should not be in our collection,” she added.
Faries Gray, the Sagamore of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag, also called for the Native remains and artifacts to be returned in his opening prayers and addressed the University’s history of dispossessing Native peoples.
“I didn’t want to say a prayer for a school like Harvard,” Gray said. “Our relationship with Harvard goes back to the beginning. I was walking around thinking about this place and thinking about, ‘Wow, they destroyed our land.’”
The addresses by Goldtooth, Gay, and Gray were part of the larger slate of events that spanned the two-day conference including sessions titled, “Enslavement, Indenture, and Dispossession,” “Colonization in New England,” and “Harvard and Massachusetts Tribal Repairs.”
On the second day, during a moderated discussion, Indigenous leader and environmental activist Tara Houska of the Couchiching First Nation underscored the importance of direct action from Harvard.
“The land acknowledgment is one thing, the action is another,” she said. “I do not operate in just words. I take action. We have to carry our prayers and our thoughts into action. No one else is going to do it for us.”
“I hope that there are concrete, real steps that this institution takes to even begin to repair,” she added.
Houska also called upon Harvard to return the remains in its museum collections.
“The people are not gone, we are still here,” she said. “There’s the simple element of wanting your family home. There’s also the added element of ‘you see us,’ what does it mean to be seen, and to be acknowledged as a human being?”
“Institutions like Harvard cannot undo the harm of the past until it stops the harm of today,” Goldtooth said.