The Painful Progress of Native American Repatriation

Over three decades after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed, the Peabody Museum has repatriated less than half of its holdings. For tribes who are waiting to receive their ancestors and funerary belongings, this slow progress has taken a heavy toll.


{shortcode-9e32dfdb8c377e15033f759ef2c5d6c2398b7977}ust north of Harvard Yard sits the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, a red-brick building that houses thousands of cultural objects from around the world. But the artifacts on the Museum’s shelves represent less than a quarter of one percent of its holdings.

In addition to the Mayan ceramics and Penobscot canoes on display, the Museum currently holds the remains of 15,000 individuals, more than 5,000 which come from North America. The vast majority are Indigenous remains, and at least 19 are enslaved individuals. The Museum acquired many of these remains through archaeological expeditions. Others were “‘collected’ to support racist science,” according to last year’s report on the University museums’ collections, and still others came from other universities and institutions.

The Museum is obligated to return many of these remains to their tribes of origin under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires institutions that receive federal funding to return human remains, funerary belongings, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony to federally recognized tribes.

Three decades later, the Museum has repatriated less than half of its total holdings. For Native American tribes, the process can be frustrating, confusing, and often painful.

About a decade ago, Elizabeth Solomon ’79, a member of the Massachusett Tribe at Ponkapoag and a director of administration at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, requested to see burial objects in the Peabody Museum herself.

Solomon recalls arriving at a “huge warehouse” between the biological laboratories and the Divinity School. Metal scaffolding holding the artifacts climbed towards the ceiling, multiple stories above where she stood. As Solomon walked through each row of artifacts, the lights flickered on above her.

“There were just thousands and thousands and thousands of creations,” Solomon says. “If you think about how we see our creations is that they have life and spirit, that to be locked away where they’re not even seen or interacted with in a way that would nourish them, to see that — I wanted to cry.”

Tribes learn of ancestors and belongings in institutional collections through communications from the institutions themselves, the National Park Service database, and notices in the Federal Register, a daily journal published by the U.S. government.

Notices published in the Federal Register trace the history of how particular ancestors or funerary belongings — like brass beads, bone awls, or animal sculptures — came to be in Harvard’s collection. A 1996 notice cites the purchase of “a large collection of objects and human remains” taken in part from a Mohegan sachem’s grave in 1910. A 2002 notice documents the 1875 donation of human remains from Kagamil Island, Alaska by the captain of the region’s grocery company.

In November 2022, a notice written in consultation with representatives from the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, Narragansett Indian Tribe, Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), and the Assonnet Band of the Wampanoag Nation, was published in the register. “The original inventory of the human remains describes the burial location as full of small shells and notes that many of the bodies in the burial place were interred in an erect posture surrounded by shells. The human remains are the nearly complete cranium belonging to an adult female.”

The Peabody Museum has published 222 notices to date.

For tribal leaders awaiting repatriations, receiving inventory notices in the Federal Register and on the NAGPRA website can be complexly layered and painful — reminding of past and present injustices, while offering an opportunity for ancestors and sacred belongings to be traditionally reburied. Paul W. Pouliot, the Principal Male Speaker of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People, recalls reading an inventory notice from the Museum.

“I looked at it and I was shocked. It was multiple, multiple pages,” he says. “It was shocking,” he adds. “I had no idea there were so many items in it.”

Grief over the magnitude and fact of the Peabody Museum’s collections echoes among Indigenous people trying to arrange their ancestors and belongings’ repatriation. While many tribal leaders spend years navigating bureaucratic obstacles, the leaders of non-federally recognized tribes face unique challenges to repatriation, because institutions are not required to consult with them.

Although the Museum has reinvigorated identification and repatriation in recent years, decades of inaction have left many tribal leaders frustrated and skeptical of the institution.

The Peabody’s Progress

{shortcode-94eb72a004011d7c49a15590d1d8fe33fbc5a9e2}AGPRA was initially enacted in 1990 after centuries of continued Native dispossession in the United States. One key activist for NAGPRA’s passage, Maria Pearson, a member of the Yankton Sioux tribe, was galvanized to advocate for the protection of Indigenous ancestors after witnessing an archeologist disrespect the bodies of a Native woman and her baby at a graveyard discovered in Iowa. NAGPRA emerged as part of a larger movement in the 1970s and 1980s to try and address injustices committed by the U.S. against Native people and advocate for Native rights.

More than 30 years after the passage of NAGPRA, many local Indigenous leaders continue to criticize the Museum’s pace of identifying and repatriating ancestral remains and their belongings. But though repatriation may drag for individual tribes, the Museum’s work is well-underway, says Jane Pickering, director of the Peabody Museum.

According to an update released last month, the Museum has repatriated 4,439 ancestors as of Feb. 1 and 10,209 funerary belongings as of Dec. 31, 2023. At the time of NAGPRA’s passage in 1990, the Museum held 10,118 ancestors from the United States, The Crimson recently reported.

But other Museum data show that about a quarter of those repatriated ancestors were returned to tribes in the last three years. After returning over 2,000 ancestors in 1998 alone, the total number of repatriations increased sparingly for two decades. Between 2005 and 2018, the Museum repatriated just 125 ancestors. Some years the Museum repatriated only one or two ancestors, and for three years, it returned none.

Since 2021, the Museum has returned 1,001 ancestors. The significant increase in repatriations follows an overhaul of NAGPRA leadership.

In 2019, Claudine Gay, then dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, appointed Pickering to the Museum’s directorship.

The next year, Gay and Pickering formed the NAGPRA Advisory Committee, on which sit curators, faculty from the history and archaeology departments, and the executive director of the Harvard University Native American Program. In 2021, Pickering issued a formal apology for “practices that led to the Peabody’s large collection of Native American ancestors and funerary belongings.” And in 2022, the University released a report on human remains in the collections.

As director, Pickering seeks to reframe the work of an archaeological museum. “I think of it as stewardship rather than ownership,” she says. “If you think about it as stewarding and caring for instead of owning — the way you own a painting or something like that — that was really the vision moving forward.”

Pickering partially attributes long delays in repatriation to the wishes of the tribes themselves. Due to inadequate funding and limited staff, tribes sometimes request to receive ancestors at a later date.

“We take our lead from the tribes,” Pickering says.

In addition, Pickering says that delays may be attributed to the distribution of information by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Institutions that hold Indigenous remains and funerary belongings must notify the Department of their holdings and of relevant cultural affiliations. If a federally-recognized tribe is found to be kin or culturally affiliated with an ancestor or belonging in an institution’s collection, they are notified directly. Tribal representatives can also search the Department’s website for their ancestors and belongings.

Pickering notes that information on institutions’ holdings, including the precise counties where ancestors were found, has been publicly available on the National Park Service website for more than 20 years. “I think it's just that a government website that you have to search and old databases aren't the easiest way to find out information,” she says.

In Jan. 2021, then-Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow published a letter announcing the creation of a steering committee on human remains in the University’s museum collections in which he apologized for “practices that placed the academic enterprise above respect for the dead and human decency.”

In response, that February, the Association on American Indian Affairs sent a letter to Bacow calling on Harvard to comply with NAGPRA. Signed by Shannon O’Loughlin, AAIA’s Chief Executive and Attorney and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, the letter states that AAIA believes Harvard “has been out of compliance with federal law, has done so willingly, and as a result, has caused continuing physical, emotional and spiritual trauma to Native Nations and their citizens.” AAIA’s demands included the hiring of a Native American NAGPRA expert, assurance that repatriated ancestors would be returned with the funerary belongings, and the issuance of a research moratorium on all Native American items across the university.

Pickering and Peabody Museum NAGPRA Advisory Committee Chair Philip J. Deloria, a history professor of Dakota descent, wrote a letter in response to AAIA’s letter, denying that the Peabody Museum was in violation of NAGPRA, but apologizing for some of the University’s collecting practices.

Pickering and Deloria announced that they would share updates to the University’s repatriation policies in coming months.

Under Pickering’s leadership, the Museum has made progress. Since 2021, the Peabody Museum has more than doubled the size of its NAGPRA office. The Peabody’s current policy regarding research on NAGPRA collections is not to authorize any studies or sampling on Native American ancestors or funerary belongings without permission from tribal representatives.

Last year, it announced the completion of the legal process to repatriate 313 ancestors to the Wampanoag Aquinnah and Mashpee tribes. In January, the Peabody announced that they would pay the travel expenses of tribal representatives coming to the museum for physical repatriation.

But as federally-recognized tribes around the country accept ancestors and funerary belongings held for decades, if not centuries, in institutional collections, tribes without federal recognition face extra hurdles to receiving their ancestors.

Sister Tribes

{shortcode-dd08abb0bb2b02bf4881baaa9fb305566107f8d4}he Cowasuck Band’s ancestral land spans from around Concord, N.H., to north-central Massachusetts. Although Pouliot’s tribe has yet to receive federal recognition since filing in the 1990s, he says the tribe functions as if it had. Federal officials, he says, are “like family.”

But when it comes to NAGPRA, federal agencies are less helpful. NAGPRA only requires institutions to repatriate ancestors and belongings to federally-recognized tribes. If an institution does not reach out directly to notify the Cowasuck Band of an identified ancestor or belonging, the tribe must rely on federally-recognized tribes like the Aquinnah Wampanoag to pass on repatriations.

In regulations to NAGPRA effective as of January, the Department of the Interior explicitly clarified that “the NAGPRA definition only applies to federally recognized Indian Tribes.”

“As is the current practice, Indian groups without Federal recognition can work with federally recognized Indian Tribes as part of a joint claim for disposition or joint request for repatriation,” the new regulations said, noting that “Indian groups without Federal recognition” are “not completely excluded from the disposition or repatriation processes.”

For a Native American tribe to receive federal recognition, they must demonstrate to the Department of Interior’s Bureau of Indian Affairs a “substantially continuous tribal existence” and that they have “functioned as autonomous entities throughout history until the present.” The complex documentation necessary and costly process act as a barrier to prevent many tribes across the country from petitioning for federal recognition.

The Wampanoag Repatriation Confederation was founded in 1996 to help the tribes of the Wampanoag Nation address repatriation issues. Through the Confederation, non-federally recognized tribes work together with federally recognized tribes to receive repatriated ancestors and belongings.

The Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, located around Plymouth, Mass., which is not federally recognized, often works with the nearby, federally-recognized Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe on repatriations.

Melissa Ferretti, Chairwoman of the Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribe, explains that her tribe is not notified of repatriations directly, but rather receives them from a “sister tribe,” in Mashpee or Aquinnah. “We’re hopeful, knowing our sister tribes, that any funerary remains that belonged in Plymouth would come home,” she says

For some non-federally recognized tribes, these partnerships are successful. But for others, working through another tribe creates extra hurdles to receiving their ancestors.

“We have not received nor do I expect that we will receive our ancestors,” says Solomon. “And as of now, we have not heard from those tribes about collaborating with us about repatriating our remains of our ancestors.”

For Pouliot, not knowing where his tribe’s ancestors and belongings will go, and whether they will receive them at all, is frustrating.

“It’s my ancestors and I don’t know where they’re going to go. I don't know how they're going to handle this. The sheer volume scares me. The process scares me,” Pouliot says.

'They're not listening'

{shortcode-429a20a43b31c14ee603587b9f7215faac9b0e1d}or John “Jim” Peters, Jr., the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the labor of repatriation is not limited to legal and bureaucratic processes; it extends to a heavy emotional burden as well.

“The first time I got bone dust in my skin, it left an indelible imprint in my head,” Peters says. “It’s kind of horrific when you go and see your ancestors, their remains. I’ve seen women with child, different skulls with holes in them, crushed.”

“It’s a burden to assume those responsibilities, knowing that a lot of those remains were gifted to the University because they dug them up and they put something else there,” Peters says. “It stays with you.”

Non-federally recognized tribes in particular face further frustration and emotional burden “Why would NAGPRA give our remains to anybody but Herring Pond?” Ferretti asks. “Especially Peabody, when they know Herring Pond and Harvard had a good relationship.” Harvard’s Williams Fund supported Native American churches in Massachusetts, including at Herring Pond, into the second half of the 20th century.

“I grew up surrounded by my tribe, with a herring shed in my backyard. And you're constantly having to justify your identity, simply because of federal recognition,” Ferretti says. “Herring Pond Indians, we were here before the federal government was ever formed. Our people are written in history since that time, and that is a fact.”

Ferretti voiced further frustration that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has no legislative process to recognize Native American tribes on the state level. “We talk about this pilgrim story, this romanticized Thanksgiving story, and the tribe that literally was under the boots of the pilgrims is not even recognized in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts officially,” she says.

When Tobias J. Vanderhoop, a former Chairman of the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe, was a student in the Harvard Kennedy School’s mid-career master’s in public administration program, he felt acutely aware of the fact that Harvard was in possession of Native American ancestors and belongings. “It is not still harping on something, it’s addressing a hurt that still exists,” he says. “Anyone who would know that their relative was sitting on a shelf would want that individual to be shown respect.”

“Our beloved institution has not always seen its way through to upholding what I see as every institution’s responsibility to implement the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act,” Vanderhoop says.

“They always get it wrong because they’re working in a silo,” O’Loughlin, of the AAIA, says. “They’re not listening. They’re not even inviting a conversation.”

In one instance of Harvard “getting it wrong,” O’Loughlin cites Harvard’s announcement of their intention to repatriate hundreds of hair clippings collected by anthropologist George Edward Woodbury between 1930-1933 from Native American children in government-run boarding schools. They initially declared that “this wasn’t a NAGPRA issue, but they were going to repatriate out of the kindness of their hearts,” O’Loughlin says.

“We let them know, no, this is a NAGPRA issue,” she says. “These are human remains, because they were taken without consent, just like the plain language of the law.” In November 2022, after a review, the Department of the Interior notified the Peabody Museum that the hair clippings are, in fact, subject to NAGPRA. “If they would have simply worked with the tribes, they could have done this and taken care of it so easily and beautifully,” O’Loughlin says. “But they seem to want to always make press statements about things, always put a webpage up for it and have all of this done without any external input.”

O’Loughlin still feels that there is a disconnect between Harvard’s professed priorities and its actions. “I don’t think the institution understands this at all,” she says. “That the collections that are in their possession, they do not own, they don’t have any legal title to.”

Voices from Campus

{shortcode-24643cedbe14221289878261864001a8ceef067a}n a Sunday in November, Samantha Maltais, the first Wampanoag student to attend Harvard Law School, sat down at a project room table in the Law School’s Wasserstein Hall.

“The Peabody Museum is just a couple of streets that way,” says Maltais, pointing north from the Law School. “I think that having that as a reminder — a very haunted reminder of the history of Harvard University’s relationship to tribes — is really disheartening.”

“And it’s a very difficult thing to be reminded of as we’re struggling to get the same education as our peers,” she adds.

Maltais’s relationship with the Peabody Museum started long before she set foot on the Law School campus. In one of the museum exhibitions, eight-year-old Maltais is pictured alongside her mother, Cheryl Andrews-Maltais, at the excavation of the Indian College in Harvard’s Old Yard.

Before Andrews-Maltais became the chairwoman of the Wampanoag tribe at Aquinnah, Maltais watched her mother, then tribal historic preservation officer, communicate with the Peabody Museum for the return of Wampanoag remains under NAGPRA, which Maltais’s grandmother helped establish at the state level as a tribal councilwoman.

“This is a long-standing history and relationship that the school has had with my community, and I’m intimately aware of it. Over time you hear the same excuses. ‘Oh, we're gonna start a working group. Oh, we’re gonna do a policy paper,’” Maltais says.

“There’s just no room for excuses anymore,” she adds. “This is the third generation of person in my family to be experiencing the failures of Harvard when it comes to NAGPRA.”

Despite the Museum’s recent efforts to comply with NAGPRA, the knowledge that ancestors and their funerary belongings sit on warehouse shelves can be taxing for Indigenous people at Harvard.

“The actual physical ancestors are one thing,” says Solomon, who has been affiliated with Harvard for almost 50 years since she enrolled as an undergraduate. “It’s probably more important than any of the other things. But the fact that things with life and spirit are being locked away in a warehouse, just because Harvard has them, is really horrible.”

After decades of inaction on repatriation, many express wariness of the Peabody Museum and the University at large. When Indigenous people organize programming on campus, like the Responsibility and Repair conference, the University’s support without quick, meaningful action on their demands can ring hollow to many.

“I want to put out there that Harvard has been complicit and continues to be complicit in the harms of colonization,” Solomon says in her opening remarks at the conference. “There’s — and this is hard to say — but Harvard has a history of both being complicit in and facilitating the harms that happen in between indigenous communities, and will often take the road that is expedient instead of the road that is right.”

“So we’re not ready for that repair — I don’t think we’re ready for that repair.”

‘Repatriation will never be complete’

{shortcode-7b0d78f749b7c9782f39de42e5139c59e2b30f27}epatriation under NAGPRA is often frustrating and complicated — both for the staff working to identify and return thousands of ancestors and belongings collected over centuries, as well as the tribal representatives left to wait for email replies and phone calls back about their own ancestors.

But for many Indigenous people, the decades-long process and missed opportunities also add to the pain of knowing their ancestors’ remains and funeral belongings were taken from their graves on native lands and held in museum collections for years.

As the Museum now increases repatriations, both Indigenous people and university administrators are considering what it will take to build productive, respectful relationships.

“It needs to start with Harvard internally. It needs to continue with building relationship — reciprocal, meaningful relationships — with indigenous communities, and then and only then can we talk about repair,” Solomon says at the conference.

As the staff and leadership of the Peabody Museum continue repatriations, the breadth of the Museum’s collections is becoming another difficult reality.

“It’s not a simple process, but I think it’s fair to say — as has been said nationally — that nobody thought that it was going to be 30 years,” Pickering says.

When asked about the Museum’s future after NAGPRA repatriation concludes, Pickering is quick to correct us.

“Repatriation will never be complete,” she says. “It is part of the work that we always do.”

Corrections: March 5, 2024

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Philip J. Deloria is a member of of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. In fact, he is of Dakota descent.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Jane Pickering issued a formal apology in 2019. In fact, Pickering issued the apology in 2021.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that former President Lawrence S. Bacow apologized for the University's handling of Native American human remains in response to a letter from the Association on American Indian Affairs. In fact, Bacow first apologized and then the Association on American Indian Affairs sent the University a letter urging compliance with NAGPRA.

— Associate Magazine Editor Jade Lozada can be reached at

— Associate Magazine Editor Ellie S. Klibaner-Schiff can be reached at