In 1990, the U.S. Congress enacted the Native American Graves Safety and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) to information the work of repatriating Native American human stays, funerary objects, sacred objects, and different objects of cultural significance to lineal descendants, the tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.
Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology cares for a lot of the objects on the College that fall below NAGPRA’s purview. A latest letter from U.S. senators and members of the Senate’s Committee on Indian Affairs requested an replace on Harvard’s processes and tempo of repatriation below NAGPRA. The Peabody responded with an in-depth description of the Museum’s insurance policies and strategies, together with the evaluation that sturdy help by the College’s administration and the doubling of NAGPRA-dedicated employees over the previous yr have drastically sped the Peabody’s fee of repatriation.
To realize a higher understanding of the Peabody’s progress and processes relating to NAGPRA, the Gazette lately sat down with Matthew Liebmann, chair of the Peabody’s School Committee, Peabody Professor of American Archaeology and Ethnology, and chair of Harvard’s Division of Anthropology; Kelli Mosteller, government director of the Harvard College Native American Program; and Jane Pickering, the William and Muriel Seabury Howells Director of the Peabody Museum.
GAZETTE: Why is Harvard in such a novel place right here?
LIEBMANN: The Peabody, as with Harvard College extra typically, is the heir of the lengthy legacy of American historical past and all that entails — together with colonialism, dispossession, and enslavement. Now we have the load of almost 400 years on our shoulders. We’re additionally the inheritors of collections amassed over that interval and the privilege that went into the formation of those collections. It’s our moral obligation to deal with that heavy historical past. Repatriation is a basic a part of that course of.
MOSTELLER: It’s vital to know that the dimensions of Harvard’s involvement is completely different than many different establishments. There are literally thousands of ancestors within the collections, and so they got here to be there because of practices that had been deeply disrespectful and damaging to Native communities. We’re one of many worst offenders, and that’s why Harvard’s actions, and lack of motion, have attracted consideration and criticism, and why we will probably be watched carefully by way of what steps we take subsequent.
PICKERING: When the College began this work within the Nineteen Nineties, we had been in contact with all 574 federally acknowledged tribes within the nation. Our amassing practices had an influence on almost each Tribal Nation, each neighborhood.
GAZETTE: Why is that this work vital?
MOSTELLER: Establishments with NAGPRA collections bear a profound accountability to each the ancestors and to Native communities. We should acknowledge that actual hurt has been finished. It’s our obligation to hold out every stage of this work with professionalism, but additionally deep empathy and unwavering compassion. When the NAGPRA-mandated portion of the work is finished and the ancestors have been returned to their communities, that may’t be the tip of our accountability. That’s the start of the method for the individuals to whom these ancestors are being returned. There’s a lot emotional, religious, and cultural labor nonetheless to be finished. Now we have to be good allies and help these communities.
LIEBMANN: Correctly finished, repatriation can open new alternatives for all concerned within the course of. The Peabody’s 1999 repatriation of the ancestors from Pecos Pueblo to Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico began a course of that made potential my work that continues with Jemez immediately. Jemez was involved in establishing a mutually helpful relationship popping out of the expertise that they’d with the Peabody. Many communities aren’t involved in persevering with their relationships with museums after a repatriation, and understandably so. However for these which might be involved in growing or enhancing a relationship with Harvard, the repatriation course of can function a door to carry individuals from outdoors Harvard to our campus, and to carry individuals from Harvard into the surface world.
GAZETTE: In 2021 President Larry Bacow apologized on behalf of the College for what he known as “practices that positioned the tutorial enterprise above respect for the lifeless and human decency.” Do you’re feeling that apology extends to what many have referred to as the gradual tempo of this work on the a part of Harvard?
PICKERING: On the time President Bacow made his apology, I apologized to Native communities particularly for the practices that led to the collections of ancestors on the museum and for missteps we had made in our implementation of NAGPRA. I feel traditionally the Peabody didn’t all the time act proactively and middle its work on the influence of the historical past on affected communities. We should acknowledge that NAGPRA is about way more than a collection of transactions and a one-time apology. It’s about basic change to the construction, practices, and values of the museum — what we describe as moral stewardship, which incorporates conversations, engagement, and shared authority with Tribal Nations.
MOSTELLER: NAPGRA’s the ground, not the ceiling. It defines the naked minimal we’ve to do to be in compliance with the regulation, however we’ve an ethical accountability to do extra, particularly once we are genuinely partaking in session and we hear what communities want from us. We have to set their requests as our new normal.
GAZETTE: How have you ever improved your processes?
PICKERING: Prior to now yr, we’ve greater than doubled the dimensions of our NAGPRA workplace, and we now have one of many largest employees dedicated to NAGPRA within the nation. We even have new positions in different departments to supply the mandatory help for NAGPRA actions. We added these vital sources as a basis for our three-year dedication to help session and repatriation of all ancestors and their funerary belongings.
Now we have additionally invested further sources to seek the advice of with Tribal Nations and lineal descendants relating to the return of a giant assortment of hair clippings. Anthropologist George Woodbury, a Harvard lecturer, amassed hair clippings from Indigenous individuals all over the world, together with, heartbreakingly, from roughly 700 Native American kids and adults then at U.S. Indian boarding faculties. Woodbury’s assortment was donated to the Peabody in 1938. I’ve personally spoken with Tribal representatives and lineal descendants from throughout the nation, which has concerned many powerful conversations but additionally the distinction of studying concerning the kin’ tales and experiences. We’ve been working actually arduous, and the clippings are already going house to lineal descendants and communities.
GAZETTE: What does this work seem like going ahead? What are you centered on by way of the place you need to make progress and what’s going to neighborhood members see within the coming yr and years?
MOSTELLER: Each dialog I’ve had with a Tribal neighborhood throughout my first yr at Harvard, whether or not it’s relating to a campus go to or encouraging college students from their Tribal neighborhood to use, the primary query requested is, “What about all of our ancestors that you simply’ve had for many years upon a long time?” They don’t need to discuss the rest till we discuss NAGPRA and the ancestors. That is the domino that has to fall earlier than the deeper partnerships that we need to have with Tribal communities can occur. From the Tribal communities’ views, why would they need to ship their children the place their ancestors are being held or saved as assortment objects?
LIEBMANN: Additionally, the Peabody now has insurance policies that transcend NAGPRA. We are actually in a position to do repatriations not solely below the regulation, however for different objects, artifacts, supplies, and ancestors not coated by NAGPRA which might be at present stewarded by the Peabody. I feel that’s an extremely vital change.
PICKERING: Underneath these new insurance policies, we lately legally transferred a warrior-whaler kayak to the Alutiiq neighborhood. It’s the fruits of a partnership that started with a NAGPRA session again in 2002. It concerned a long-term undertaking for the conservation of the kayak, along with the neighborhood, in addition to visits, workshops, and an exhibition. In 2016 the kayak was bodily transferred to the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak, Alaska, however it was not owned by the neighborhood. Somewhat, it was nonetheless owned by us. In 2023 we transferred authorized possession to the Alutiiq Museum, which meant the kayak has actually gone house to be cared for by the neighborhood.
MOSTELLER: Part of true session is to legally switch objects, even when the tribes aren’t able the place they’re able to bodily take possession. And meaning listening to the tribe after they say that they don’t have sufficient employees, they don’t have acceptable land for reburial, or they don’t have the sources to bodily switch presently. It’s nonetheless vitally vital for this authorized switch to occur. It’s essential to all the time come again to the tribe to ask: The place are you in your course of? How can we assist? What do you want to have the ability to transfer to this subsequent step? The connection simply doesn’t finish when authorized switch has occurred. If we’re actually working towards moral stewardship, we nonetheless bear a accountability.