Harvard’s Peabody Museum pledged on Thursday to return hundreds of hair samples taken from Native American children enrolled in public schools in the 1930s and apologized for keeping the clippings in its collections.
The hair collection, amassed by anthropologist George Edward Woodbury between 1930 and 1933, includes samples from around 700 children from 300 indigenous tribes.
“The Peabody Museum apologizes to Indigenous families and tribal nations for our complicity in the objectification of Indigenous peoples and for our possession of the hair of their loved ones for more than 80 years,” museum director Jane Pickering said. in a statement released Thursday. .
The Peabody, which houses Harvard’s major collections of anthropological artifacts, has pledged to return the hair samples to families and tribal nations. The museum is in communication with tribal nations to begin facilitating the repatriation, Pickering said in an interview Thursday.
On a website that Peabody published on Thursday about the Woodbury collection, it published a list native tribes represented in the collection and named the American Indian boarding schools where the clippings were taken. The museum has not released anyone’s name.
“We recognize that for many Native American communities, hair has cultural and spiritual significance and the Museum is fully committed to returning hair to tribal families and communities,” Pickering said in the statement of apology released Thursday.
Woodbury, who died in 1973, collected the hair samples while “researching potential connections between Indigenous communities to study human variation and support early anthropological theories about the peopling of North America,” according to Peabody’s. website. He left the hair samples at Harvard after arriving at the school in 1935 to serve as a lecturer in anthropology. They have remained in Peabody’s collections ever since, housed in envelopes with the individuals’ biographical information.
Anthropological research conducted with hair samples in the early 1900s was often “conducted to support, directly or indirectly, scientific racism,” Peabody’s website said. “Descriptions and measurements of hair types have been used to justify racial categories and hierarchies.”
Woodbury published a 1932 paper based on the samples.
Returns are not covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which requires institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural objects to the descendants of their original owners.
The announcement comes about two months after Harvard pledged to return the human remains of 19 people believed to be enslaved to their descendants when it released its long-awaited report on human remains in the collections of university museums. The report revealed that Harvard holds the human remains of approximately 7,000 Native Americans in its collections – despite NAGPRA’s 1990 requirement to return them to their descendants. By accepting the report’s recommendations, the school agreed to expedite the return of Native American remains.
The hair samples in the Woodbury Collection were taken from students at American Indian boarding schools, institutions established in the mid-19th century in which Native American children were often abused and abused.
“The Woodbury collection really felt like something that should be prioritized given the significance to those communities, given the history, given the connection to Indian boarding schools,” Pickering said in the interview Thursday.
—Editor Tarah D. Gilles can be reached at [email protected]