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Friday, November 11, 2022

Harvard Museum Says It Has Hair Clippings from 700 Native Children Who Attended Indian Boarding Schools

Harvard's Peabody Museum (Photo: Public domain)

**This story contains disturbing details from U.S. Indian Boarding Schools. For support and mental health resources, visit The Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition’s list of resources.** 

Harvard’s Peabody Museum has hair clippings taken from the heads of about 700 Native American children while they were attending U.S. Indian Boarding Schools, the institution announced this morning.

The clippings from Native children are part of a collection that includes 1,500 total hair samples from people across Asia, Central America, North America, Oceania, and South America. It was assembled by anthropologist and former Harvard professor, George Woodbury, between 1930 and 1933.  Woodbury took “the vast majority” of samples from living people across the world to study racial hierarchies, The Peabody Museum wrote online.

Woodbury obtained the samples by enlisting the help of “other anthropologists and archaeologists, as well as administrators at a wide variety of U.S. Indian reservations, U.S. Indian boarding schools, and Canadian hospitals as well as missionaries worldwide,” Harvard wrote in an online statement published at 9am on Nov. 10. The collection was donated to Harvard and accessioned in 1935.

According to Harvard University spokesperson Rachael Dane, when the Peabody began organizing its collections in a database in 2008, the location of the Woodbury collection was marked ‘unknown.’ In April 2022, Peabody Museum staff cataloged the Woodbury Collection and determined its contents. 

Many of the samples have the names of the children whose hair was taken, as well as their tribal affiliation.  Approximately 300 tribal nations had samples taken from their kids from at least 21 boarding school locations, plus an additional 12 “collecting locations” noted by Harvard.  The most samples, records show, were taken from 138 children at The Fort Totten Indian School in North Dakota, and 122 children at the Sherman Institute in Riverside, California.

“I just cannot for the life of me wrap my head around something like that,” Rosebud Indian Reservation’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Ione Quigley told Native News Online. She learned that hair samples were taken from her relatives in an email that came through from Harvard late Monday evening, she said. “Why would somebody want hair samples … from little ones? That's a human remain that, for us, holds so much sacredness.”

Harvard says it will return all of the hair samples, and that it contacted tribal chairs and tribal historic preservation officers by email to let them know about the samples, though it “did not have all the emails,” Dane told Native News Online.

“The Peabody Museum apologizes to Indigenous families and tribal nations for our complicity in the objectification of Native peoples and for our more than 80-year possession of hair taken from their relatives,” the museum’s website reads.

Nowhere does Harvard acknowledge that it likely broke a federal law that’s been in place since the ‘90s, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatration Act. Under NAGPRA, institutions are required to catalog and return their collections of Native American human remains and their burial objects. Human remains are defined by law as “The physical remains of the body of a person of Native American ancestry.” The term excludes remains or portions of remains “that may reasonably be determined to have been freely given or naturally shed by the individual from whose body they were obtained, such as hair made into ropes or nets.”


This year alone, at least three institutions have completed reparations of human hair to Native tribes or Native Hawaiian Organizations, according to federal register notices. But Dane told Native News Online that, “the Peabody Museum understands that this type of hair sample, which can be found in many museums and federal agencies, is not subject to NAGPRA.”

“I don’t see how they could argue that [collecting hair samples from children can be done with] consent,” Association on American Indian Affairs chief Executive and attorney Shannon O’Loughlin (Choctaw) told Native News Online. “Human hair is considered remains that require inventory and consultation. My first reaction, because there was hair from a Choctaw child included in there, is…what in the world? How did they not know this existed for so long? It’s so disappointing to see Harvard just not getting how to work with Native Nations.”

O’Loughlin said that the Association intends to hold Harvard accountable for requesting proper tribal consultation, instead of merely asking tribal representatives to fill out a contact form online to be notified when further information on return “becomes available.”

From from 1819 to 1969, the federal government operated more that 400 Indian boarding schools where Native kids were forced to attend with the express purpose of cultural assimilation that coincided with Indian territorial dispossession. At these institutions, the government employed “systematic militarized and identity-alteration methodologies” to assimilate Native children through renaming them, banning the use of their language, and cutting their hair, a federal investigation into the government’s role in the schools released in May 2022 noted.

Quigley, the Rosebud tribal preservation officer, is a boarding school survivor from St. Francis Indian School on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.  She can attest to the lack of consent in Native kids having their hair cut at boarding schools—she lived through it. When she arrived at St. Francis Indian School as a sixth grader, nuns forcibly cut her hair.

“It was very very traumatic for me to have my hair cut like that,” Quigley said. “No affection, no care, nothing. There’s something really wrong in that.”

“Does it seem reasonable to you that this hair was freely given or naturally shed?” Melanie O’Brien, who manages the National NAGPRA Program, wrote in response to questions from Native News Online. “That is the ONLY exception to human remains under NAGPRA.”

O’Brien said that she can’t say if Harvard has failed to comply with NAGPRA unless any person alleges it, and the Department of the Interior investigates it. 

“If this were determined to be a failure to comply with NAGPRA because these human remains were not reported in an inventory, the penalty amount would be $7,475 times the number of lineal descendants, Indian Tribes, or NHOs involved,” she wrote. If Harvard were found to be out of compliance with NAGPRA for its collection of inventoried 700 hair samples, it would owe more than $5 million.

Harvard University has one of the largest collections of Native American human remains in the country, according to the inventory it did report in the 90s. Currently, the institution holds at least 6,162 ancestors. Harvard received five federal grants totaling $287,430 from 1994 to 1997 to complete its inventory. It also received two extensions to complete their inventory in 1998 and 2000, public records show.  

This is a developing story.

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U.S. Supreme Court Hears Arguments in ICWA Case That Threatens Tribal Sovereignty
The Indian Child Welfare Act: What it is and What’s at Stake
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Detailed discussion of the Bering Strait theory and other scientific theories about the population of the modern-day Americas is beyond the scope of this essay. However, it should be noted that Indian people have expressed suspicion that DNA analysis is a tool that scientists will use to support theories about the origins of tribal people that contradict tribal oral histories and origin stories. Perhaps more important,the alternative origin stories of scientists are seen as intending to weaken tribal land and other legal claims (and even diminish a history of colonialism?) that are supported in U.S. federal and tribal law. As genetic evidence has already been used to resolve land conflicts in Asian and Eastern European countries, this is not an unfounded fear.

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