A Harvard University museum apologized Thursday for its “complicity” in the objectification of Native peoples and will return hair clippings of about 700 Native American children who were forced to attend United States boarding schools in the 1930’s.
“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 said in a statement.
Native American children were renamed, told not to use indigenous languages and had their hair cut at more than 400 boarding schools in the United States that forced assimilation in the 19th and 20th centuries, according to the Department of Interior.
In May, the department released a long-awaited review of past efforts by the federal government to assimilate Native American children into White American society by separating them from their families and stripping them from their languages and cultures.
On Thursday, the museum said it recognizes the cultural and spiritual significance that hair holds for many Native American communities and is “fully committed” to return the hair to tribal communities and families.
“Between 1930-1933, anthropologist George Edward Woodbury, Curator of the State Historical Society of Colorado, was researching potential connections between Indigenous communities to study human variation and support early anthropological theories around the peopling of North America,” according to the museum.
The nearly 1,500 hair clippings were mostly taken from living people in Asia, Central America, North America, Oceania and South America, the museum said.
Woodbury and his wife published a paper on the topic in 1932, according to the museum. In 1935, Woodbury came to Harvard and served as a lecturer and research fellow in Anthropology and in 1938, he left the university and the discipline of anthropology. The collection of hair samples remained at the Peabody, the museum said.
Harvard noted that anthropologists and others have researched human hair variations for several centuries and that many of those hair sample collections are at museums and other institutions.
“Much of this work was carried out to support, directly or indirectly, scientific racism,” the museum said. “Descriptions and measurements of hair types were used to justify racial categories and hierarchies.”
The museum set up a website listing tribal affiliations and the sites where the hair was collected in the United States to help “support the reconnection of families and tribal nations with their relatives to facilitate the process of healing.”
The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition reacted to the museum’s decision in a post on social media.
“While we recognize that the Peabody Museum’s apology and commitment to returning these materials back to their relatives and Tribal Nations is an essential first step, we need to see meaningful, urgent, and ongoing responses to the extractive and dehumanizing collections practices so commonly seen in anthropological, archaeological, and museum sciences.”