A Harvard University museum is in possession of the remains of at least 19 enslaved individuals and about 7,000 Native American Indians, according to a leaked report published by the school newspaper.
The Harvard Crimson got hold of a unfinalized draft report by the Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections which was tasked last year to survey the collection of human remains in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
“Our collection of these particular human remains is a striking representation of structural and institutional racism and its long half-life,” the Crimson quoted the draft report’s introduction.
The draft also stated that the human remains “were obtained under the violent and inhumane regimes of slavery and colonialism; they represent the University’s engagement and complicity in these categorically immoral systems. Moreover, we know that skeletal remains were utilized to promote spurious and racist ideas of difference to confirm existing social hierarchies and structures.”
The draft report calls on the university to return the remains of the individuals who were likely slaves, to their descendants, and to accelerate its returns of Native American remains, which was required by a 1990 federal law called The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The law has required institutions that receive federal funding to return Native American cultural items to their original owners’ descendants. Yet, more than 30 years after the law was enacted, the Peabody Museum is still in possession of the remains of nearly 7,000 Native Americans, according to the draft report.
“For too long, these remains have been separated from their individuality, their history, and their communities,” the draft report said. “To restore those connections will require further provenance research and community consultation. In addition, research might include DNA or other analysis for the express purpose of identifying lineal descendants.”
The draft report recommends the transfer of the remains to descendants, burial at an appropriate cemetery, repatriation of the remains to the individuals’ “home communities” or continued care at Harvard.
According to the Crimson, the draft report recommends Harvard create “a purpose-designed, on-campus space” where human remains can be respectfully viewed and studied and to develop courses that explore “problematic collections and how they reflect the University’s history.”
The draft report said Harvard’s vast museum collection holds the remains of more than 22,000 individuals and recommends the university create a new Human Remains Returns Committee to determine how the school should treat the human remains of non-Native people and individuals who were not enslaved.
The draft report also said that Harvard should review its practices for teaching and research involving human remains and work to memorialize the individuals whose remains have been kept in university museums.
The steering committee’s chair and Harvard history Professor Evelynn Hammonds criticized the draft’s leak.
“Releasing this draft is irresponsible reporting and robs the Committee of finalizing its report and associated actions and puts in jeopardy the thoughtful engagement of the Harvard community in its release,” Hammonds wrote. “Further, it shares an outdated version with the Harvard community that does not reflect weeks of additional information and Committee work.”
The collection of slaves’ remains is another connection of Harvard to slavery. Early in April, Harvard released, Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery, which revealed the institute’s extensive entanglements with slavery.
The steering committee discovered that of the 19 remains of slaves, four individuals came from the Caribbean and Brazil while the other 15 were enslaved within the US.
Harvard has pledged $100 million to make reparations for the extensive entanglements that slavery has played in the institution’s history.
The money would be used to offer educational support for marginalized young people, partner with historically black colleges and universities, honor enslaved people through memorials, research and curricula, and improve educational opportunities for descendants of enslaved individuals who worked on Harvard’s campus.