Harvard Museum Pledges to Return Hair Samples of 700 Native American Children

The samples come from students who were forced to attend government-run boarding schools

AERIAL VIEW of Cambridge and Anderson Memorial Bridge leading to Weld Boathouse, Harvard on Charles River, Cambridge, Boston, MA
Harvard's Peabody Museum received the collection of 700 Native American hair samples as a donation in 1935. Joseph Sohm

For over 80 years, Harvard University’s Peabody Museum has been in possession of a collection of hair samples taken from 700 Native American children. Last week, the museum disclosed the collection in a formal apology and pledged to return the samples to families and tribal communities.

“We recognize that for many Native American communities, hair holds cultural and spiritual significance,” writes the museum, adding that it apologizes “for our complicity in the objectification of Native peoples and for our more than 80-year possession of hair taken from their relatives.”

Between 1930 and 1933, anthropologist George Edward Woodbury collected the hair samples from Native American students, who were being forced to attend boarding schools run by the government. Woodbury donated the collection to the Peabody Museum in 1935.

The collection has never been publicly displayed, reports the New York Times’ Christine Chung. A Peabody spokesperson tells the Times that the museum has started contacting tribes to carry out the returns.

Victor Lopez-Carmen, a Harvard medical student and member of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, tells the Times that learning about the collection was devastating. 

“I still feel a sense of disgust that Harvard has had these hair clippings for decades and we are just finding out about it now,” he says. He adds that he appreciates Harvard’s apology, and he hopes the institution will handle the returns “in a sensitive way.”

In the meantime, the Peabody Museum has compiled information about the collection on its website

Collecting and studying hair samples was a common practice “for several centuries,” the museum writes. “Many collections of human hair samples at museums and other institutions are the result of such studies. Much of this work was carried out to support, directly or indirectly, scientific racism.”

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS), which represents survivors of the boarding school program, released a statement in response to the “disturbing revelation” from the Peabody Museum. 

“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,” writes NABS.

The Peabody’s announcement comes just two months after Harvard pledged to return the human remains of 19 people who were likely enslaved to their descendants, per the Harvard Crimson’s Tarah D. Gilles. 

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