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Local Wampanoag leaders say Harvard must not wait to return thousands of Native American remains

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Native Land Digital: https://native-land.ca/maps/territories/wampanoag/
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Harvard University has acknowledged its museum collection has held the remains of thousands of Indigenous people for generations.

Leaders from the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribes say the university is acting too slowly to release those remains to tribes for burial.

CAI's Kathryn Eident talked with Craig LeMoult from our sister station, GBH, to learn more.

Eident First, why does Harvard have these human remains and how did this come to light?

LeMoult Well, Harvard collected these human remains during the eras of British colonialism and illegal enslavement, and the remains have been used over time for scientific research. And that research has promoted what the university now acknowledges as spurious and racist ideas. In April, Harvard pledged $100 million for teaching, research and service in an attempt to atone for and rectify its ties to slavery.

The remains are being held in a storage facility at Harvard's Peabody Museum and it previously come out that they had the remains of 15 people it was believed could have been enslaved. Last year, the university announced it was appointing a steering committee to review what human remains they had in their archives.

And then earlier this month, the student newspaper, The Harvard Crimson, reported on a leaked draft report from that steering committee. And the draft report said Harvard is holding the human remains of at least 19 people who were enslaved or likely enslaved, rather, and as many as 7,000 Native Americans.

Eident That's a huge number and a huge jump from what the university had said previously. You spoke with some members of the Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribes about that large number of bodies; how did they react to that news?

LeMoult Yeah. One of the people I spoke with was Jessie Little Doe Baird. She's a former Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council vice chairperson and the founder of the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project, for which she won a MacArthur Genius Grant in 2010. Baird said she wasn't actually surprised by the number of remains in Harvard's collection. She noted that the collection at the Smithsonian is many times larger. But she said, there's just no excuse for Harvard holding on to them.

Baird "People seem to think that because, you know, somebody died X number of years ago that it's okay, when if you went to their local cemetery and tried to dig their grandmother up for research, or their parents up for research, I don't think they'd appreciate it."

LeMoult I also spoke with the head of the state's Commission on Indian Affairs, John Peters Jr. He's also a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and he's actually been in the room with those remains. Years ago, he said, while he was working to recover remains of members of his own tribe.

Peters "I've been in the Bone Room and it was quite an experience to go in there. Boxes piled to the ceiling of different ancestors from around the world, actually, that they'd been holding. It's quite moving to be in there. It's quite moving."

LeMoult Peters actually credits Harvard for making an effort to repatriate remains. He says he thinks they've come to the realization that returning these remains is the best thing to do.

Eident I mean, it's one thing to do the "best" thing. But what about legally? Is the university required to do anything by law?

LeMoult Yeah. A federal law known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act went into effect in 1990, which required universities to catalog human remains in their collections and return them to affiliated tribes that request them. The Harvard Crimson quotes the new report as saying that identifying the provenance of remains, "might include DNA or other analysis for the express purpose of identifying lineal descendants."

But I talked with Shannon O'Laughlin, who's the CEO of the Association on American Indian Affairs, and a citizen of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. And she said the most of the remains have enough geographic information associated with them to determine where they're from.

O'Laughlin "It does not require any research or DNA evidence. In fact, the law expressly says that no additional research is necessary. The museum is supposed to use information it already has and consult with tribes, and repatriation happens."

LeMoult The federal law requires that remains be repatriated to so-called culturally affiliated tribes, meaning there's a shared cultural identity that can be historically traced between the remains and the present day tribe.

I talked with Cheryl Andrews-Maltais about that. She's the chairwoman of the Wampanoag tribe of Gay Head Aquinnah, and she told me that federally recognized tribes in the Northeast are linked by blood and by language and are connected enough to any remains found in this region to handle many of the repatriations that are needed for Harvard's collection. She said Harvard is using that cultural affiliation requirement as an excuse to slow down repatriations. She also reacted to a quote from the Crimson article that calls for an on campus space where remains can be respectfully viewed and studied.

Andrews-Maltais "There's no such thing as respectfully viewed and studied when you're talking about the human remains of our ancestors. Is absolutely repugnant in most indigenous communities. Never mind the rest of the world."

Eident What is Harvard had to say about this in an official capacity?

LeMoult In a written statement, Professor Evelyn Hammonds, who's the chair of that Harvard steering committee that's studying this issue, she focused on the leak of the committee's draft report. She said the Crimson's article was deeply frustrating, and she said what they reported on was an initial incomplete and outdated draft that does not reflect weeks of additional information and worked by the committee. And she said the committee looks forward to sharing the report in a responsible and inclusive manner. Once it's finished.

Eident I imagine there are a lot of people who are looking forward to being able to take a look at exactly what is in that report when it's published officially.

LeMoult For sure.

Eident Craig LeMoult of our sister station GBH, thanks so much for joining us to talk about this important reporting.

LeMoult Thanks for having me.

This conversation was lightly edited for grammar and clarity.