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Harvard urged to return remains of enslaved people, thousands of Native Americans

The university’s museum collections possess the remains of nearly 7,000 Native Americans and at least 19 enslaved people, according to a document leaked to the school newspaper.
Pedestrians walk through Harvard Yard on the closed Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., on April 20, 2020.
Pedestrians walk through Harvard Yard on the closed Harvard University campus in Cambridge, Mass., on April 20, 2020.Adam Glanzman / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

A leaked draft report from a Harvard faculty committee has revealed that the university possesses, in its museum collections, the remains of nearly 7,000 Native Americans and almost 20 people who were likely enslaved, according to The Harvard Crimson

The draft report, which has not yet been finalized and was dated in April, is the work of a steering committee tasked with making plans for Harvard's collection of human remains. It urges the university to return the remains to descendants’ families — or, if ancestry is unclear, to consult with the descendants’ communities about how to address returning the remains. 

According to the Crimson, the draft report acknowledges that the remains “were obtained under the violent and inhumane regimes of slavery and colonialism” and that 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 says. 

The remains primarily reside in Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Ethnology and Archaeology, the Crimson reports. The director of the museum and University President Lawrence S. Bacow apologized last year for the practices that led to Harvard’s possession of the remains.

The formation of the Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections was just one development related to a 134-page report released April 26 by a separate group, the Committee on Harvard and the Legacy of Slavery. That report aimed to “remedy the persistent educational and social harms that human bondage caused.” 

The report documented the remains of “thousands of individuals” sitting in Harvard’s museum collections and stated many of the remains were thought to belong to Indigenous people, and at least 15 were from potentially enslaved people of African descent. The university pledged $100 million to implement the recommendations in the report.  

“Harvard benefited from and in some ways perpetuated practices that were profoundly immoral,” Bacow wrote in a statement released with the initial report. “Consequently, I believe we bear a moral responsibility to do what we can to address the persistent corrosive effects of those historical practices on individuals, on Harvard, and on our society.” 

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