Peabody Museum Apologizes For Practices Around Native American Cultural Objects, Announces Policy Changes


Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology administrators apologized for the “pain” the museum caused by its refusal to voluntarily return certain funerary objects to Native American tribes and pledged to reverse the policy in response to a letter from the Association on American Indian Affairs last month criticizing the museum.

In February, the Association sent a letter to University President Lawrence S. Bacow accusing Harvard of legal and moral violations in the Museum’s practices regarding its collections of Native American human remains and cultural objects. In the letter, the nonprofit said Harvard’s practices are in violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Bacow initially responded to the Association’s chief executive, Shannon O’Loughlin, in early March, writing that he had asked Peabody Museum Director Jane Pickering to respond in detail to the Association’s letter.

In a five-page response Thursday, Pickering and Peabody Museum NAGPRA Advisory Committee Chair Philip J. Deloria denied that the Museum was in violation of the law, but apologized for past practices and announced changes to the Museum’s research and repatriation policies that match some of the Association’s demands.


In the response, Pickering and Deloria assured O’Loughlin of their “concrete commitment to the return of individuals to fulfill the ethical and moral imperative of NAGPRA.”

“We intend that the Native American individuals in the Peabody Museum will be transferred through repatriation or disposition,” they wrote.

“The museum has no interest in subverting or delaying NAGPRA’s implementation. Our Museum is not the proper place for these remains, and we are committed to their return.”

Passed by Congress in 1990, NAGPRA required any institutions that receive federal funding to compile inventories of Native American human remains and cultural objects they held in their collections in consultation with Native American tribes, and to repatriate them when they could determine a tribal affiliation. When institutions classify remains or objects as “culturally unidentifiable,” tribes can claim those items through a different process that sometimes requires them to submit evidence of affiliation. Under that process, the institution can also sometimes choose to repatriate only human remains, but not associated funerary objects.

The Association claimed in its initial letter that Harvard had “caused continuing physical, emotional and spiritual trauma to Native Nations and their citizens” by placing an undue burden on Native American tribes to provide evidence when requesting repatriation, and by refusing to voluntarily return some funeral objects in addition to remains.

Pickering and Deloria acknowledged that in the past, the Museum had refused to voluntarily repatriate some cultural objects along with human remains, as the AAIA’s letter had alleged, and announced that they had begun the process of repatriating those objects.

“The Peabody Museum apologizes for those refusals and the pain they caused,” they wrote. “The moral context of the return of a human being to a tribal nation means that those things placed in a burial—personal, spiritual, and ceremonial items—should be transferred along with the person or persons with whom they were buried.”

“We have changed our policy and are in the process of reaching out to tribes affected by the past policy and informing our present and future tribal partners of this change,” they added.

Responding to the AAIA’s claim that the Museum used did not take advantage of relevant geographic information that could have been used to determine the tribal affiliation of many of the remains the Peabody had labeled as “culturally unidentifiable,” Deloria and Pickering wrote that geography alone is often not enough to determine a tribal affiliation.

The AAIA’s letter had also protested that the Peabody had not publicized its policies for NAGPRA compliance. The Museum is currently designing a website, which it anticipates launching in the early summer, that will provide more public information on these policies, Deloria and Pickering wrote.

The Museum will also announce “formal policy changes in research protocols and permissions regarding human remains and associated funerary objects” in the upcoming months, they added. The AAIA had demanded that the Museum impose a moratorium on all research on its collections of Native American human remains and cultural objects, and that it remove a search tool from its website that displayed photos of Native American funerary objects.

Pickering and Deloria took a more defensive stance in responding to the Association’s claim that the Peabody violated NAGPRA by sometimes failing to properly consult with Native American tribal nations when completing inventories of their collections, leading it to misclassify some remains as “culturally unidentifiable.” The Museum administrators wrote that the Department of the Interior constrained the Museum’s inventory process through “shortened consultation timelines and regular quotas,” forcing it to classify some remains as culturally unidentifiable.

“The Museum did not then and does not now intend that those preliminary determinations be final,” they added. “Since 2001 the Museum has actively continued consultations.”

In an interview with The Crimson Saturday, O’Loughlin said she was pleased at the policy change around voluntary repatriation that Pickering and Deloria announced in their letter.

“The fact that they have now expressly changed their policy regarding the repatriation of funerary objects, and that they put that on the website, is extremely good news,” O’Loughlin said.

“I know that we do, with Phil Deloria and Jane Pickering, share the sentiment of NAGPRA,” she added. “Where we’re not connecting is the understanding of what the law provides and what the requirements are.”

Despite Pickering and Deloria’s claim that evidence beyond geographical affiliation is needed to affiliate some remains and objects to a single tribe, O’Loughlin said this “has not impeded other institutions from making determinations of affiliation to multiple tribes.”

“If you’re not willing to repatriate then you make these kinds of excuses, that it’s too hard or complicated,” she said.

While O’Loughlin said she is “grateful that they’re working on it,” she hopes to see further changes in the Museum’s practices.

“Writing a policy or just having ongoing consultations with tribes or discussions or meetings, does not equal compliance,” she added. “Compliance is all of that — and repatriation, so we actually just have to keep the pressure on and see how this translates into actual actions.”

—Staff writer Oliver L. Riskin-Kutz can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @OLRiskinKutz.