Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology disclosed this week that for over 80 years, it has held a large collection of hair samples that were taken from around 700 Native American students forced to attend government-sponsored residential schools in the early 20th century. In a November 10 statement, the museum apologized to Indigenous tribal nations and descendants for its “complicity in the objectification of Native peoples,” and indicated that it had initiated the process of returning samples to families and tribes.

Taken between 1930 and 1933, the hair samples — which a spokesperson for the museum said have never been publicly displayed — were gathered by lecturer and research fellow in anthropology at Harvard George Edward Woodbury and donated to the museum in 1935. 

“Since the times of Herodotus and Aristotle and even before, the outward appearance of the hair has been recognized as one of the most distinctive of racial criteria,” Woodbury wrote in his 1932 publication entitled “Differences Between Certain of the North American Indian Tribes as Shown by a Microscopical Study of Their Head Hair.”

“Much of this work was carried out to support, directly or indirectly, scientific racism,” the Peabody Museum explains in a description of the collection. “Descriptions and measurements of hair types were used to justify racial categories and hierarchies.”

Earlier this year, the Department of Interior released a report detailing the history of forced state-sponsored efforts to assimilate Native Americans. This systematic erasure of Indigenous traditions and identity — which some have described as cultural genocide — took place through the violent separation of children from their families, their relocation to boarding schools, and bans on the use of their languages. Among the many indignities that students suffered at these schools was the shearing of their hair.

The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition (NABS) released a statement responding to revelations at the Peabody Museum.

“The significance of hair to Indigenous peoples has always been a deeply sacred one,” NABS wrote. “This, of course, was also known to Indian boarding school administrators who systematically cut the hair of Native children upon processing and enrollment, which makes the hair cuttings held at Harvard’s Peabody Museum deeply complex and utterly horrific to even consider.”

“We join our relatives in grief,” the coalition added.

The Peabody Museum’s website now includes a page that catalogs affected tribes and locations where samples were collected, including the Fort Totten Indian School in North Dakota, the Sherman Institute in California, and the US Indian Vocational School in New Mexico.

News about the hair samples follows several recent failures by the university to repatriate objects and remains to their proper owners. In June, a leaked report revealed that the Peabody Museum held the human remains of at least 19 people who were likely enslaved and almost 7,000 Native Americans, and in September, the university pledged to return them.

The Peabody also continues to hold daguerreotypes of the enslaved ancestors of Tamara Lanier, who has waged a tireless campaign for their return.

NABS’s statement concludes with demands that Harvard “deepen their understanding and take accountability,” “work with Tribes in good faith toward the return of all materials,” and “immediately address and prioritize the repatriation … of the remaining Ancestors and burial belongings still in their possession.”

“In this difficult time, we are yet again reminded of the racist and colonial history that has directly benefited institutions such as Harvard University,” it reads.

Harvard has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for additional comment.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University.

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