Harvard University will provide funds to cover travel expenses incurred by Tribal representatives who come to campus for the repatriation of ancestors and associated funerary belongings.
“From my conversations with Tribal representatives, removing the hurdle of finding travel funding makes a big difference,” said Kelli Mosteller, executive director of the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP) and a member of the Peabody Museum’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) advisory committee. “There’s so much labor on the Tribe’s end for repatriation — buying land, making sure the land is in trusts, determining the ceremony and processes by which the ancestors will be reinterred, identifying the spiritual leaders for these ceremonies.”
Congress enacted NAGPRA in 1990 to guide the work of returning Native American ancestors, funerary belongings, and sacred and other cultural objects to lineal descendants, Tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.
“By making this funding available, we’re hoping to enable repatriations to happen sooner, because we — including the Tribes — all share the goal of returning ancestors.”Jane Pickering
Since the beginning of NAGPRA, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University has legally transferred more than 4,300 ancestors and 10,000 funerary belongings to their Tribes. The Peabody is still working on the return of more than 5,000 ancestors.
The U.S. Department of the Interior already offers some grants for repatriation travel. Harvard’s commitment to provide funding will help further reduce financial barriers faced by Tribal communities.
This latest initiative is among the steps the University has taken in recent years to support NAGPRA-related work. Current Interim President Alan Garber reaffirmed Harvard’s desire to support the repatriation effort during a campus talk at the conference “Responsibility and Repair: Legacies of Indigenous Enslavement, Indenture, and Colonization at Harvard and Beyond” in November.
“We are committed to getting [repatriation] done expeditiously,” Garber said. “And we have apologized before, and I’ll repeat it, for the fact that this is not already behind us. That must occur, and that must occur quickly, and we are committed to doing that.”
To that end, the Peabody more than doubled the size of its NAGPRA office over the past year and added new positions in other departments to provide necessary support for NAGPRA activities. A Tribal visit coordinator, which is a newly created position, joined the team in mid-December to help arrange upcoming repatriation travel.
“By making this funding available, we’re hoping to enable repatriations to happen sooner, because we — including the Tribes — all share the goal of returning ancestors,” said Jane Pickering, the William and Muriel Seabury Howells Director of the Peabody Museum.
“And we have apologized before, and I’ll repeat it, for the fact that this is not already behind us. That must occur, and that must occur quickly, and we are committed to doing that. ”Alan Garber
“Some people have the mistaken impression that folks at Harvard are trying, by hook or by crook, to undermine this repatriation process. It’s not true,” said Joseph P. Gone, professor of anthropology and of global health and social medicine at Harvard University, faculty director of HUNAP, and member of the Peabody’s Faculty Executive Committee. “No one at Harvard wants to hold on to these materials. Everyone wants to see these ancestors go back home where they belong.”
In addition to the new travel funding for repatriation visits, Mosteller and Gone are celebrating a generous gift that will allow HUNAP to move to a new, bigger home. The building on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge will house office and programming space for HUNAP and will also be available as a gathering spot for Native American students.
In 1970, Harvard’s Graduate School of Education started the American Indian Program. In 1998, the program was reorganized into the University-wide HUNAP, which moved to its current location at 14 Story St. in 2007. The interfaculty initiative is centered on Indigenous-focused education, community, scholarship, and inclusion, and it supports the 335 Indigenous-identifying students currently attending the University and its more than 1,400 Native alumni.
“HUNAP activities have expanded considerably during the past years, and our community has grown in remarkable ways,” said Gone. “Two years ago, we had 63 Indigenous-identifying students who came to Harvard College for their first year, and last May, we had 44 students who participated in HUNAP’s Commencement activities. These statistics are indicative of the growth that HUNAP has experienced and therefore, we need new space. And the University has been very supportive of making this happen.”
“The building is a three-story house with a basement and a yard,” said Mosteller. “It’ll be two years before it’s ready for us, but we had our first design meeting on Jan. 5. We’re very excited about our new space!”