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Cambridge City Council Calls On Harvard to Return Human Remains of Enslaved People, Native Americans

The City Council chambers, located inside Cambridge City Hall.
The City Council chambers, located inside Cambridge City Hall. By Katherine W.K. Smith
By Elias J. Schisgall, Crimson Staff Writer

Following reports last week that Harvard University holds the human remains of at least 19 individuals who were likely enslaved and nearly 7,000 Native Americans, the Cambridge City Council adopted a policy order urging the University to relinquish the remains to their descendants during a Monday meeting.

The policy order, sponsored by Councilor E. Denise Simmons and passed unanimously, calls on “Harvard University to work as quickly and deliberately as possible to ensure that the human remains of the nearly 7,000 indigenous peoples and 19 enslaved individuals currently in their possession are released to the appropriate parties.”

Last week, The Crimson reported that an unfinalized draft report, produced by a committee tasked with studying how Harvard should treat human remains in its museum collections, calls on the University to return the remains of the people who were likely enslaved to their descendants and accelerate its return of Native American human remains, which has been mandated by federal law since 1990.

“In order to allow these individuals to at last rest in peace, it is imperative that the University move with all due speed, care, and deliberation to ensure that these remains are turned over to the appropriate parties for the proper, respectful burial they deserve,” Simmons said during the meeting.

In an interview, Simmons said she felt the city had to publicly call on Harvard to return the human remains for the sake of “building historical record.”

“I think it’s important that the city acknowledge this moment and go on the public and permanent record in taking a stand,” she said.

The policy order cites the University’s release of a landmark report detailing the “integral” role slavery played in shaping the school, calling on Harvard to “acknowledge and atone for its past grave misdeeds.”

“While Harvard University can no more erase its past misdeeds any more than the United States can erase its own shameful history around slavery and the treatment of indigenous people, it can and it must work to atone for these past sins in efforts to move towards a more holistic path forward, just as our country itself must strive to do,” the order reads.

The draft report, obtained by The Crimson last month, was created by Harvard’s Steering Committee on Human Remains in Harvard Museum Collections, convened in January 2021. The draft, dated April 19, is unfinalized, meaning its language, findings, and recommendations are subject to change as the committee finishes its process.

The Council’s order calls for a copy of the passed resolution to be forwarded to University President Lawrence S. Bacow.

Harvard spokesperson Rachael Dane did not respond to a request for comment on the policy order.

—Staff writer Elias J. Schisgall can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @eschisgall.

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