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National NAGPRA Manager Visits Harvard Peabody Museum Amid Repatriations

Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology houses many of Harvard's anthropological materials. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act program manager visited campus last week.
Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology houses many of Harvard's anthropological materials. The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act program manager visited campus last week. By Lotem L. Loeb
By Annabel M. Yu, Crimson Staff Writer

Melanie O’Brien, the program manager and designated federal official for the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, visited Harvard’s campus last week, a trip that included meetings with the Harvard Peabody Museum’s NAGPRA Advisory and Faculty Committees.

NAGPRA, originally enacted in 1990, is a federal act that provides for the return of cultural objects and ancestral remains from museums and federal agencies to Native American tribes. The Act is administered by the National Park Service.

In a statement to The Crimson, Jordan Fifer, a National Park Service spokesperson, wrote that O’Brien was invited to Harvard by the Peabody Museum.

According to an email from University spokesperson Nicole Rura, the purpose of O’Brien’s visit is for Peabody committee members “and other regional museums to learn about the new NAGPRA regulations that went into effect in January.”

The updated NAGPRA regulations were announced by the Department of the Interior in Dec. 2023. One of the major changes under these new regulations was the prohibition of “any exhibition of, access to, or research on human remains or cultural items” by museums without tribal consent, which led the Peabody to take down nearly 40 objects from display over one month ago.

According to Rura, O’Brien’s discussions with the Peabody’s NAGPRA Advisory and Faculty Committees touch on “how to move forward with” issues and obstacles associated with the repatriation process.

Rura wrote that objects and ancestral remains held by the Museum that lack any geographical or tribal information would be included in the discussions. In its inventory, the Museum currently holds over 200 ancestral remains of which geographical and cultural affiliations are unknown.

Fifer wrote that it is the responsibility of museums and federal agencies to “initiate consultation, consult on human remains and associated funerary objects, and make determinations about cultural affiliation.”

The Department of the Interior also addressed this issue in their updated NAGPRA regulations. Even when geographical information of remains and objects is unknown, the Department states that museums should still have sufficient information “​​to identify the Indian Tribes or NHOs with potential cultural affiliation for consultation based solely on the location of or general collection practices of the museum.”

Initiating the repatriation process of objects with unknown geographical affiliations is but one issue updated NAGPRA regulations require museums like the Peabody to address. The Interior Department’s new rulings also require transparency in museum reports on collection holdings and bolstering of Tribes’ authority in repatriation consultations.

—Staff writer Neeraja S. Kumar contributed reporting.

—Staff writer Annabel M. Yu can be reached at annabel.yu@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @annabelmyu.

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