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‘Appalling’: Keynote Speaker at Legacy of Slavery Symposium Calls for Faster Repatriation of Indigenous Remains

Tribal attroney and activist Tara Houska condmned Harvard's continued posession of Indigenous objects and ancestral remains held in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology.
Tribal attroney and activist Tara Houska condmned Harvard's continued posession of Indigenous objects and ancestral remains held in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. By Ellen P. Cassidy
By Neeraja S. Kumar and Annabel M. Yu, Crimson Staff Writers

Tara Houska, a tribal attorney and activist who served as the keynote speaker during the second day of Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery Symposium, condemned the University’s continued possession of Indigenous objects and ancestral remains during an interview following the event.

“For the minimal number of relatives and objects that belong to our people to not be back with us, is, frankly, appalling,” Houska said. “The reality is, there’s been a mandate in place for quite some time.”

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was passed in 1990 and federally ensured the return of ancestral remains and objects of cultural significance to Indigenous tribes and lands.

Since then, the Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology has repatriated over 4,439 native ancestors and 10,209 funerary belongings. Around 45 percent of ancestors are pending further consultation, according to the museum’s website.

Houska said that she hopes Harvard can return the remaining Indigenous human remains “in a timely manner,” considering that Harvard is an “institution that has a lot of financial resources at its fingertips.”

“Actions matter more than words,” Houska added. “It’s all well and good to say those things, but do those things.”

Harvard spokesperson Nicole Rura wrote in a statement that the Peabody Museum has grown its NAGPRA office by twice its previous size and added new staff positions to assist with the consultation and repatriation of Indigenous belongings.

Rura also noted that Harvard’s NAGPRA team now has one of the largest staff sizes in the nation and the University is funding travel expenses for Tribal leaders to come to the University and collaborate towards repatriation.

Houska’s remarks came moments after she delivered the keynote address during the second day of the symposium. The first day, which was held at the Museum of African American History in Boston, featured a talk with New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Wednesday’s portion of the symposium was held at the Smith Campus Center and featured opening remarks from interim University President Alan M. Garber ’76 as interim Provost John F. Manning ’82 watched on from the audience.

In his opening remarks, Garber expressed his gratitude to “the many people who worked with such great care and resolve to reveal and detail Harvard's historic ties to enslavement” and the University’s “obligation to demonstrate the power of the work of repair.”

“We know this effort must be significant and sustained, and we also know that we must proceed with humility,” he said.

Houska, a member of the Couchiching First Nation, focused her keynote speech on partnership and solidarity between Black and Indigenous groups.

“The theft of land, the theft of labor is the foundation of the United States. There is no other way to come at it,” Houska said. “We are the lands, we are the hands. That is the truth.”

Houska was also quick to discuss theft of Indigenous land, which was used for elite institutions like Harvard, which is situated on the ancestral land of the Massachusett Tribe.

“I don’t think that these spaces are necessarily made for us,” Houska said. “But they were made by us. They are made from us, and that's the truth.”

Houska, a former adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), ended her talk on a forward-looking note that promoted solidarity that reaches Black and Indigenous groups but also “farther than just those two groups.

“If we don’t have mutuality, we will not survive, and that includes our liberatory struggles,” Houska said. “We are not free until all of us are free.”

In the interview following her address, Houska also expressed solidarity with the students staging an encampment in Harvard Yard to protest the University’s suspension of the Harvard Undergraduate Palestine Solidarity Committee and to demand Harvard divest from Israel’s war in Gaza.

In particular, Houska said the decision to suspend the PSC was a “very clear crackdown and violation of” students’ rights to free speech.

Houska, who said she visited the encampment before her address, said that the decision to take disciplinary action against the PSC demonstrated that Harvard is “obviously quite afraid.”

“They’re scared of the fact that — in an institution like this one that is so prestigious and well-known — people are paying attention to what’s happening at Harvard,” she added.

Harvard spokesperson Jason A. Newton declined to comment on Houska’s remarks.

Houska also encouraged students to “take care of each other, be there for each other” and to “push back.”

“Standing up for what's right is never easy,” she said.

Correction: April 26, 2024

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the University will fund travel expenses for Tribal leaders to come to Harvard and collaborate towards repatriation. In fact, the University is already funding such expenses.

—Staff writer Neeraja S. Kumar can be reached at neeraja.kumar@thecrimson.com.

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

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