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Indigenous Activists Call For Vote On Protect Native Heritage Act

Above photo: Indigenous activists and supporters protest at Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston, Sept. 30. Steve Gillis.

Follows announcement of remains held captive by Harvard Peabody Museum.

Indigenous activists are calling for an immediate floor vote on H.3377, H.3385, S.2239, S.2240 An Act to Protect Native American Heritage following Harvard’s online statement which addressed the Woodbury Collection that holds hair clippings from approximately 700 Native children attending U.S. Indian Boarding Schools.

“Speaker Ronald Mariano must call for an immediate floor vote towards the passage of An Act to Protect Native American Heritage. The November 10 Harvard statement is indicative of a broader issue of how our sacred objects and our human remains continue to be held captive for racist, eugenicist, and colonialist means,” said Jean-Luc Pierite, member of the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana, and president of North American Indian Center of Boston, “We must act to refine the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) enforcement on the state level to include all publicly funded entities. Consultation and repatriation or rematriation are essential to putting our ancestors to rest. We mourn especially for children separated from their families and lost to boarding schools who remain alienated from their homelands and captive in these institutions of so-called higher learning.”

Pierite further called for a refinement of the Peabody Museum’s handling of public information regarding the remains. “The Peabody Museum has moved from publicly displaying names of children whose remains are held captive. In the list’s place is an indeterminate list of origins which do not align with our recognition of sovereign, extant governments. The list historicizes the pain which is felt directly by families in our urban Indian community. Further iterations of the list must indicate the proper government names; otherwise, impacted family members may be excluded from grief and closure.”

Mahtowin Munro, co-leader of United American Indians of New England (UAINE), said that “Thousands of Indigenous people have felt grief, pain and anger upon learning that Harvard had even more Indigenous remains than they had previously admitted. We note that Harvard currently still holds at least several thousand Indigenous remains altogether and have dragged their heels for decades when it comes to complying with NAGPRA. In addition, Harvard apparently made last Thursday’s announcement about the bundles of children’s hair that have been languishing at their museum since the 1930s without even bothering to consult with Native organizations or nations, causing further trauma by their insensitivity.

Munro continued, “Harvard’s announcement happened on the day after the Supreme Court heard the Indian Child Welfare Act oral argument. If ICWA is overturned, Indigenous children by the thousands may be taken from their families and communities and placed with non-Native families, just as happened in previous eras as a matter of government policy. This news has also happened at a time when Indigenous peoples throughout the US and Canada continue to grapple with the devastating legacy of the Indian boarding schools. Our children who have passed into the spirit world, our living children now, and future generations of our children must be protected at all costs, and that includes their remains being returned in a proper and rapid way to Indigenous nations and homelands. Indigenous remains including hair are sacred. Items placed in graves are sacred. We cannot rest until they are all brought home. The Massachusetts Legislature can and must help to make that happen.”

NAGPRA was enacted by the U.S. Congress in 1990. The passage was prompted in part by the case of the “Tunica Treasure” which was previously leased to the Harvard Peabody Museum before ultimately returning home to the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana.

An Act to Protect Native American Heritage was originally filed in 2019. Just before that, the Town of Medford pulled sacred objects from the Pacific Northwest from an auction after an outcry from the local Indigenous community. This Act would also have greatly hastened the recent return of sacred items and remains from the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre by the Barre Museum after decades of Wounded Knee descendants requesting the return. It is currently unknown how  many other Indigenous human remains are held by other institutions in Massachusetts. In May 2022, the House Steering, Policy and Scheduling Committee placed the bill on the Orders of the Day for the next sitting for a second reading.

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