Set Them Free

© Dennis Stock/Magnum Photos


For over 80 years, the Peabody Museum at Harvard University has been in possession of a large collection of hair clippings taken from Native children who were forced to attend government-run boarding schools. There is no excuse for such a crime, writes columnist Ruth Robertson. Give them back to us.

While November has been designated as Native American Heritage Month in the United States, for actual Native folks, this seasonal “honor” has become, more often than not, a perpetual nightmare. Day after day, throughout November, we are subjected to a barrage of dreadful, half-assed, so-called acknowledgments that often showcase the worst stereotypes, caricatures, and misinformation about Indigenous peoples imaginable, instances of redface (see: children’s Thanksgiving plays that haven’t been updated since the 1950s or pub crawl ads with nearly naked white women flagrantly desecrating sacred warbonnets), and watching non-Natives cheer for a nonstop barrage of sports teams featuring us as dehumanizing mascots.


Its negative manifestation is unfortunate, to say the least, because when Congress passed the joint resolution setting the month aside for Native remembrance in 1990, its intentions were solid. According to President Biden, Native American Heritage Month is meant to “celebrate Indigenous peoples past and present and rededicate ourselves to honoring Tribal sovereignty, promoting Tribal self-determination, and upholding the United States’ solemn trust and treaty responsibilities to Tribal Nations.” In this year’s proclamation, he willingly admitted that America has failed to deliver on the promises it has made to Native Nations, and even “sought to decimate Native populations and their ways of life,” but that Native Americans have “made immeasurable contributions to our country’s progress” in spite of the attempted genocide we continue to face.


It’s been a long road for Natives to receive even a basic level of respect. For centuries after Europeans landed on Turtle Island’s shores, they refused to recognize that this land’s Indigenous population were human beings possessing dignity and deserving of fundamental human rights. It wasn’t until the Standing Bear v. Crook decision in 1879 that Natives were recognized as a people who hold the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Natives did not receive United States citizenship until 1924, and many Natives could not vote until 1965.


Native American Heritage Month has also become a time when individuals and organizations who have wronged Native Nations seek absolution.


To our collective horror, the Peabody Museum at Harvard University opted to take this route in November 2022 when they announced that they had a sizeable collection of hair clippings that were taken from Native children who were forced to attend assimilationist government-run boarding schools in the 1930s, where neglect and abuse ran rampant.

The cutting of the hair of Native children is an act of violence in and of itself. But to take the hair and keep it, is beyond evil.

Ruth H. Robertson

The Peabody issued an apology along with the announcement, stating that they would make an effort to return the hair samples that were cut from some 700 Native children who belonged to 300 separate Native Nations from all over the United States. According to its website, the Peabody prides itself on housing objects and images that it has amassed from diverse populations. In other words, like many western museums, it seems to be a bit of a menagerie of relics seized from colonized peoples.


While officials at Harvard and the Peabody say they are aware of the “cultural and spiritual significance” of hair to many Native cultures, I don’t believe they really do. If they did, their announcement would have been absolutely grief stricken. The Museum kept the hair for more than 80 years.


I don’t pretend to speak for all Natives, but as an Oceti Sakowin (Dakota/Lakota Sioux) woman who is a traditional practitioner of the Oceti Sakowin ancestral beliefs, I know that hair plays an important role in Oceti Sakowin spirituality. We are taught that hair is its own entity. It grows of its own accord and must be respected. For the warrior, long hair is considered a marker of their identity, and it in fact holds their personal power. It is also a direct link to the ancestors.


Hair has its own medicine. For that reason, there are ceremonial aspects regarding hair. In precolonial times, we only had our hair cut by an elder or medicine person when we were in mourning. Hair clippings were also closely guarded because they held the power of the individual they belonged to. When settlers took the hair of innocent Native children, they were taking a part of their soul. Indeed, they were exercising dominion over not just their tiny bodies, but their spirits as well.


The cutting of the hair of Native children, who could in no way consent to such an act, but who did understand that they were being violated when their hair was being shorn, is an act of violence in and of itself. But to take the hair and keep it, is beyond evil.


The Peabody attempted to console us by saying that the samples have never been publicly displayed. It’s true that displaying the hair of these child prisoners would have added further insult to injury. Nonetheless, the wrong remains, whether it was made public or not. What’s worse is that the hair was taken for the purposes of race science. The hair was kept in envelopes that carried the name and Tribe of the child, along with their degree of blood. The morbid collection was meant to study human variation and support anthropological theories based on race and white supremacy.

As we demand the return of their remains, we must also demand that their hair be returned to us in kind, so they might know peace.

Ruth H. Robertson

The process of collecting the children’s hair is emblematic of the systemic abuse that occurred at government-run boarding schools. One could also conclude that the taking and keeping of these Native children’s hair was spiritual abuse. As an Oceti Sakowin traditionalist, I am aggrieved. The spirits of those Native children may now be tied to the Museum, unable to join the ancestors because they’ve been bound by their hair to the Peabody like spiritual hostages.


Under the leadership of Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and after the discovery of over a thousand unmarked graves of Indigenous children throughout North America, the Department of Interior began investigating government-run boarding schools to determine the extent of abuse and neglect that occurred in those institutions, as well as recover the remains of additional children who are buried at those sites. As we demand the return of their remains, we must also demand that their hair be returned to us in kind, so they might know peace. There can be no absolution until our children are wholly returned to us.


Sadly, this isn’t the first time Harvard has been in the news for collecting body parts. This year it was reported that the university is still holding onto the remains of 7,000 Native ancestors, as well as over a dozen people that were enslaved.


For me, this is personal. The Peabody Museum released a list of sites from where hair samples were taken. Among them was Fort Totten Indian School, where my father, aunts and uncles were taken as children to be stripped of their Native identities, indoctrinated, and abused. The hair of 138 Native children was gathered from Fort Totten, during the 1930s, when they attended.


My father, aunts and uncles were boarding school survivors. They have all passed away since. My father, who died of Covid-19 on Thanksgiving Day of 2020, was the last to take his leave of this mortal coil. It makes me positively ill to think that the Peabody Museum may have kept his hair all of these years, against his will, like some sort of twisted, genocidal memento to race science. Serial killers keep trophies from their victims, too…


I pray that his spirit, and the spirits of my aunts and uncles, have not been bound to this earthly plane, held prisoner by the Peabody Museum, victimized once more by their laziness and colonial ignorance. You have committed spiritual violence. For such a crime, there is no excuse. We see what you have done. Give them back to us. They do not belong to you. Set them free. Until then, Peabody, you have damned yourself to be reviled for your active participation in this wickedness and you will receive no forgiveness.

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