Harvard University has a reputation that precedes it: Founded in 1636, It’s one of the oldest institutes dedicated to higher learning in the United States, and ranked as the most prestigious university in the world.

But throughout Indian Country, Harvard’s legacy also includes its racist attitudes towards Native Americans resulting in the second-largest (after UC Berkeley) collection of Indigenous human remains and their burial objects in the country—at least 6,162 individuals and 13,615 of their burial artifacts, according to a federal database.

In the past several years, the institution—including the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology where the ancestors are kept—has begun to turn towards its history. In March 2019, a descendant of enslaved individuals sued Harvard’s Peabody Museum, claiming it was profiting by using photos of her ancestors on the cover of a $40 anthropology book. Six months later, Harvard President Larry Bacow announced an initiative on “Harvard & the Legacy of Slavery” that culminated in a 130-page report released in April 2022, and a $100 million pledge to study and atone for its extensive ties with slavery of both Black and Indigenous people. 

“One aspect of the original mission of Harvard College was to educate (and convert) Native students alongside white classmates,” the report reads. “In the 1640s, the fledgling Colony was in the throes of an economic crisis, and the College was on the edge of collapse: Christianizing Indigenous people opened up vital new avenues of financial support.”

In January 2020, Peabody Museum staff discovered the remains of 15 formerly enslaved people of African descent in its museum collection. It is still working to repatriate them, along with the thousands of Native ancestors.

In July 2022, Harvard brought on Kelli Mosteller (Citizen Potawatomi Nation) to direct the university’s Native American program, which was instituted in the 1970s to help with Indigenous student enrollment and support. Mosteller has a Ph.D. in Native American history from the University of Texas at Austin, and more than 12 years of experience facilitating repatriations for her tribe as a NAGPRA and tribal historic preservation officer.

“When I applied and interviewed, in my interview, I said, ‘You all have a really bad track record, and a terrible history,’” Mosteller told Native News Online. “Everyone said ‘We know, and we are actively trying to change that, and that's why we want you to come.’”

In her role as director of the Harvard University Native American Program (HUNAP), Mosteller works to recruit and retain Native students, support Indigenous students culturally and academically on campus, and promote university-wide engagement with Indigenous issues. This year, 331 Harvard students self-identify as Indigenous, Mosteller said. Of them, her department is “heavily engaged” with about 140 students.

Mosteller replaced outgoing director Shelly Lowe (Diné), who was selected by President Biden in October 2021 to lead the federal cultural agency, the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Native News Online spoke with Mosteller on her new role, why premiere institutions like Harvard have such large collections of ancestral human remains, and how she dealt with the university's recent additional findings of hair clippings taken from Native children at boarding schools.

In your opinion, why has one of the leading institutions in America been one of the worst offenders of NAGPRA?

They have one of the largest collections. You can’t get around that. For a very long time, Harvard was actively collecting, but they were also taking on entire collections from other institutions that were deaccessioning. So, the sheer number is one thing.

Another is that for a very long time, they were very concerned about following the letter of the law. NAGPRA is one of those laws that has had a few amendments over the years that has made it to where you don't have so many gray areas. Harvard is guilty of…for a very long time (following) the strictest letters that they could. Also, they just didn’t have an adequate number of staff. They recently (doubled their staff when they) brought on four more staff members to help with (NAGPRA).

What has changed?

I would say that in the last five or six years, there's been a real change. 

For so long, not just Harvard, but many institutions made the academic argument that human remains further research. They’re not doing that anymore. 

We have an incoming president, Claudine Gay. She will be inaugurated as Harvard president this summer. Just days before her announcement was made that she'd be president, she made the statement that human remains do not belong on museum shelves. They do not belong here. They need to go back. 

So from the incoming president, to the executive director of the museum, Jane Pickering, to everyone on the NAGPRA Committee, nobody is making that argument anymore. 

I think it took a lot of change in the attitudes of people at the highest level. It took commitment to funding it properly. It took some shaming, also.

How has your experience as a NAGPRA officer for your tribe informing your work at Harvard? Are you assisting with repatriation?

I’m actually on a few different committees. I am on the Harvard NAGPRA Advisory Committee, which is chaired by (Professor of History) Phil Deloria. There are a handful of us on the committee that work with the staff from the Peabody Museum to make sure that NAGPRA consultations are staying on course. We meet every other month and really look at: what's the progress of consultations, what kinds of repatriations are coming up, what collections do we need to make sure that due diligence is being done to consult with tribes? (The NAGPRA Committee) really keeps several sets of eyes on that repatriation process. 

I am also on the Human Remains Return Committee, which is a newly formed committee that was put together after the release of the “Legacy of Slavery” report. They really took a hard look at the collections both at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, or the Warren Anatomical Museum, and they discovered that they had the remains of more than 15 individuals that were known to be enslaved at the time they passed away, or were likely to have been enslaved. These (individuals), of course, fall outside of NAGPRA, because they aren't Native. But we are working with the museum and the university to do the proper research to try to make affiliations between these individuals and their descended communities and figure out how we get these ancestors back to the communities that they belong with so that they can be properly taken care of.

This has new challenges to it, because NAGPRA doesn't dictate this. We use NAGPRA as a framework, but of course with NAGPRA you have tribal government on the other end that you're doing consultation with. In these cases, there's no government on the other side. It may sometimes be individuals, or it may be a set of families or it may be an organization.

Are you involved in the repatriation process for the Woodbury Collection Harvard recently discovered that includes 700 hair samples taken from Indian boarding school children?

Those fall under NAGPRA, so they do get dealt with under my participation as a member of the NAGPRA Committee. 

The Woodbury Collection was absolutely devastating. I started in July, and we learned of and started helping our students understand and process the Woodbury collection in November. I had not been employed very long when we learned about this, and had to figure out not only how to work with tribes, of course, but we have students on campus who likely could have family members with hair in the collection. 

We had to be very mindful about the fact that this is hard on every Native person, but our students, in particular, are in a space where they need a lot of attention and care, so (we) made sure their needs were met.

In what ways were those needs met?

It was almost like a triage. We were emailing very regularly with our students. We set up a space where… we had medicines. We would smudge regularly. 

We brought in some former staff and faculty members who have training as mental health professionals. We had the Native staff members who work at the museum come, so that if students had technical questions, there was someone here who is Native who understands how sensitive this is and can answer those questions. You have all these questions about: why would someone do this? We were helping with the museum in their work reaching out to all of the tribes. 

It was the number one thing on our agenda for weeks. Every single day, we had to assess what the needs were that day, and be ready to respond to them–also all while we were processing this ourselves.

How do you reconcile with your role in this process?

I did not pull punches in my (job) interview. I said: Here's the things that we have to be able to talk about. Here's the things that you have to be able to tell me that you're working towards. I’m not wanting to harp on the past if you're telling me that your goal and your commitment is to do the right thing moving forward.

They were able to make those assurances to me, and I can tell you being here now, every single thing that they said that they would do, they’re living up to. Even this whole experience with the Woodbury Collection, it has been a really interesting experience as someone who, seven months before, would have been the one on the other side of that phone call.

There's been a few times where (the museum staff has a plan), and when they are hearing from the tribes that that's not what they want, (Peabody staff) is changing their plans. This is consultation in action, this is how it is supposed to happen.

There are so many more Native voices in this decision making process now that things are happening with a lot of attention and care and thinking about the spirit of NAGPRA, not just the letter of the law of NAGPRA.

I know Harvard has a terrible history, and they know they have a terrible legacy, but I have faith that we're moving in the right direction because I'm on the ground, watching us do the work everyday, trying to right that history.

What do you say to Indigenous community members who remain distrustful of Harvard?

I would say: I understand, because I was on the other side of the table for so long. It wasn't just Harvard, but Harvard is a leading actor in this.

I am so sick of university after university, museum after museum, having all these promises and then (finding additional collections). It’s (been) 30 years (since) NAGPRA passed, why are we still finding things?

What I would say to those skeptics is that you believe what you see as Harvard and as the Peabody continue to do really good consultation, as they continue to do repatriations. They recently repatriated a canoe. (But) we don’t deserve to be patted on the back.

Believe what you see. Continue to follow through on this university and other universities’ obligations to fulfill NAGPRA. Know that there are Native people at the table who are doing this from the inside, but stay the course and keep watching. It’s that attention that is going to keep NAGPRA advancing and being held up as the legal standard that it is.

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.