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Harvard completes repatriation of Native remains to Wampanoag tribes

A wooden sign advises motorists of the location of Mashpee Wampanoag tribal lands in Massachusetts. (Steven Senne/AP)
A wooden sign advises motorists of the location of Mashpee Wampanoag tribal lands in Massachusetts. (Steven Senne/AP)

Harvard University's Peabody Museum and Warren Anatomical Museum recently completed the legal process for repatriating the remains of 313 Native people from eastern Massachusetts to Wampanoag communities in Mashpee and Aquinnah.

Harvard and other institutions are working on returning the remains of Native individuals from western and central Massachusetts.

An investigation by ProPublica has found that a handful of institutions, including Harvard, still holds thousands of remains of Native American ancestors.

After the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation became federal law in 1990, many museums took the first steps to comply — including reporting the number of human remains in their collections and which state and county they came from.

Jim Peters, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe and the executive director of the Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs, said he worked with Harvard for the past couple of years on this recent repatriation.

"I think they've done the best they can," Peters said about the Harvard museums. "It's been a mountainous job that they may not have paid attention to in the past eras... They have come a long way."

Peters said the next step is for the Wampanoag tribal communities to find final resting places to rebury the remains of those who died.

In an emailed statement Harvard University said it plans to start consultations on remains from other parts of the state.

"The Peabody Museum plans to reach out to invite consultation on the 25 ancestors from Central, Western and unknown locations in MA by the end of January. This includes the ancestors from Worcester, Hampshire and Franklin Counties and the ancestor from Franklin County from the Warren Anatomical Museum."

Some other museums with the remains of people from central and western Massachusetts have either begun or plan to begin the process of repatriation.

Berkshire Museum is in the midst of the repatriation process for the remains of two individuals from Hampden County.

The Worcester Historical Museum, which has the remains of two individuals, plans to seek funding to hire someone to guide them through the repatriation process.

"My biggest concern with the whole process is ensuring that everything is done correctly," said Shelley Cathcart, the Worcester Historical Museum's curator.

According to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation database, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has the remains of five individuals from Franklin County and one from Hampden County.

In an emailed statement the museum said it has "not received any inquiries or claims for these six individuals."

The museum did not say whether it had invited native groups to consult, "but welcomes engagement with any interested native communities regarding these individuals."

Additional context provided by WBUR. This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by New England Public Media.

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