Murals on the rear side of the abandoned Concho Indian Boarding School in El Reno, Oklahoma, were painted by Steven Grounds of the Navajo and Euchee tribes. (Photo by Mary Annette Pember / ICT)
Tucked in hundreds of envelopes is the hair cut from Native children as they arrived at boarding schools. Hidden away for nearly 100 years in the recesses of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, the collection of hair samples offers tangible evidence of the trauma of assimilation.
According to the hygiene of the day, cropping hair was the surest way to avoid lice among the crowded populations of children coerced to attend the nation’s Indian boarding schools.
For boarding school survivors, however, the haircuts came to symbolize the harsh introduction to the process of assimilation, a gesture disregarding their culture and families wishes.
Denise Lajimodiere, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, wept as she described her reaction to hearing about the museum’s findings.
“I began to shake and weep, especially thinking of how deeply boarding school survivors may take this news,” said Lajimodiere, co-founder of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition and author of “Stringing Rosaries: The History, the Unforgivable and the Healing of Northern Plains American Indian Boarding School Survivors.”
Some of those sampled could still be alive today, Lajimodiere said.
The Peabody Museum recently discovered the box of human hair among its holdings. Gathered nearly a century ago, the hair was taken by an anthropologist from the heads of hundreds of Native children who attended Indian boarding schools between 1930 and 1933.
Museum leaders released a public announcement on Nov. 10 about the findings.
“I imagine that many people, especially non-Natives, hardly gave it a second thought,” said Jamie Azure, chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa tribe.
“But for Native people hair represents cultural and spiritual connections to family and place. Our hair is part of our strength.”
The United States is trailing Canada in addressing its history of government- and church-run Indian boarding schools.
In 2006, Canada created the Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program as part of the country’s Indian Residential School Agreement.
Although the Department of the Interior under Secretary Deb Haaland’s leadership recently released the Federal Indian Boarding School Investigative Report, there are currently no services or support for survivors in the U.S. Haaland is the first Indigenous person in a presidential cabinet.
But more needs to be done.
“There’s no mental health support for our survivors in the U.S. unlike in Canada,” Lajimodiere said. “How do we begin to heal when the trauma doesn’t stop?”
‘A spiritual violation’
When children first arrived at boarding schools, authorities would routinely cut their long hair into short, uniform styles, an experience that has left many survivors as well as their descendants suffering from negative physical and mental impacts, according to researchers.
Basil Braveheart, Oglala Lakota Nation, still vividly recalls the shock of having his long hair cut more than 80 years ago, when he first entered the Holy Rosary Indian Mission on the Pine Ridge reservation.
“They cut my hair, a spiritual violation,” Braveheart told ICT and Reveal in an earlier interview. “In our culture, only the maternal grandmother had the right to cut our hair. When they let my hair fall to the floor and stepped on it, I felt disrespected.”
No hair samples from Holy Rosary were among those discovered at the Peabody Museum, and the names of those whose samples were discovered have not been released. Holy Rosary has now been renamed Red Cloud Indian School and is no longer a boarding school.
The Peabody Museum published an apology from Director Jane Pickering and a promise to return the hair to families and tribal nations.
The museum also created a website dedicated to describing its process in addressing the hair samples, which were originally collected by George Edward Woodbury, curator of the State Historical Society of Colorado.
The acknowledgement section of the website reads, “It is impossible to talk about hair taken from Indigenous people and its possession by the Peabody Museum without acknowledging the ties between early anthropological practices and colonialism, imperialism, and scientific racism — the very same systems of dispossession and assimilation that led to the establishment of Indian boarding schools.”
Woodbury and his wife Edna collected more than 1,500 samples of Indigenous peoples’ hair between 1930 and 1933 from North and South America as well as Asia and Oceania. They donated the collection to Harvard in 1935.
A spokesperson for the museum told the The New York Times that the collection has never been displayed. The samples include about 700 clippings of hair taken from students at Indian boarding schools and have been stored in envelopes labeled with names, tribal affiliation and locations of collection.
Although the museum has released information about tribal affiliation and location, it has not yet published the names of the owners of the hair.
According to its website, the museum has reached out to some tribal leaders regarding the process of repatriation and is waiting for feedback before releasing individuals’ names.
The Harvard University Native American Program wrote an email offering emotional support to the school’s Native students the day before the museum publicly announced information about the collection of hair. According to the email, shared with ICT, “There are over 90 community members (students, staff and faculty) who have family names or tribes associated with this list of relatives.”
In the only article published from the research, “Differences Between Certain of the North American Indian Tribes: As shown by a microscopical study of their head hair,” Woodbury described texture and color differences among the samples and noted “when these North American Indian hair specimens were compared with Mongoloid and White (European) hair specimens it appears that the Indian exhibits a stronger affinity toward the Mongoloid group.”
Regarding the scientific practice at the time the hair was collected, the museum wrote, “Much of this work was carried out to support, directly or indirectly, scientific racism.”
Descriptions and measurements of hair types were used to justify racial categories and hierarchies.
– George Edward Woodbury
Although several Native people contacted by ICT lauded Harvard for its repatriation efforts as a good start, many were critical of the process and questioned why the institution had waited so long to take action.
“The website is a good starting point; it helps us understand a little bit of the history of the researcher and the collection,” said Meredith McCoy, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa tribe descendant and assistant professor of American Studies and history at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.
“But there’s so much more we need to know; clearly the researcher had an extensive network of boarding school employees willing to send him samples of children’s hair without parental permission,” she said.
“This type of research is deeply unethical.”
Deborah Parker, Tulalip Tribes, executive director of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, believes that Harvard has known about the Woodbury collection for a long time.
“I believe they’ve known about it for years but just didn’t know what to do about it,” she said.
It’s so sad that institutions like Harvard would hold onto and support this type of thing.
– Deborah Parker, Tulalip Tribes, executive director of the Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition
After the remains of 19 enslaved people of African descent were discovered in the museum’s collection, Harvard created a Steering Committee on Human Remains in University Museum Collections in June 2021. A report by the committee, leaked to media in June 2022, states that the school holds the remains of nearly 7,000 Native Americans in its collections.
Although some of the remains fall under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA, Rachel Dane, spokesperson for Harvard, wrote in an email to ICT that the hair in the Woodbury collection does not fall under the federal regulation.
Shannon O’Loughlin, Choctaw, attorney and chief executive for the Association on American Indian Affairs, disagrees.
“Under NAGPRA regulations, human remains are defined as the remains of a body of a person of Native American ancestry,” O’Loughlin said.
“Although the law doesn’t apply to portions of remains shed naturally or freely given, children didn’t have agency to consent to the hair collecting; they weren’t at boarding schools of their own free will.”
O’Loughlin also criticized Harvard’s stated intentions of collaborating with tribes in determining how the collection will be handled. She noted that a process is already in place under NAGPRA that clearly outlines how institutions are to collaborate with tribes in repatriating or transferring human remains and other cultural items to appropriate parties.
“There is little transparency,” she said. “I don’t hear Harvard say they are going to work with tribes and determine what tribes want to do. Instead they announce they’re going to start a whole other process and do it themselves.”
The Northern Arapaho Business Council issued a statement on Nov. 21 demanding that Harvard and the Peabody Museum return hair samples improperly taken from Native children, including some from the Northern Arapaho Tribe in Wyoming.
“It is impossible to undo atrocities committed against Native children ripped away from their families as part of the federal government’s forced boarding program,” the tribe said in a statement, “but Peabody Museum can and must cease its role in this abuse by returning to appropriate tribes any hair samples taken from these children.”
The statement continued, “It’s long past time that museums, universities and other institutions apologize for their objectification of Native people and culture and return to rightful owners the sacred artifacts stolen from Indian Country.”
Boarding schools as laboratories
In 2018, a class-action lawsuit was filed in Canada on behalf of thousands of Indigenous children used as research subjects between the 1930s and 1950s in that country’s Indian residential school system. The suit also accused the government of “discriminatory and inadequate” medical care at Indian health institutions.
Ian Mosby, assistant professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, has published research showing numerous examples of Indigenous children being used as subjects of experiments to test tuberculosis vaccines. Mosby also found that government agencies conducted nutritional experiments in which children were systematically starved in order to provide a baseline reading in testing the impact of vitamin and mineral supplements and enriched flours and milk. Dental services were also withheld in some schools to provide test data.
The Canadian lawsuit also includes other medical experiments performed on Indigenous populations without their consent, including skin grafting among the Inuit in the 1960s and 1970s, birth control and forced sterilization of women from the 1920s to the 1970s.
So far, there are only a handful of verified examples of similar research and testing have been found on Native populations here in the U.S.
In 1976, a Government Accountability Office investigation found that Native children in government boarding schools were used as subjects in researching trachoma, an eye disease, without parental consent. The investigation, ordered by U.S. Sen. James Abourezk, chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, also showed that more than 3,000 women were sterilized at Indian Health Service facilities without adequate consent.
As the investigation into U.S. boarding school history moves forward, many predict that more examples of government sanctioned research and experimentation will come to light.
Native people have long been the subject of research influenced by colonialism, race-science or eugenics, including Samuel Morton’s infamous 19th century Cranial Collection consisting of the skulls of around 1,300 people from around the world. According to the Smithsonian Magazine, there are an estimated 500,000 Native American remains and nearly 1 million associated funerary objects currently held in U.S. museums.
“We weren’t considered to be human to white settlers,” said Lajimodiere. “Our bodies were just part of the fauna, available for exploitation.”
The museum shared information about the collection with leadership at the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and Lajimodiere and Azure report that they recognize several of the names listed among the Woodbury collection.
“I can say that the museum has been extremely helpful and willing to do whatever we feel is right to get the remains back to the family,” Azure said. “There is a little bit of a silver lining to this; it’s bringing people together to talk about not only the significance of the hair but also finding a way to bring it back to the community in a good way.”
Azure noted, however, that tribal leadership has been unprepared for the mental health challenges associated with growing awareness about the boarding school era.
“Some survivors have opted not to attend our events and commemorations,” Azure said. “They find it too triggering.”
Where are the resources?
The lack of mental health resources for boarding school survivors and their descendants continues to be a problem.
I wonder how many other institutions are digging around in their dark basements and will find similar things in the future.
– Denise Lajimodiere, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa
Parker, with the boarding school coalition, noted that although the coalition can direct survivors toward mental health resources, there aren’t nearly enough. She noted that according to a 2018 GAO study, the federal government allocates twice as much money per Medicaid recipient as it does for Indian Health Service patients.
“In Canada they have the residential school healing line; I think that’s something we need here as well,” she said.
Parker and the coalition are also pushing for passage of a federal boarding school truth and healing bill, which would create a commission to investigate the history of schools and provide trauma-informed resources for survivors and descendants.
“The government and institutions like Harvard should bear responsibility for the harm inflicted at boarding schools,” she said.
Stacey Montooth, Walker River Paiute Nation, executive director of the State of Nevada Indian Commission, agreed.
“How many times do we have to be traumatized by news like this?” she asked during an interview with ICT.
Montooth’s office is located in the Stewart Indian School Cultural Center and Museum in Carson City, Nevada. The federal school operated from 1890 to 1980 serving children primarily from Nevada’s Great Basin tribes — Washoes, Paiutes and Shoshones.
According to its website, the organization’s mission, which opened in 2020, is to tell the story of the thousands of American Indian children who were educated at Stewart. The campus is also a hub for Native art, lectures and other public programming and educational activities.
Montooth expressed surprise that Harvard did not reach out to the center and museum about the collection of hair. Stewart Indian School is listed among the collection locations and many of Nevada’s tribes are among sources listed for the hair samples. She heard about the collection from a colleague in another state.
“Harvard needs to open up their checkbook and not only pay for, but help us identify, the very best psychologists, counselors and others who are best equipped to help our people,” Montooth said.
ICT asked Harvard officials if the university had any plans to provide such funding or services.
“We do not have a comment,” was the reply.
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