Hair taken from Ute Tribe decades ago will be returned, as Harvard museum apologizes for its ‘objectification’

The Peabody Museum says it will develop a plan for returning clippings to families and tribes.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) People gathered for a Bear Dance at Whiterocks, Utah, on the Ute Indian Tribe's Uintah and Ouray reservation on May 19, 2022. The Peabody Museum at Harvard University said Thursday it will return hair clippings taken from tribe members on the reservation in the 1930s.

Strands of hair taken from members of the Ute Indian Tribe in the 1930s are among samples that will be returned to families by the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, which apologized this week for its “complicity in the objectification of Native peoples.”

The museum said the collection of hair clippings was assembled between 1930 and 1933 by Colorado anthropologist George Edward Woodbury, who donated it to Harvard when he went to teach there in 1935.

While Woodbury obtained about 1,500 samples from around the world, the “vast majority” are from North America, the museum said — including clippings of hair from approximately 700 Indigenous children who attended government boarding schools in the U.S.

“The Peabody Museum apologizes to Indigenous families and tribal nations for our complicity in the objectification of Native peoples and for our more than 80-year possession of hair taken from their relatives,” it said Thursday.

The Peabody Museum said it “is committed to the return of hair to families and tribal nations,” and is communicating with tribal officials as the first phase of developing a process to do that.

The Ute Indian Tribe didn’t immediately comment Friday. In a statement, the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition said it joined “our relatives in grief over the disturbing revelation” of the Peabody’s possession of hair taken from school children. It referred readers to trauma support resources on its website.

“While we recognize that the Peabody Museum’s apology and commitment to returning these materials back to their relatives and Tribal Nations is an essential first step,” the coalition statement said, “we need to see meaningful, urgent, and ongoing responses to the extractive and dehumanizing collections practices so commonly seen in anthropological, archaeological, and museum sciences.”

[Read more: How Utah boarding schools stripped Native students of their culture]

The Peabody has compiled and published the tribal affiliations and collection sites that were listed on envelopes prepared by Woodbury. He used information provided by the network of anthropologists, archaeologists, administrators at reservations and boarding schools and others who gathered samples for him.

The Peabody listed five samples collected at the federal Uintah and Ouray Agency in Fort Duchesne.

Henry M. Tidwell, who was then the superintendent overseeing the agency in Fort Duchesne, is included in the preface of Woodbury’s 1932 paper about his initial research. Woodbury thanked Tidwell along with others who collected hair from Indigenous people.

The paper said Woodbury examined six samples taken from Ute tribe members. It was written by Woodbury and his wife, Edna Woodbury, for the State Historical Society of Colorado, where Woodbury was curator, according to the Peabody.

The paper was based on samples from 156 individuals “of adult age” from 12 tribes, Woodbury wrote, but he noted that he had more samples that he had not yet examined.

While the Uintah Boarding School at Whiterocks on the Ute reservation is not on the museum’s list of collection sites, the collection may include additional samples from Ute children. Woodbury had 122 samples from the Sherman Institute in Riverside, Calif., which some Ute children attended after finishing lower grades at Whiterocks.

(Screen grab from Utah Digital Newspapers) On Sept. 6, 1931, the Salt Lake Telegram reported that H.M. Tidwell, superintendent of the Uintah and Ouray reservation, brought 20 Ute children to Salt Lake City, as they traveling to Indian boarding schools in California and Oregon.

The list of tribal affiliations taken from sample envelopes includes Ute and Uncompahgre, one of the bands of the Ute Indian Tribe.

There are no other Utah collection sites listed, but the tribal affiliations include Navajo, Paiute and Shoshone, which are Utah tribes. The Navajo Nation also could not be immediately reached for comment Friday.

And the list of boarding schools includes those in nearby states, such as Nevada, Arizona and Wyoming, and others that Indigenous children from Utah may have attended.

“Though teachings vary across Tribal Nations, the significance of hair to Indigenous peoples has always been a deeply sacred one,” the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition noted.

“This, of course, was also known to Indian boarding school administrators who systematically cut the hair of Native children upon processing and enrollment, which makes the hair cuttings held at Harvard’s Peabody Museum deeply complex and utterly horrific to even consider,” its statement said.

Woodbury was researching “potential connections between Indigenous communities to study human variation and support early anthropological theories around the peopling of North America,” according to the Peabody’s description of his collection.

Generally, the museum acknowledges in the description, much of the historic study of human hair “was carried out to support, directly or indirectly, scientific racism,” noting, “descriptions and measurements of hair types were used to justify racial categories and hierarchies.”

While the descriptions on the envelopes often included “age, sex, degree of blood, ethnic group, and name of individual,” the Peabody said, it is not releasing names until it can consult with tribes about those decisions.

Woodbury said he also examined prehistoric samples taken from Grand Gulch, Utah, where Ancestral Puebloan cliff ruins are located.

In 1935, Woodbury went to Harvard to serve as a lecturer and research fellow in anthropology, and the samples remained there when he left in 1938, the museum said.

In 1931, there were about 1,200 members of the Uintah, Uncompahgre and Whiteriver bands living on the Ute reservation, Tidwell reported in the Utah Historical Quarterly.

In a landmark report released in May, the U.S. Department of Interior identified 408 boarding schools that operated from 1819 to 1969 with federal support, across 37 states. It listed at least 53 burial sites at those schools.

Seven schools in Utah were included. The Salt Lake Tribune created its own list of eight Utah schools in March, after examining hundreds of records.

Utah tribal leaders have called for the Interior Department to develop plans for helping Native families heal from the intergenerational trauma that is the legacy of the schools.