The Seminary and the Wanted Relics

A New England seminary about to merge with Yale University is under fire over Native American relics in its collection—part of a long history of mistreatment.

Photo Illustration by Lyne Lucien/The Daily Beast

In Newton, Mass, a struggling seminary is coming under attack this week for failing to return religious artifacts in its collection to the Native American tribes to which they belong.

Andover Newton Theological School possesses a collection of 158 Native American artifacts that, for roughly 70 years, have been housed at the nearby Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. In 2015, when Andover was attempting to raise funds to cover a shortfall in enrollment, the institution attempted to sell the artifacts. This, they soon learned, would violate the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA); the federal law governing the return of sacred items to tribes that produced them. As of last week, Andover Newton had not complied with federal requests that they produce and send inventories of their holdings to Native American tribes.

The two-year delay, Andover Newton officials explain, was caused by the difficulty identifying the proper ownership of the artifacts. The school’s president indicated that they intended to return the items to their rightful owners once the relevant research had been completed. Andover Newton does have some leads, however. Not only did the Peabody Essex Museum spend approximately $700,000 curating and photographing the collection, and labeling the items currently on display, several tribes have already petitioned the seminary for the return of their artifacts. Rosita Worl, a member of the Tlingit tribe and president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Alaska, contacted the seminary several times in 2015 asking for the return of a halibut fishhook that is sacred to her tribe. She has not received a direct response.

Tissa Wenger, an Associate Professor at Yale Divinity School and an expert on colonialism and the historical (mis)representations of Native American traditions, told The Daily Beast that the repatriation can be complicated, “Native Americans (again like any other group of people) are not all the same and often disagree about how to define these terms and about the rightful ownership or the significance of certain items. The difficulties of repatriation, even when the museums or universities truly want to do the right thing, sometimes revolve around determining which Native nation they should be in contact with in order to properly repatriate a certain object— or sometimes which person is acting as the legitimate representative of that nation.”

The failure of this seminary to comply with federal law likely would not have received much attention were it not for the fact that Andover Newton is in the process of joining the prestigious Yale Divinity School. Yale College currently houses a Native American Cultural Center that identifies “Sustaining cultural preservation by acknowledging history and responsibility” as a core value and has supported the Association of Native Americans at Yale for nearly twenty-five years. Thus far it is unclear if, post-merger, Yale Divinity School would assume responsibility for the collection. Gregory E. Sterling, the dean of the YDS, told the New York Times via email that the university supports the “proper treatment of Native American artifacts and respect for Native American culture and dignity.” Tissa Wenger concurred that she would not want to see these objects in the YDS Collection. As Andover Newton President Martin B. Copenhaver stated on Wednesday, repatriation is ongoing.

This incident raises the weighty ethical issues surrounding the preservation, sale, and ownership of cultural heritage in general as well as the particular concerns governing the appropriate of Native American artifacts. Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, institutions and organizations that receive federal funding must return human remains as well as those items that have spiritual and cultural value. But the question of how and, more importantly, who decides which kinds of items qualify as sacred is an important one.

Most museums are sensitive to the issues that surround the display of funerary objects and human remains. Some do not display ritual items and locks of hair that have yet to be claimed, choosing instead to exhibit “ordinary” items like clothing headdresses and household items. The difficulty here, though, is in delineating the sacred from the profane. Modern ideas about what counts as religious are, as much recent scholarship including Wenger’s book We Have Religion: 1920s Pueblo Indian Dance Controversy and American Religious Freedom (2009) has shown, grounded in Judeo-Christian definitions of religion. So while it is obvious to everyone why locks of hair should be returned, the religious significance of certain clothing or rituals involving food preparation is more ambiguous. Some museums, like the National Museum of the American Indian at the Smithsonian, have guidelines for repatriation freely available on their websites. They also permit delegations to include “a traditional of religious leader who has the knowledge and skills to identify objects that may not be properly identified in museum’s records.” It’s a gesture that recognizes the different ways that evidence and expertise can be ascertained and categorized, but, broadly speaking, as Wenger told me, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians should have a stronger representation on the NAGPRA review committee that determines both what counts as sacred and how to settles disputes over ownership.

Interestingly, societal concern for cultural heritage of all kinds is a relatively novel phenomenon tied to our sense of national identity. In the introduction to their volume Heritage in the Modern World (Past & Present, 2015), professors Paul Betts (University of Oxford) and Corey Ross (University of Birmingham) locate the roots of our concern for preservation in the aftermath of the French Revolution, when the state attempted to create a new national French past, and the Industrial Revolution, which prompted people to try to protect the deeply romanticized past from the aggressive attacks of the modern world. World War I, they write, only amplified the sense that cultural heritage should be preserved “for the sake of nationalism, religious identity, and/or civilization itself.” An excellent example of this shift in perspective was the designation of the bombing of Rheims cathedral and the Louvain Library as war crimes in the aftermath of World War I.

The ethics of preserving of cultural heritage continues to be a matter of some debate, and Hague and UNESCO regulations governing the sale of portable antiquities continue to be flouted both by those who financially profit from the sale of illicit antiquities and by those engaged in cultural terrorism. But even as NGOs, governments, UNESCO, and activists seek to save the past from destruction, not every culture has been treated in the same way. While it’s true that, in the United Kingdom, legislation passed to protect England’s Ancient Monuments in 1882 was quickly followed by legislation to protect the cultural heritage of Britain’s then colony, India, in 1904, not every vulnerable population’s history has been treated in this way. Often the preservation of artifacts in museums serves to relegate those traditions to the past.

As Wenger told The Daily Beast “The presence of Native American artifacts in museum collections around the country is a part of the legacy and the continuing injustice of settler colonial rule in the United States… For some tribes, the loss (or theft) of traditional artifacts, some of them irreplaceable, was in fact one of the factors that threatened their ability to maintain their traditions as living and not as fossilized traditions. ”

In some cases not even the remains of the dead have been treated with respect.

In the case of Native American tribes, NAGPRA emerged out of just this kind of asymmetrical injustice. In the early 1970s Maria Pearson, a member of the Yankton Sioux tribe and the woman credited as the “Founding Mother of the modern Indian Repatriation movement,” was inspired to act after observing how Native American remains were treated differently than those of whites. In 1971, her husband John, a district engineer with the Iowa Highway Commission, told her that when road construction in Glenwood, Iowa led to the uncovering of 28 sets of remains, the white bodies were reburied and the remains of two Native Americans (a woman and a child) were dispatched for scientific research. Rightly outraged, Pearson sat outside of the Iowa governor’s office in traditional attire and lobbied him for the return of her people’s bones. The incident led to the eventual passage of the Iowa Burials Protection Act of 1976.

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In 1987 a group of ten individuals paid the new tenants of Slack Farm, an archeological site in Uniontown, Kentucky, $10,000 for the rights to dig at the 500-year old burial mounds located on the property. (Most nearby mounts had been looted by the late 1980s, but the Slack family, after whom the site is named, had taken steps to discourage digging on their property). With no archaeological training but the assistance of leased heavy machinery, these pot hunters spent two months destroying some 650 Native American graves and Mississippian culture houses. In the process they shattered hundreds of bones and discarded the human remains in the hopes of uncovering financially valuable relics. The digging was legal, as it was on private property, but the discovery of human remains should have been reported to local authorities. Outcry by the people of Uniontown eventually halted the destruction, but the perpetrators were charged with a misdemeanor.

The efforts of Maria Pearson and the events at Slack Farm galvanized public support for the formal protection and repatriation of Native American artifacts. But there’s no denying that outrage came more slowly for Native American burial grounds than it would have for a white Christian cemetery. Fundamentally, the proper treatment of artifacts is a question of justice. As Wenger said “The United States was built on the theft of indigenous lands, and Native Americans continue to live under conditions of colonial rule. People need to understand that their cultures and religions are living traditions, and they should have the right to move forward on their own terms, to reclaim objects that are important to them, as much as possible on their own terms.” Being included in a museum as a facet of the past, is not the same as being empowered to flourish in the present.