An early nineteenth-century fishhook from the Andover Newton collection at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Photo: Peabody Essex Museum

Massachusetts Seminary Under Fire for Its Handling of American Indian Artifacts

Andover Newton Theological School, the 210-year-old seminary in Newton, Massachusetts, is facing scrutiny from the federal government after it failed to adhere to a law that requires the repatriation of objects sacred to American Indian tribes, Leslie MacMillian and Tom Mashberg of the New York Times report.

The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem notified the United States Department of the Interior two years ago that the school was planning on selling some of the artifacts from its holdings of 158 American Indian works, mostly collected by nineteenth-century Christian missionaries, during a period of financial difficulty. The artifacts have been housed by the museum for the past seventy years.

Under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, sacred items, objects of cultural significance, funerary items, and human remains must be returned to the appropriate tribes. Last week, federal officials warned the seminary via written letter that it had failed to comply with the law since it has not yet sent inventory lists of its objects to the tribes they originated from.

While the school claims that it ceased conversations about having a sale when it was originally contacted by the government two years ago, and that it is still working on the inventory list, Rosita Worl, a Tlingit tribe member and president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Alaska, said that her tribe has reached out to the seminary several times regarding sacred objects and has “never received a single, direct response.” Worl said that she has asked the school repeatedly for the return of a halibut fishhook that is spiritually significant to her tribe.

“We’re trying to play catch up and do the right thing,” said Reverend Martin B. Copenhaver, the seminary’s president. The seminary is currently joining the Yale Divinity School at Yale University. Gregory E. Sterling, the dean of the Yale Divinity School, said in an e-mail that the university supports the “proper treatment of Native American artifacts and respect for Native American culture and dignity.” It is unclear whether Yale will take over the collection from the school once the two institutions join forces.