Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl has called for a federal investigation into the sale of a collection of Native American art, including several pieces from Southeast Alaska tribes.
Worl heard about two weeks ago of the sale of a collection of art owned by the Andover Newton Theological School, including about 125 pieces of Native American art representing 52 tribes, some of which are known to be of Tlingit and Haida origin. Dan Monroe, president and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and a colleague of Worl’s, notified SHI and other tribal organizations of the sale.
“Ironically and unfathomable to myself, the ANTS Board of Trustees is seeking to make financial gains from our sacred objects that their predecessors labeled as our sins, but yet gathered for themselves and from which they now stand to profit,” she said.
Worl sent letters to school and its Board of Trustees, though she hadn’t heard back as of Friday. Attempts by this newspaper to contact the school Friday afternoon also were unsuccessful.
The collection was formed in the 19th century by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, then transferred to ANTS and later to the Peabody Essex Museum for stewardship and preservation, where it has been available for viewing. ANTS maintained ownership of the collection. Worl worries that if the collection is sold into private hands, “an important part of the artistic, cultural, and spiritual heritage of Native Americans will be lost.”
Worl hopes the school will change its position on the sale, which she questions the legality of.
Worl decided to petition for a federal investigation because she believes the sale may run afoul of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act because the school receives federal funds in the form of student aid.
Worl contacted David Tarler, a program officer with NAGPRA’s Training, Civil Enforcement and Regulations Division and she’s already received word that Tarler will look into the matter and provide a response in about a week.
Even if none of the items for sale had been from Southeast Alaska, Worl said she “absolutely” would have made the same request.
“I would hear tribes saying exactly the same things — these objects are sacred, we need them back for our ceremonies, they need to come home,” she said. “It would get depressing to hear the same story over and over, tribal members crying over these sacred objects, their pleas and requests seemingly falling on deaf ears.”
Over the years, Worl said she has noticed a change in attitudes about these objects and their importance to their rightful tribes. For private collectors, more of an incentive may be needed to repatriate the objects.
In addition to Worl’s frequent requests on behalf of the Sealaska Heritage Institute for repatriation of sacred objects, she has lobbied the federal government to create a tax credit program to encourage objects’ return, rather than their sale in auctions.
She has also pushed for a sacred objects fund, which could help tribes buy back some of those objects.
“I work on multiple fronts to have our sacred objects come back home,” Worl said. “These objects have spirits, and I tell you, sometimes it feels like they are telling me they want to come back home.”