Feds back Native group in artifacts probe

ANCHORAGE — A Massachusetts college was found in violation of a federal law regulating the possession and sale of potentially sacred artifacts following a complaint from an organization of Alaska Natives.

 

The U.S. Interior Department said an investigation substantiated the complaint against Andover Newton Theological School filed in June by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. The institute’s president, Rosita Worl, said the school possesses at least two Southeast Alaska artifacts, including a Tlingit halibut hook that is considered sacred.

The SHI complained after learning the school planned to sell Native objects displayed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Sales plans have since been abandoned.

Institute officials tried to contact the school before the complaint was filed, Worl said.

“We’ve never had a return call,” she said. “It’s been disheartening.”

The school’s collection contains 1,100 objects, including 125 Native American works from 52 U.S. and Canadian tribes, she said.

According to the Sept. 29 notice of noncompliance, the school failed to complete a summary of its collection, in violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The agency said the school was subject to the law because it receives federal funding and has control over at least one protected cultural item, identified in the notice as the Tlingit halibut hook.

Melanie O’Brien, the program manager for the federal repatriation program, said the school appears to be working toward compliance, based on written correspondence. The college has 45 days to respond to the noncompliance notice or request a hearing to contest the finding since receiving it a week after it was issued, O’Brien said.

A representative of Andover Newton did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. Peabody Essex spokeswoman Whitney Van Dyke referred questions about the case to museum director Dan Monroe, who was traveling in China and could not immediately be reached. Van Dyke said the artifacts in question have been housed at the museum since the 1940s.

In a Sept. 8 letter to Munroe, Andover Newton President Martin Copenhaver said it no longer had plans to sell items from its Native artifacts collection because it was no longer clear which items are subject to the repatriation law.

“We will proceed to repatriate artifacts, however, if feasible and appropriate ways can be found to do so,” Copenhaver wrote. “We have already engaged a consultant to help us in that process.”

Worl said the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indians of Alaska, the regional federally recognized tribe, plans to file a repatriation claim for the two southeast Alaska artifacts in the collection.

Worl, a former member of the national Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act review board, said there is no mechanism in the repatriation law that ensures entities subject to its provisions are following it. At the annual conference of the Alaska Federation of Natives last week, delegates adopted a resolution to create a group to look at the issue and propose changes at the national level, Worl said.

“The burden is put on the tribes” to seek investigations, she said of the current procedures.

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