JUNEAU, ALASKA—Sealaska Heritage Institute is asking the federal government to investigate whether the planned sale of a Native American art collection by a Massachusetts school is legal under repatriation laws.
The Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) is moving to sell the collection, which contains 1,100 objects, including 125 works of Native American art representing fifty-two tribes in the United States and Canada that have been accessible to the public through the Peabody Essex Museum.
The sale may run afoul of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAPGRA) because the school receives and/or processes federal student aid funds, wrote SHI President Rosita Worl in a letter sent on June 22 to David Tarler, a program officer in NAGPRA’S Training, Civil Enforcement and Regulations Division.
“I respectfully request that an investigation be undertaken immediately to forestall the sale of any Native American objects until a determination can be made if ANTS has fully complied with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” said Worl, former Chair of the federal NAGPRA Review Committee. “Should the collection go into private hands, an important part of the artistic, cultural, and spiritual heritage of Native Americans will be lost.”
The collection was originally formed in the 19th century by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions. It was subsequently transferred to ANTS and later to the Peabody Essex Museum for stewardship and preservation, although ANTS maintained title to the collection. The trustees of ANTS recognized their stewardship responsibilities for the school’s collection of Native American art for more than a century by keeping the collection in public hands and, for many decades, assuring it was accessible to Native people, scholars, and the public through the auspices and support of the Peabody Essex Museum.
The move to sell flies in the face of the school’s stated values to support people and cultures and to reject past philosophies and action to eradicate Native American spiritual beliefs, Worl said.
“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.
The institute learned of the planned sale through the Peabody Essex Museum, which is notifying tribes. SHI attempted to contact ANTS this week, but staff at the school did not respond to a request for more information. Sealaska Heritage will oppose the sale even if a NAGPRA investigation finds in favor of ANTS.
Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private, nonprofit founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.