A recent campus debate about two carvings at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History has sparked a broader discussion about the role of museums to return culturally important objects.

At a panel discussion in the Yale Hall of Graduate Studies last Tuesday afternoon, panelist Ashley Dalton ’15 outlined the history of these objects and called upon museums like the Peabody to publicly address the historical trauma with which they are associated while still emphasizing native continuity and agency. Dalton and Peabody officials agree that the museum has no current legal obligation to return the objects. However, other speakers from University of Massachusetts Amherst and the Smithsonian who presented on other topics related to artifact repatriation — the act of returning a cultural object home — argued that the museum should still be even more proactive to obtain formal written requests to return objects that are sacred to native groups.

“Museums have a role to step up and create a cultural healing by recognizing our nation’s past and recognizing [a tribe’s] agency,” Dalton said.

The two carvings were taken from a Tlingit village on the coast of Alaska during the Harriman Expedition of 1899 led by railroad tycoon Edward Harriman. At the time, the carvings belonged to a clan who left the Tlingit village, and were seemingly abandoned after the clan fled a smallpox outbreak. Harriman and his crew removed the carvings along with other objects like totem poles, house posts, and ceremonial items and distributed the objects to museums across the country.

Since no tribe member was present to give consent, the Harriman Expedition acquired all of these Tlingit objects without asking permission of the native tribe, Dalton said.

“The records of the objects clearly show that they were taken without the consent of the Tlingit, and thus the museum should act independently of repatriation claims,” said Rosita Worl, the President of the Sealaska Heritage Institute and a native Tlingit.

Erin Gredell, repatriation officer at the Peabody, said the museum has been in full compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which enforces the return of “cultural items” such as human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony to lineal descendants or culturally affiliated Native American tribes. The carvings fall under the cultural patrimony and sacred objects categorization, and thus would be returned if the Tlingit requested. She added that museum officials were not formally invited to attend or present at the panel discussion but attended as members of the audience.

In February, Gredell sent a letter of support for the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska’s application for a NAGPRA consultation and documentation grant. With this grant, the Central Council can visit the Peabody and discuss the objects with museum officials.

The Central Council has yet to ask the museum to return the carvings, said Derek Briggs, director of the Peabody. If the museum were asked for these items, he said the museum would go through the normal procedures involved in a repatriation request.

“You know we’re going to follow the law,” said Tim White, director of collections and operations at the Peabody. “They’ve started the process to come and visit, so that would be the first step, just like anybody doing scientific research you start with a reconnaissance trip to do your research.”

Over the past two decades, the Peabody has been in continuous contact with the Tlingit tribe, Gredell said. On Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2011, the Peabody filed a notice of intent to repatriate a cultural ttem to the Tlingit tribe — a chilkat blanket that was an unassociated funerary object — and physically transferred the Tlingit object the following year.

Dalton suggests the Yale Peabody should follow the example of the Harvard Peabody Archaeology and Ethnology museum. In 1999, the Harvard museum repatriated a totem pole that was an object of cultural patrimony originating from the Harriman Expedition after the tribe filed a claim to repatriate. To honor the Tlingit clan, the Harvard Peabody replaced the totem pole with a cedar tree with the same markings.

“There is always an opportunity to use changes that have occurred as a teaching moment” said Rae Gould, repatriation coordinator at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who spoke on the Tuesday panel. “Sometimes when museums repatriate something and there is a huge gap in their exhibits they will actually leave that space empty and take that opportunity to put a plaque explaining why there is an empty space.”

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was signed into law by George H.W. Bush on Nov. 16, 1990, and since then, more than 600 notices of intent to repatriate have been filed nationwide.

Correction: April 21

A previous version of the article incorrectly stated that Dalton argued for repatriation of sacred objects with the implication that no formal request needed to be filed. In fact, other speakers at the panel urged for more active communication between the Peabody and native tribes along with proactive obtainment of formal written requests in accordance with the guidelines of NAGPRA.