As Andover Newton Theological School — now known as Andover Newton Seminary at Yale — relocates to the Yale Divinity School’s Sterling Quadrangle, its controversial collection of Native American artifacts will not travel with the school.
In May, just two months before Andover Newton and the Divinity School established their formal affiliation, the 210-year-old seminary made national news when the United States Department of the Interior faulted the school for its failure to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, a federal law intended to help return Native American cultural artifacts to their rightful owners.
Now that the school has completed its summary of all relevant items in its collection, the next step for Andover Newton is to repatriate those objects — a total of 156 Native American and Native Hawaiian artifacts stored and displayed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.
“From our perspective, we really cared only that [the artifacts] be distributed properly,” said Yale Divinity School Dean Greg Sterling. “It wasn’t a central point of negotiations because we thought we could make sure that happened, and I think it has happened.”
Sterling said Yale declined the collection after he brought up the possibility of a transfer with the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, where the artifacts would most likely have been stored. The museum has about 45,000 Native American artifacts in its own collections.
Andover Newton President Martin Copenhaver DIV ’80 told the News that the seminary has been exploring options to responsibly transfer the collection to some entity who will continue the school’s “rigorous” repatriation process. Copenhaver would not comment on the seminary’s options.
According to Sterling, the situation has been resolved and the collection will be put in the hands of a NAGPRA expert.
Sterling found out about the collection’s existence in 2015, the same year that Andover Newton and the Div School began preliminary conversations about a possible affiliation between the two schools. With a contracting applicant pool and falling enrollment, Andover Newton had fallen on hard times financially and was considering the prospect of selling its own campus to become “embedded” in a larger institution of higher learning, which it finally did this year.
In 2015, the oldest seminary in the U.S. also appraised its collection of Native American artifacts to explore the possibility of selling some of the collection’s items in the midst of financial struggles. After hearing of the appraisal from Director and CEO of the Peabody Essex Museum Dan Monroe, Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Institute and a member of the Tlingit tribe, requested a NAGPRA compliance investigation to forestall any potential sale of the artifacts.
According to Worl, Andover Newton owns a 19th-century halibut fish hook, which has religious significance to her tribe. The Department of the Interior found that, because the school receives federal funding in the form of federal student aid, the school was subject to NAGPRA and thus had failed to comply with the law.
The school was unaware that NAGPRA applied to its collection and immediately changed course once school officials realized, Copenhaver said. But Monroe told the Boston Globe he repeatedly flagged the possible repercussions of a sale to Andover Newton prior to the federal warning. He even emailed every member of the school’s board of trustees to dissuade them from doing so, he said. Worl also disputed Copenhaver’s claim that the school did not know NAGPRA applied to Andover Newton.
After receiving its first warning from the Department of the Interior, Andover Newton began the repatriation process. Manager of the National NAGPRA Program Melanie O’Brien, who provided Andover Newton with technical assistance during that time, described Andover Newton as “very receptive” to understanding and carrying out its responsibilities required under NAGPRA.
However, many, including Copenhaver himself, felt the process moved slower than preferred.
“We’ve been plugging away, but it’s a very complex process and demanding on a small organization, and we don’t want to do anything but … a deliberate, careful job. Sometimes that means it’s slower than it would be otherwise,” Copenhaver said.
Under NAGPRA, Andover Newton must comply with the same regulations as a museum. But as Copenhaver noted in an interview with the News, Andover Newton is not a museum and does not have staff members working full time on NAGPRA compliance, as many museums do.
“It’s a lot more complex than people realize. It’s not as simple as ‘Why are you not giving everything back?’” said Erin Gredell, repatriation coordinator at the Peabody Museum.
And according to Sterling, the NAGPRA process is not only complex but also incredibly expensive.
“This was a school fighting for its survival financially, and that wasn’t at the top of their list,” Sterling said.
Still, Andover Newton’s apparent lack of necessary resources did not stop the Department of the Interior from sending a second warning to the school in May. At that time, Andover Newton had inventoried approximately half of the 156 items in its collection, but federal officials determined that, since the school had not yet sent out completed summaries of the items to tribal and Indian-nation representatives, it was still not complying with the law.
According to Copenhaver, after receiving the second warning, the school sought additional technical assistance from NAGPRA and was finally able to complete and mail out the summary to Native American tribes. Currently, the school is in consultation with 59 tribes about objects in the collection, he said.
Copenhaver emphasized that, at the end of the day, it was Andover Newton’s responsibility to repatriate the collection’s objects, not Yale’s. However, Worl wants Yale to take action to ensure that Andover Newton — which she believes intentionally evaded the law — executes a just repatriation process, so that the tribes receive what is rightfully theirs.
“Given [Andover Newton’s] original Mission Statement of respecting all religions, its lack of compliance for the last decades and the time and effort we have expended in trying to ensure that [Andover Newton] complied with NAGPRA, I have suggested that they voluntarily return the halibut hook and shaman doll to us without us having go through the onerous effort of filing repatriation claims,” Worl wrote in an email to the News. “Yale should urge [Andover Newton] to do what is right.”
But from Copenhaver’s perspective, Andover Newton has been working with great care to do what is right for some time.
“This is the story of a small school that has been learning as we go and trying to express a great appreciation and respect for Native American heritage and culture as its manifested in these objects,” said Copenhaver. “It has been slower than we would have liked, but we’re committed to following through and to exercising great care every step of the way.”
Adelaide Feibel | firstname.lastname@example.org