Mara Lavitt

Yale returned hundreds of cultural items — including a wooden succotash bowl from a former Mohegan matriarch and a wooden mortar — to the Mohegan Tribe at a ceremony Friday morning that marked the culmination of years of negotiations.

The ceremony in Woodbridge Hall formalized ties between Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History and the Mohegan Tribe’s Tantaquidgeon Museum, which is developing The Mohegan Tribal Cultural Preservation Center to support research on its collection of Eastern woodland artifacts. University President Peter Salovey and Director of Yale’s Peabody Museum David Skelly joined Mohegan Tribe leaders, including Mohegan Chief Many Hearts Lynn Malerba and Mohegan Chair Kevin Brown “Red Eagle,” to sign over the artifacts to the tribe. Under the agreement, Yale will return the items within 90 days.

“This transfer of objects is the result of collaboration and a period of time talking and working together that I think reflects continuing mutual respect between a very old Connecticut institution and a sovereign nation more ancient than the United States,” Salovey said.

Conversations about returning the cultural items date back to the 1990s — when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act established guidelines for federally recognized tribes to reclaim burial remains and culturally significant objects — said Erin Gredell, repatriation coordinator at the Peabody Museum’s department of anthropology. According to Malerba, many anthropologists had excavated artifacts from the burial grounds that were taken from indigenous peoples under the Connecticut state law. After the 1990 act, tribal communities across the United States began asking for the return of funerary objects, sacred objects and other objects with cultural significance.

But Yale’s ties to the tribe were established long before the act’s passage — in fact, former University President Ezra Stiles studied Mohegan language and spirituality in the mid-1700s. Still, Stiles controlled a Native American indentured servant, named Aaron, until his death in 1795, even as he publicly denounced slavery as a “great inhumanity and cruelty.” In August 2016, a plaque in the college bearing Stiles’ name honored Aaron, as well as an African American slave and an indentured servant whom Stiles controlled.

In 1994, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, one of the Tantaquidgeon Museum’s founders and a former Mohegan Tribe medicine woman, received a doctor of humane letters at Yale. Founded in 1931, the museum is the oldest Indian-owned and -operated museum in America, said Mohegan medicine woman and tribal historian Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel NUR ’15. Zobel, who earned a doctorate of nursing practice from Yale in 2015, is Tantaquidgeon’s grandniece.

Many of the objects returned to the Mohegan Tribe have been in the Peabody Museum for decades, and some for over a century. A wooden succotash bowl from 18th-century Mohegan matriarch Great Lucy Occum was purchased by the Peabody Museum in 1915. Other transferred objects include a wooden doll and a wooden mortar, as well as various other archaeological objects from Fort Shantok. The site in Uncasville, Connecticut is the sacred grounds of Uncas, the tribe’s Great Sachem, and the home of the Mohegan Tribe settlement between 1636 and 1682.

Skelly said he began meetings with Mohegan tribe leaders even before he assumed the directorship in 2014. Throughout negotiations, both sides “stretched” themselves to reach common ground.

“For a lot of reasons, museums have been criticized for representing indigenous cultures as if they didn’t exist anymore, and the only way to change that is working with [them],” Skelly said.

To official remove an object from the museum’s holdings, he added, the museum must initiate a formal process, in which the division that curates the artifact must accept the museum’s decision before the University can approve it. All this takes time.

At the end of the ceremony, tribe leaders presented Salovey and Skelly with a contemporary bowl, which required 90 hours of labor to make and was made by a tribe member in the traditional style.

For Malerba, the returned artifacts bring “wholeness” to the tribe.

“The trail of life in Mohegan is a curvy line — it’s this wavy curly line, and it has dots all along the top of the line and the bottom of the line, and that curvy line represents the ups and downs of life,”  Malerba said. “The dots along the line represent the people that we meet along the way … and so today I say that President Salovey and Professor David Skelly — you are on the top of the line, on the top of the hill with us in a moment of celebration. You will forever be remembered on the Mohegan trail of life.”

Pablo Barrera GRD ’17, who is involved in the Native American Cultural Center and who attended the ceremony, said the public event demonstrated the ability to rectify past mistakes. But Yale could still do more to collaborate with indigenous tribes and acknowledge that there are other objects that the University could return, he added.

The Mohegan tribe is one of two federally recognized tribes in Connecticut.

Hailey Fuchs | hailey.fuchs@yale.edu

This story has been updated to reflect the print version which published on Nov. 27, 2017.