It’s 3 p.m. on November 14th when I get a call from my father. He tells me we are getting our artifacts back from the Peabody. I shriek and nearly fall over in my socks on the wood floor running to shout about it to my suitemates.
When I say “our” artifacts, I mean the Mohegan Tribe’s, and while I am speaking only for myself in this article, it is safe to say that I was far from alone in my surprise.
I see nothing wrong with museums displaying Native artifacts when those artifacts are ethically obtained. The unfortunate reality is that this is rarely the case. While museums and other institutions usually deny that such artifacts are stolen, history tells a different story. In the case of Mohegan, two of the more frequent ways our artifacts left our hands were undertakers conning the bereaved out of their deceased relatives’ items and selling them to museums, and state-sanctioned archeologists digging at Fort Shantok, our sacred burial ground, and taking whatever they found. These underhanded acquisitions still inspire pain in the Tribe today. People often know to whom the items belonged and who made them. In Mohegan culture, an object is said to carry the spirit of its craftsman, and so it is not only our rightful possessions and important cultural objects that were taken and kept from us, but the very spirit of our ancestors.
Some of these artifacts have been out of Mohegan possession for over a century, and members of the Tribe have long been negotiating with museum and University officials in attempts to bring them back under tribal control. I knew that Yale had artifacts from multiple tribes when I began studying here; I never imagined that I would see the day when any were returned, let alone that it would be those of my tribe, and that it would happen while I was a student.
Mohegans have long opted to cooperate where others have resisted. I myself am sometimes incensed by the lack of overt rage in our dealings with the forces that were so cruel to our own ancestors and the ancestors of our Native kin from other tribes, not only in the past but also in contemporary matters. But whether or not I am always comfortable with it, here I have seen a nearly miraculous outcome grow out of this restraint. The willingness of both parties to come to the table and openly negotiate came up a number of times during the signing, and in speaking with our Elders as well as museum officials, this seems to be what won the day for us.
I sometimes feel angry with Mohegan’s history of cooperation; although it is perhaps the only reason why we are still here, it makes me complicit in many wrongs of the past, and sometimes makes me resent my ancestors for being so calm and peaceable in the face of great evils. Where is all the righteous indignation over what was done and what continues to happen all over this country to Native people? Where are the unreformed savages from the Party of the Right whip sheet? Sometimes, this is all I want — scorched earth and retribution instead of equitable negotiation over something that never should have been a question.
Beyond my anger lies a lesson in survival and diplomacy. The approach mattered. The agreement to repatriate the artifacts as a museum-to-museum transfer rather than by going through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a federal law passed 27 years and a day before the signing at Yale, which provides for the return of items of cultural patrimony to their tribe of origin, and which the Mohegan Tribe could have chosen to file a lawsuit under in an attempt to force Yale to return the items, provided Yale an opportunity to save face and generate good press while also allowing us to regain control of our artifacts and foster a mutually beneficial relationship with the University.
The Tribe will continue to allow scholarly access to the artifacts once they have been transferred, which should happen within the next 90 days. Additionally, the Tribe is open to allowing certain items to go back to the Peabody on loan.
My hope is that this agreement between Yale and the Mohegan Tribe will put pressure on other institutions to return their wrongfully obtained artifacts, and that it will encourage the University to continue listening to Native voices, not only on the matter of the artifacts still held by the museum, but also on Yale’s investments in industries like fossil fuels that continually violate the sovereignty of indigenous peoples and wreak havoc on their sacred lands. For now, I am skeptical, but hopeful.
Madeleine Hutchins is a junior in Branford College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .