On the morning of June 21, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History voluntarily transferred the remains of eight indigenous ancestors — seven Maori and one Moriori — to a visiting delegation from a museum in New Zealand.

The delegation from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa included Te Herekiekie Herewini, head of repatriation for Te Papa; Te Arikirangi Mamaku, repatriation program coordinator and courier for the museum; and two Maori elders, Te Hemanawa Temara and Tamahou Temara.

“Always, the most important thing is to honor and be respectful of the beliefs of the community we’re dealing with,” said Erin Gredell, registrar of the Peabody, who served as head of repatriation at the time of the transfer. “Whatever we do on our end in accommodating, I let them take the lead. Because each community has different ways of doing things, so it’s important to ask the questions about what’s appropriate and what’s not.”

To prepare the ancestors for the journey back to their homelands in New Zealand, the delegation from Te Papa conducted a private ceremony. That ceremony was followed by a public one, attended by Native American Yale students, Assistant Director of the Native American Cultural Center Kapiolani Laronal, Mohegan Chief Many Hearts Lynn Malerba, Peabody Director David Skelly and other Yale staff and faculty members.

“The process of bringing ancestral remains home …  symbolizes the beginning stages of restoring our sense of community, place and what it means to be a ‘people of the ocean and land,’” Laronal wrote in an email to the News. “A major part of repatriation is facilitated by cultural protocol and ceremonies that have been practiced for many generations, and they are intended to heal the past while also bringing about positive change for future generations. It is critical that everyone is included in this process of restoring balance regardless of past actions.”

Following the passage of the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, Skelly said institutions like the Peabody were mandated to publicize in a very specific way their relevant holdings and communicate directly with tribes when it is evident that there may be an affiliation. Then comes a process of making claims, evaluating them and repatriating objects and remains when necessary.

The museum receives about 10 visits from Native American tribes every year, according to Skelly, but international requests are much less frequent. During the four years he served as director of the Peabody, he said the June transfer was the only international request the museum received.

Skelly praised Te Papa for its impressively systematic repatriation process, in which a team visits museums and cultural institutions all over the world and makes requests based on the information gathered at those locations.

“When [the team] came here in 2014, we didn’t hear from them for awhile,” Skelly said. “But then, maybe late in 2017, they got back in touch and said they’d like to ask for these specific remains back, and we wrote back and said yes.”

Gredell said that repatriation is a more complicated process than many people realize. When a museum or tribe has to work with several other tribes, for example, reaching a consensus can be difficult.

Still, Skelly said, saying that the museum is focused on complying with the law and is willing to go beyond what is legally required. To do so, he said the museum maintains a good relationship and works closely with local Native American tribes.

“The repatriation to Te Papa is not one that was legally mandated, but it’s one that we did because we agreed with the request,” Skelly said. “As you might imagine, these requests are handled on a case-by-case basis. There was a period when many museums on a principle were opposed to this, and I think that’s well in the past.”

Skelly said the Peabody aims to increase the number and diversity of voices represented in the museum, and an exhibit on repatriation can be a part of that. A past exhibition that touched on the topic of repatriation focused on Syria’s cultural heritage and the different paths that objects take before arriving at a museum, including through illegal transactions during conflicts.

The vast majority of objects in the Peabody were not purchased on the market, Skelly said, but come from anthropological research done by researchers working with people from the country in question, making it unlikely the museum will end up with objects whose origins are unclear.

“What can we do to make sure that antiquities that we’re looking at were not supporting terrorism, were not degrading the culture of another country, and so on — these are obviously really critical issues,” Skelly said. “They’re ones that students and faculty around campus are very interested in, and we want this museum to be a platform for examining those. So we’re very open to all kinds of ideas of exhibitions that we might do in the future.”

Eui Young Kim | euiyoung.kim@yale.edu