It Only Took Two Years: Andover Newton Returning Native Artifacts to 396 Tribes

Courtesy Peabody Essex Museum / A lock of hair from a chief that is currently held in the Andover Newton Theological School collection of Native artifacts. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe has been trying for over a year to have this repatriated.

Frank Hopper

Andover Newton Theological School warned by feds repeatedly to inventory and return Native artifacts.

In what may be one of the largest collections of Native artifacts to be repatriated yet, Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) recently announced it is reaching out to 396 “Native American, Native Alaskan, and Native Hawaiian tribes and nations to request a consultation with each regarding objects in Andover Newton’s on-deposit collection that might belong to them.”

David Guarino, a public relations spokesman for the school, told ICMN, “School leaders have made steady progress in their efforts to repatriate sacred objects from its collection to the descendants of their rightful owners.”

This Cache of Native Artifacts Was Almost Lost

In 2015, ANTS was facing financial difficulties as its enrollment dwindled. The school sent appraisers to Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where the ANTS collection is kept, to evaluate it for a planned auction. Dan Monroe, director of the museum and one of the authors of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), knew many of the items needed to be repatriated and feared they would be lost to private collectors if the sale went through. He and his staff sent notices to every federally-recognized tribe they could find notifying them of the items in the ANTS collection and warning them of the pending sale.

Dr. Rosita Worl, President of the Native-owned Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau, Alaska recognized one item in the collection as being Tlingit, an ornately-carved halibut hook from the first half of the 1800s. She had Tlingit elders verify it was a sacred object and requested it be returned to the tribe. She also requested a formal investigation of possible federal violations by ANTS. Although ANTS is a religious institution and would normally be exempt from NAGPRA, Worl pointed out ANTS receives federal money in the form of Pell Grants given to students for tuition.

Federal officials agreed with Worl, and after an investigation sent the school a letter warning them to provide inventories of their collection or face possible fines and penalties. In an announcement made first to ICMN in September 2015, ANTS president Martin Copenhaver revealed the school changed its mind and was not selling the collection and was going to comply with federal regulations. Without the vigilance of Monroe and Worl, valuable Native artifacts in the school’s collection would probably have been sold.

Getting ANTS Compliance Took Decades

Although NAGPRA was passed in 1990, ANTS is only now becoming compliant with it. This is partially due to the legislation itself, which has many loopholes and only limited ability to investigate possible violations. ANTS was able to stall complying with NAGPRA regulations for more than 25 years.

“Andover Newton leaders are now and always have been committed to following NAGPRA’s requirements and to the respectful handling and return of all appropriate artifacts in its collection,” Guarino wrote in an email to ICMN.

Monroe disputed this in a statement he provided to ICMN:

“The notion that the school has always sought to uphold NAGPRA is simply untrue. They rejected an Onondaga request for repatriation of a wampum belt based on their opinion that ANTS was not subject to the provisions of NAGPRA. They failed to complete inventories and summaries, as required by law, in the 1990s. They planned to sell 82 Native American objects from their collections as documented by a unanimous vote of their Board.”

Even after the Feds warned ANTS to comply, the school still took its time, saying the records needed to establish original ownership were “spotty,” according to the New York Times. Dr. Margaret Bruchac of the University of Pennsylvania disputes this excuse in a Facebook comment to her blog: “On the Wampum Trail.”

“I composed a lengthy analysis with provenance details, material analysis, and comparative studies for the Haudenosaunee Wampum Belt at the Andover Newton Theological Seminary… so the claim that ‘research’ is still needed on that object is patently false.”

More Evidence of ANTS Stalling

Donovin Sprague, an archivist for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, says he worked with ANTS for about a year attempting to get a lock of hair that belonged to a chief back from the school’s collection.

“At one point, it was all green light, come and get it, but it’s a strange case. It’s still limping along,” Sprague said in the New York Times article.

The same article reports federal officials sent a second warning letter to ANTS in early May of this year. ANTS admitted they only had about half the Native artifacts in their collection inventoried at that time.

Although it might be easy to say the school was stalling because it didn’t want to part with a valuable collection potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, others think there’s an additional reason that goes much deeper.

The Real Reason: Colonial Entitlement

Monroe told the New York Times his opinion about what missionaries probably thought when they received Native artifacts as gifts from converts:

“The attitude was: They worship this mask, they think this fishhook is important. They’re quaint and primitive and thank God we’re here to save their souls.”

Dr. Bruchac, in a Facebook comment about the Onondaga wampum belt in the ANTS collection, similarly states, “By the way, it was once part of a ‘Curiosity Cabinet’ of ‘pagan’ religious objects collected by missionaries.”

The dismissive and condescending attitude of those missionaries toward ancient Native cultures still echoes today. While we should be grateful ANTS is finally repatriating the objects, we should never forget the trauma our ancestors suffered by institutions like theirs, who tried to eradicate our culture and then later hesitated to help heal the trauma they caused.