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Baby carrier by an Anishinaabe (Chippewa/Ojibwa) artist.
Baby carrier by an Anishinaabe (Chippewa/Ojibwa) artist.Mark Sexton and Jeffrey Dykes/Peabody Essex Museum

Federal officials have accused the Andover Newton Theological School of running afoul of the law in its handling of a collection of Native American and native Hawaiian cultural objects, the culmination of an institutional clash that brought to light a little known treasure trove of artifacts.

Portions of the collection — owned by the seminary but housed by the Peabody Essex Museum since the 1940s — could now be returned to descendants and affiliated tribes for whom the objects have special cultural significance.

In a letter to Andover Newton, the Department of the Interior charges that the school has failed to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a 1990 law that seeks to return funerary objects, sacred items, and objects of cultural patrimony to their rightful tribal heirs.

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In a first step toward returning the objects to indigenous people, the officials have advised the Newton seminary to make a list of all the Native American cultural items in the collection and submit it to any tribe that may have an interest, as well as to federal officials. There are around 160 Native American and native Hawaiian objects in the roughly 1,100-piece collection, which also includes artifacts from other cultures.

“It’s a complex task, but we’re undertaking it so that we can repatriate the items,” said Andover Newton president Martin B. Copenhaver.

The existence of the collection was not well known among indigenous people.

“We didn’t know anything about it; it was a surprise,” said Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, which represents several native Alaskan peoples.

The collection is thought to contain objects associated with 52 Native American tribes and native Hawaiians, including many items such as a ritualistic halibut hook that Worl said are no mere artifacts.

“These objects embody the spirits of our ancestors,” she said. “The current generation is tied both to our ancestors and to our future generations, so it basically ensures our cultural survival.”

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Worl said she first heard about the collection this summer from Peabody Essex Museum director Dan Monroe, then promptly requested a governmental compliance investigation. “I keep hoping these guys, who are supposedly Christian, would do the Christian thing and return these objects that they are holding illegally,” she said of the seminary.

According to Monroe, most of the Andover Newton collection was assembled in the 19th century through missionary work. Although the seminary and the Salem museum partnered for decades to care for the collection, the relationship began to sour in 2014, when Andover Newton began actively exploring the possibility of selling roughly 80 of the collection’s most valuable Native American items.

For the museum, the prospect of a sale was troubling.

“Upholding the rights of Native Americans and native Hawaiians . . . and ensuring that those rights are not potentially compromised is and has been very important to us,” said Monroe. “It seemed to us inconsistent with their stated values and with their purpose as an institution to sell an important part of the religious heritage of 52 Native American tribes and native Hawaiians in order to strengthen their bottom line.”

Andover Newton’s financial difficulties became public recently after school leaders issued a letter announcing plans to reduce operations and relocate to a smaller facility. “Andover Newton’s current mode of being,” the letter stated, “is not financially sustainable.”

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But Copenhaver disputed the idea that the seminary’s efforts were driven primarily by a desire to strengthen its financial position.

“It was always to appropriately make them available to other museums or collectors who would donate to museums,” said Copenhaver. “There might have been some financial benefit to the school in doing that, but to paint the picture that we were looking to a fire sale, to sell these objects to the highest bidder to save the school financially, is just not an accurate picture.”

Copenhaver noted that only a handful of pieces from the collection have been displayed at Peabody Essex and said the seminary hoped to make them more widely available to the public. In a letter to federal officials this summer, he argued that some of the objects were not subject to the law, writing, “The trustees of Andover Newton intend to sell those items only to persons and institutions that fully respect the heritage, history and spiritual traditions of Native Americans.”

But the question quickly became whether the seminary had the right to sell any of the artifacts in the first place. Following Worl’s request, federal officials determined on Sept. 29 that the seminary — and thus all Native American objects in its collection — was subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which would forbid the sale and mandate the return of certain sacred objects.

Djilakons figure by a Haida artist.
Djilakons figure by a Haida artist.Mark Sexton and Jeffrey Dykes/Peabody Essex Museum

Violation of the law is punishable by a base fine of up to $5,000, though additional penalties may be assessed.

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Copenhaver said the seminary accepts the government’s ruling and is working toward compliance. But relations between the two institutions remain strained.

The seminary faults the museum for not informing it earlier that all the Native American objects in the collection were subject to the law.

“It’s laced with irony that the Peabody Essex Museum would point the finger at us when this is their field, not ours,” said Copenhaver. “We’re not a museum. I wonder why the Peabody Essex Museum — this is their business — that they were not more thorough in their assessment of it and communicating with us about it.”

Copenhaver maintains that the museum had earlier advised the school that only 10 Native American items in the collection were subject to the federal protection law.

But PEM director Monroe denies that, arguing that the museum does not have standing to declare whether a collection is subject to the law or to make individual determinations of cultural patrimony. He said he repeatedly told the seminary that if the law applied to the school, then all Native American objects in the collection would be affected, though only members of affiliated tribes and other descendants could make repatriation claims.

“We said, ‘We don’t know. We’re not qualified to make those determinations,’ ” Monroe related. “ ‘But based on repatriation claims we’re familiar with that have been made at other institutions, here are 10 objects that could conceivably be subject to repatriation claims, but it’s not a determination we can make.’ ” He added, “We suggested that until they resolve that issue there would be a cloud over any sale.”

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Monroe said he repeatedly urged the school not to go through with the sale.

“At one point I wrote the entire board of trustees and argued that it would be extremely unfortunate to proceed with this plan,” said Monroe. He said he argued that “it would likely cause controversy, and that it could result in a variety of consequences that would not strengthen their hand, or capability to raise money, or underscore or strengthen their integrity as an institution. It had, sadly, absolutely no effect.’’

Copenhaver, who said the seminary always wanted to adhere to the letter of the law, now wants to close the painful chapter. “We’re just taking a very different course now,” he said. “We’re proceeding to look for repatriation.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.