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US warns Newton seminary over native artifacts

A baby carrier from about 1835 is part of the collection at issue.Peabody Essex Museum

Federal officials have again warned the Andover Newton Theological School over its failure to comply with a law that governs the return of cultural objects deemed sacred to Native American or native Hawaiian peoples.

At issue is a collection of roughly 160 Native American and native Hawaiian objects the school has housed at the Peabody Essex Museum since the late 1940s. The collection was largely unknown to tribal leaders until about two years ago, when PEM director Dan Monroe warned them the Newton seminary planned to sell roughly 80 of the collection’s most valuable objects.

That prompted a federal compliance investigation, which found that the school had not adhered to a 1990 law intended to restore sacred objects and funerary items to their rightful tribal heirs. Federal officials from the Department of the Interior  advised the seminary to send a list of the items to all affected tribes for review.


Last month federal regulators again contacted the school, warning its leadership that they have still failed to submit the necessary lists to the tribes.

“We clarified again their responsibilities to consult with tribal governments and tribal officials,” said Melanie O’Brien, the national program manager who oversees compliance with the law. “Our office will continue to offer assistance in any way the school needs,” she said, adding that if the school remains non-compliant “the next step would be the assessment of a penalty.”

O’Brien noted that the recent correspondence came in response to a letter the seminary sent last month updating her office on the school’s steps toward compliance.

“Every institution has a different capacity to complete these steps,” said O’Brien, adding that the maximum penalty for noncompliance is around $6,000. “They’ve had some challenges.”

The rebuke comes at a difficult moment for the 210-year-old seminary, which last year announced it would join the Yale Divinity School after more than a decade of declining enrollment at its Newton Centre campus. Although the seminary agreed to sell its campus last fall, it continues to offer classes there as it relocates to New Haven, where it is also offering classes.


“We are in the midst of a big transition in the life of the school, yet we continue to be committed to what we need to do,” said Andover Newton president Martin B. Copenhaver. “We are working diligently and collaboratively . . . to comply with the law, as we have always done.”

Copenhaver said the school has yet to contact any tribes, adding that the process has been hampered by staff reductions at the school, which has gone from 39 employees in 2015 to a current roster of 22.

“Some museums have staff members devoted to this full time, but we’re a school, not a museum — and a small one at that,” said Copenhaver, who added they’d consulted webinars on the subject. “It’s extraordinarily complex. We’ve determined that we need to correspond with 320 Native American tribes.”

The roughly 160 items in question are part of a larger collection that contains some 1,100 objects the school acquired through missionary work during the 19th century.

It’s unclear whether all of the Native American objects in the collection, which includes items such as a ritualistic halibut hook, a wampum belt, and a baby carrier, would be subject to return. The law applies specifically to funerary objects, sacred items, and objects of cultural patrimony, so some artifacts likely would not be affected. Still, PEM director Monroe, who helped craft the 1990 law, known as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, said federally recognized tribes must be apprised of all objects in the collection so they can make a determination for each item.


A fish hook from the first half of the 19th-century is among the cultural items housed at the Peabody Essex Museum.Peabody Essex Museum

“The only individuals or groups that can determine that an object is [subject to return] are traditional religious practitioners or appropriate tribe members,” said Monroe. “But the only way they can know that is if Andover Newton goes through the process.”

Monroe, who said his museum has spent more than $700,000 conserving the collection over the past seven decades, said he warned the seminary it might be subject to the law when he first learned the school was exploring a possible sale.

“We worked very hard to encourage them to take another course,” said Monroe, who ultimately informed tribal leaders of the school’s collection in 2015. “Making sure that the rights of Native Americans and native Hawaiians are not compromised in this process is our sole and primary motivation.”

Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, an organization for native Alaskan peoples, said it was inexcusable that the seminary has yet to contact the tribes.

“I’m really disheartened that they have failed to comply with the law since 2015,” said Worl, who first requested the investigation. “How difficult can it be to file an inventory and summary?”


Worl, whose tribe has made a claim on a ritualistic halibut hook in the collection, added that many of the items currently possessed by the school have profound cultural value.

“That object is like a spiritual being to us,” said Worl. “It’s not an inanimate object. We have a relationship with the spirits represented on the halibut hook — those ancestral spirits need to come home.”

O’Brien said that while the government can assess fines for non-compliance, “there’s no timeline set out for assessing a penalty.”

“It’s based on a number of factors,” she said, “including the institution’s efforts to come into compliance after having been notified of a failure.”

There is one timeline, however, that the school cannot ignore: The Peabody Essex Museum is in the process of moving its collections to an off-site collection center by 2018.

“Assuming the cost of doing that for Andover Newton is not something we’re willing to do,” said Monroe, who for the past several years has had strained relations with the seminary. “I’ve notified Mr. Copenhaver that they need to come and take possession of the collection.”

Malcolm Gay can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay