JUNEAU, Alaska — A Massachusetts theology college has abandoned plans to sell off art from 52 Native tribes, including Tlingit and Haida items, as the federal government investigates.
The Andover Newton Theological School could face penalties for quietly planning the sale of 80 Native art pieces this summer, possibly violating a federal law that would require some items to be returned to the tribes, reported KTOO-FM.
The Peabody Essex Museum in Salem has displayed the collection since the 1940s and alerted hundreds of tribal leaders to Andover Newton’s plans.
Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl was among those leaders. The school intended to auction off a Tlingit halibut hook that Worl said is sacred.
‘‘The halibut hook has spiritual dimensions to it and in this particular case, we have a halibut hook with a wolf,’’ she said.
According to Worl, the items were originally collected as punishment by missionaries associated with the school.
‘‘It was through their own missionaries going out into the field and collecting objects,’’ she said. ‘‘I tell the story over and over again. They collected our sins.’’
Peabody Essex Museum president Dan Monroe says the school seemed confused from the outset, with no inventory or summary of objects and the apparent assumption that the museum could tell them what items were subject to repatriation.
Monroe says only the tribes have a say in that.
‘‘No other party can make those identifications,’’ he said.
Andover Newton is being investigated because it may have violated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, according to David Tarler of the Washington office of NAGPRA.
Schools or museums that receive government funding could be required to return certain tribal items.
Andover Newton is a private school, but Tarler said even indirect financial assistance, such as student loans, could count.
The school could face penalties that range from $5,000 for each failure to comply, to up to about $21,000, or .25 percent of the school’s annual budget — whichever is less, he said. There could also be aggravating circumstances, he said.
Andover Newton president Martin Copenhaver didn’t comment but forwarded KTOO-FM a letter that said the school ‘‘will proceed to repatriate artifacts, if feasible and appropriate ways can be found to do so.’’