Once, Native sacred objects were secure. No one stole them. They were alive with the tribe’s spirit and to steal one was not theft, but kidnapping. Then genocide decimated us and missionaries converted us. Many of our sacred objects fell into the hands of collectors and museums. Now, in the latest round of sacred-object politics, a museum director and a coalition of Native leaders have succeeded in stopping the sale of 80 sacred objects by a private school.
Andover Newton Theological School (ANTS) in Massachusetts, whose collection of Native art totals approximately 1,100 pieces, recently decided to sell 80 of its more valuable items. “We did explore the possibility of selling some of the Native American artifacts housed at Peabody Essex Museum,” Martin Copenhaver, ANTS president, told ICTMN.
But Dan Monroe, museum director, feels this is an inaccurate spin of the situation.
“I am sorry, but the notion that they were ‘exploring the possibility’ of selling objects is very simply untrue and it’s very easy to document. They informed us, in writing, that their Board had voted unanimously (or nearly so) to proceed with a sale.”
Created in the 19th century by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM), the collection was later transferred to the theological school with which it was affiliated, ANTS. The art works, including potentially sacred pieces from 52 tribes, have been held at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem since the 1940s. The museum does not own the items, only stores and cares for them on behalf of ANTS. They have only displayed about 15.
ANTS claims the 1,100 items in its collection were donated by alumni of the school, but a deeper look at its founders, the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, shows a history, beginning in the early 1800s, of opening boarding schools across the country in which Native students were taught to give up their Native culture and religious beliefs. Over the years, Native religious items belonging to North American as well as Hawaiian tribes fell into ABCFM hands, representing a substantial monetary value. Sale of the 80 select pieces could create an estimated million dollar profit for ANTS, according to KTOO public radio in Juneau, Alaska.
Monroe knew many of the items in the ANTS collection would be considered sacred and needed to be returned to their tribes. Monroe served two terms on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) Review Committee. He even helped write some of the NAGPRA rules.
He knew the sacred objects needed to be inventoried and summaries of them entered into the Federal Register, per NAGPRA regulations. The problem was his museum didn’t own them. ANTS did. According to Monroe, Copenhaver believed NAGPRA rules did not apply to his school. As a result, the sacred objects went unreported.
When Monroe learned of the school’s plan to sell the pieces, he had his staff notify more than 200 tribal leaders across the country.
“We searched the national NAGPRA database for hours trying to locate all of the tribal nations who may be affiliated with particular items, and who would be interested in having their ancestral belongings protected and/or repatriated,” wrote museum fellow Ashley Tsosie-Mahieu, a Navaho scholar, in an article for University of Arizona News.
One of those tribal leaders, Dr. Rosita Worl, former chair of the NAGPRA Review Committee and current president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, wrote to the school protesting the sale and contacted NAGPRA’s Training, Civil Enforcement and Regulations Division demanding an investigation.
One of the sacred objects slated for liquidation was a Tlingit halibut hook carved in the form of a wolf. On July 2, four clan leaders from the Sealaska Heritage Institute Council of Traditional Scholars met and determined the hook was a sacred object.
David Katzeek, clan leader of the Shangukeidi (Thunderbird) Clan of Klukwan, wrote an affidavit as part of a repatriation request attesting to the cultural and religious importance of the halibut hook.
The fate of the hook and the other sacred objects was uncertain until ICTMN contacted ANTS requesting a comment. On September 7, Copenhaver announced in response that ANTS now has no plans to sell any of its Native artifacts and intends to bring the collection into compliance with NAGPRA.
Copenhaver explained, “We changed direction when we learned that the information we were operating with (in regard to which items are covered by NAGPRA—again, information we received from Peabody Essex) was not necessarily accurate.”
But Monroe denies this, contending ANTS simply changed its mind after learning the complete nature of its responsibility, which includes the possibility of penalties for non-compliance. “Their attempts at face-saving are unfortunate, but regardless of how they want to present their position, they have concluded in the right way by recognizing the rights and interest of Native Americans and Native Hawaiians, and by pledging to comply with NAGPRA.”
A hundred or more years ago, the halibut hook with Wolf Spirit currently in the ANTS collection was known only by its Tlingit name, Gooch Kuyéik Náxw. In a ceremony to ensure successful halibut fishing, Tlingit fishermen lowered the hook into the water and spoke to the halibut.
“He [the halibut hook and spirit] is coming down to do battle with you. Run upon it and do battle with it!” they said in Tlingit. This tradition was handed down from uncle to nephew for thousands of years and invoked the blessings of the Wolf Spirit, the moiety of the clan. The hook belonged to the Tlingit Kaagwaantaan, the clan into which I, the author of this article, was born.
The original vault that kept sacred objects secure existed within the hearts of Native people. Nothing could breach it. Now we can only watch as titans of institutionalized culture battle over objects our ancestors once held sacred. We can only hope that if our sacred treasures do return, we will not lose them again.