A year and a half after Yale returned the last of hundreds of Machu Picchu artifacts to Peru, the Yale Peabody Museum faces a new charge of cultural theft—this time about two carvings from a native Alaskan tribe.
Two Tlingit carvings on display at the museum are stolen property, and should be sent back to their owners in Alaska, according to several students and scholars who spoke Tuesday afternoon at Yale.
That allegation emerged Tuesday afternoon at a panel discussion in Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies on the topic of artifact repatriation—the returning of museum relics to the people to which they historically belonged.
Yale junior Ashley Dalton presented research on two artifacts currently in the Yale Peabody Natural History Museum’s collection, “totem crest” carvings of a bird and of a bear. Those artifacts were taken, Dalton said, from a Tlingit village in Alaska in 1899 by members of the Harriman expedition. The carvings, one of which marked a funerary site, were taken without permission, along with a host of other Native American artifacts.
The Harriman expedition was led by railroad magnate Edward Harriman, who filled a steamboat full of items taken from Alaska. In the years after his expedition, his collection ended up in museums around the country. Then, following the passage of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, many of the Harriman artifacts were returned to tribes in Alaska.
But not the two carvings in the Peabody collection.
Dalton—along with a University of Massachusetts professor, a Yale doctoral student, and a repatriation manager with the Smithsonian Institution—argued Tuesday that the carvings should be returned to the Saanya Kwaan tribe in Alaska, now represented by the Cape Fox Corporation.
Derek E.G. Briggs, head of the Peabody museum said Wednesday that the museum is in contact with the tribe, but has not received a request to return the artifacts. If the tribe filed such a request, the museum would go through the repatriation procedure, Briggs said.
A second criticism of the Peabody emerged Tuesday. Several speakers objected to the museum’s presentation of Native American history as part of “natural history.” Jacquetta Swift, the Smithsonian repatriations manager and a Fort Still Apache/Comanche, called it “offensive” and “dehumanizing” that Native American history is presented alongside information about dinosaurs and rocks and neanderthals.
Briggs responded to this criticism by saying that “the history of humanity is not separate from that of the Earth and its past,” and that the Peabody’s display practices are similar to those of other major natural history museums.
The Cape Fox Corporation didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Yale is not new to disputes about repatriation of artifacts. A years-long dispute with Peru ended in 2012 when Yale returned the last of hundreds of artifacts taken from Machu Picchu in 1912 by Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham III.
The Tlingit carvings, meanwhile, have sat quietly in the museum for years. In 1990, the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) required museums to inventory all “cultural patrimony objects” in their possession. The act requires these items to be returned to descendants upon request.
Since then, according to Anya Montiel, the Yale doctoral student who organized Tuesday’s discussion, most museums with Harriman expedition artifacts have returned them.
“Yale has not,” Montiel said.
Yale needs to not only return the carved bird and bear, argued Dalton, but take some steps to address the legacy of colonialism. It’s not enough to simply have an “empty shelf” in the museum, where the relics once were.
One option, Dalton said, is the process undertaken by the Harvard Peabody museum. When that museum returned a totem pole taken by Harriman, the tribe presented the museum with a cedar tree, which was then carved into a new totem pole by a contemporary artist.
Under NAGPRA, the museum has no obligation to repatriate artifacts unless a tribe asks them to do so. Dalton said that’s not fair. The burden shouldn’t be on the party that was robbed, but on the possessor of the stolen artifacts, she said.
It’s a matter of “institutional will,” said Rae Gould, a UMass anthropolgy professor and member of the Nipmuk nation, who spoke at Tuesday’s event. “Could they and should they be reaching out” to the tribe? “I think it’s up to the institution. I think they could be more proactive.”
“To me it seems very curious” that all the other museums with Harriman artifacts have returned them, said Montiel. “I don’t know why Yale hasn’t.”
“The Peabody employs a repatriation officer, equivalent to Jackie Swift at the Smithsonian, with the sole responsibility of responding to requests from Native American tribes and facilitating the return of objects in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” Briggs, the Peabody director, said. “The source of the Tlingit carvings is fully documented at the Peabody Museum. To date we have received no request to return them. If the museum were asked for these items we would go through the normal procedures involved in a repatriation request. In the meantime we are in communication with the Tlingit tribe and we recently repatriated another item to them.”
In addition to repatriating the Tlingit artifacts, Montiel said she hope the Peabody takes an opportunity to “reinvent” its presentation of Native American history.
“It’s very odd” to go into the museum and see Native American history presented alongside geodes and dinosaurs and neanderthals, she said. “Are you then saying that Native Americans are related to these primitive people?”
The displays are “very static,” without any acknowledgement that Native American cultures and peoples exist to this day. she said. The Peabody should incorporate Native American voices, have modern photographs, she said.
The whole presentation at the Peabody is “very antiquated,” said the Smithsonian’s Swift. She also objected to the presentation of Native American history alongside dinosaurs and early humans. “It’s offensive,” she said. “It’s very dehumanizing.”
“As part of our mission we seek to educate and inform our visitors about the history of cultures around the world—and while the focus is on Native Americans, this extends to Polynesia, Australia and ancient Egypt,” Briggs said. “The history of humanity is not separate from that of the Earth and its past. The Yale Peabody Museum displays Native American artifacts and natural history objects in the same building, as do many other major museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.”