You Can't Sell What's Not Yours

Theology school denies allegations it tried to sell Native American artifacts covered by repatriation requirements.

October 7, 2015

A theology college in Massachusetts is facing scrutiny and a government investigation over allegations that it illegally tried to sell Native American artifacts. The school denies the charges, which involve objects subject to repatriation.

Andover Newton Theological School owns a collection of 1,100 artifacts, 150 of which have Native American origins and all of which have been housed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem for more than 60 years.

The Peabody museum raised the alarm last summer among tribal leaders that Andover Newton planned to sell up to 80 of the pieces, according to The Boston Globe, possibly putting the college in violation of a federal law requiring certain artifacts to be returned the tribes that once owned them.

The college did look into transferring or selling artifacts in its collection, said Andover Newton President Martin Copenhaver in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. But he said the school has since halted plans to transfer any of its Native American items. But, he said, “It was always our intention to adhere to the law,” and the college halted the transfer plans of its own accord after a yearslong internal probe revealed many more artifacts than they’d thought to be potentially subject to repatriation.

In the 1990s, Copenhaver said, Peabody informed the college that 10 of its artifacts might be subject to a new law, the Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), that would ultimately require them to be returned -- repatriated -- to the Native American tribes that once owned them. But then “nothing happened for a number of years.”

“We’re a very small school,” Copenhaver said. “The Peabody Essex Museum collection is not something we think about much.”

It wasn’t until several years ago, before Copenhaver became president last year, that the college began to reconsider what to do with the collection. “We realized how complicated the issue is.” College officials discovered the 25-year-old note from the museum, and found many more items that might be subject to NAGPRA. “So we changed direction at that point because we discovered we were working with something that wasn’t as clear-cut as we’d been led to believe years ago.”

Before that, Andover Newton officials had assumed it was the museum’s responsibility to look into the repatriation issue. But that is not the case, Peabody museum president Dan Monroe told KTOO. “We could never tell them what objects in their collection are subject to NAGPRA. … Because we have no standing in the law and we perfectly well understand that,” he said. Only the tribes do.

“Once we focused on this and realized some of our obligations, we’re trying to fulfill them,” he said. “This is not central to what we do, but by golly it’s got our attention too … we’re getting an education, no question about it.”

Now, Copenhaver said, the college has hired a consultant for guidance and is in touch with Native American tribes about directly repatriating some of the artifacts.

Andover Newton is still under investigation by the National NAGPRA Program for possible violations, though Copenhaver said no one from the agency had contacted them.

Melanie O’Brien, program manager in NAGPRA’s D.C. office, said the agency is under no obligation to inform subjects they are under investigation or contact them at all unless or until they need additional information. She couldn’t comment further because the investigation is still ongoing.

According to the federal regulations, however, institutions that receive federal aid -- which Andover Newton does in the form of guaranteed student loans -- are in violation if they have not submitted a summary, in consultation with Native American tribes, of items in their collection that may be subject to repatriation by Nov. 16, 1993 -- twenty-two years ago.


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