Over the last 30 years, the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology at Andover has returned approximately 37,000 objects and 2,267 Indigenous ancestors (human remains, as phrased in the law) to Indigenous peoples as a result of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (Nagpra) legislation. This civil rights legislation, passed in 1990 by President George H.W. Bush ’42, requires museums to repatriate ancestors, funerary objects, and tribally significant items (known as objects of cultural patrimony) that were wrongfully excavated or stolen, according to Dr. Ryan Wheeler, Director of the Peabody. Nagpra will celebrate its 30th anniversary this November.
“Museums and archaeology are colonial enterprises and [the Peabody] acknowledges that in our strategic plan in 2014/15 and made a commitment to trying to decolonize our institution. We made a special commitment to doing repatriation well and mindfully and sensitively. Returning those ancestors and objects is kind of a healing process,” said Wheeler.
Before repatriation, institutions must consult with the tribes extensively and Indigenous peoples must prove ownership with lines of evidence. Once this process is complete, however, the artifacts are returned to their original owners, and the Indigenous communities have full ownership and control over the items. In many cases, tribes will re-bury ancestors or recirculate objects of cultural patrimony in their rituals and ceremonies.
The Peabody Institute is currently consulting with around 18 different tribes in states ranging from Maine to Oklahoma. The museum has also worked with several local tribes, including the Wampanoag and the Wabanaki Confederacy. In the 1990s, along with Harvard University, the Peabody was involved in one of the largest repatriations to individual Indigenous peoples at Paco’s Pueblo in New Mexico.
According to Wheeler, the Peabody staff is attempting to decolonize the museum by conferring with Indigenous peoples before exhibiting or loaning artifacts. The museum has also begun teaching classes on the problematic ramifications of settler colonialism, which tolerance.org defines to mean the “removal and erasure of Indigenous peoples” in order for tribal land to be used by settlers. Additionally, the Peabody has strived to use language that humanizes Indigenous ancestors, according to Wheeler.
“Some people might use the term ‘skeletal remains,’ but we tend to refer to them as ‘ancestors,’ acknowledging that they’re not objects but people. Even that tiny change in language helps humanize those Indigenous bodies. It’s a tiny thing but all of those things add up and it’s helped us come back a little from settler colonialism,” said Wheeler.
Andrew Falcón ’22, a board member of Native Americans at Phillips Academy, stressed the importance of repatriation. Nevertheless, Falcón sees a learning opportunity in the retention of some of the artifacts.
“I do love the idea of artifacts being repatriated to Indigenous tribes. It’s important that these groups get to have ownership over artifacts that were originally theirs. However, I also do believe that the Peabody should keep possession of some artifacts so that the students of Phillips Academy can have the opportunity to study them and become more educated on the history of settler colonialism,” said Falcón.
The Association of American Indian Affairs’s 6th Annual Repatriation Conference occurred from October 26–28. Members of the Peabody, such as Wheeler and Marla Taylor, the Curator of Collections at the Peabody, will attend the virtual event.
“The conference brings together people from tribes, museums, and agencies that are involved in repatriation… It’s an opportunity to hear a lot of Native perspectives in a short period of time, which is always really beneficial. If we stop talking and listen, the opportunity to learn from Native people is really rewarding,” said Wheeler.
According to Donald Slater, a member of the Peabody Institute Advisory Committee and Peabody Collections Oversight Committee and History Instructor at Andover, with or without Nagpra, repatriation is the right thing to do. Slater emphasized the importance of institutions forming relationships with Indigenous peoples to listen to their stories.
“When we as archaeological museum staff listen and learn how having human remains and certain artifacts in institutions can be seen as spiritually harmful to many Indigenous groups, then we reach a deeper place of empathy and cultural understanding. After all, cultural understanding, and not the gratuitous collecting of artifacts, is what is at the heart of archaeology to begin with,” wrote Slater in an email to The Phillipian.
Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Peabody has not been able to repatriate any artifacts recently but hopes to continue soon, according to Wheeler.
“We’re waiting on repatriation to Florida right now. We got hung up because of [Covid-19], [but] we’re gonna make that happen probably in the new year—we’re constantly working on it,” said Wheeler.