During the 19th Century Christian missionary workers were often in most frequent contact with the indigenous peoples of America. In the process of interacting with Native American tribes missionaries came into possession of significant collections of Indian cultural artifacts.
The items included objects such as wampum belts, peace pipes, headdresses, beaded ceremonial garments and much more. Many of these items ended up in museums, owned by educational institutions or private collectors. One of those is the Andover Newton Theological School of Newton, Mass.
But the school recently ran into trouble when it attempted to sell-off its collection of 158 Native American items for cash. Struggling financially, the small seminary was trying to do everything it could to bring in extra income.
The problem, however, is that federal law requires items of Native American historical value be returned to their tribe or origin — for free. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act states that sacred items, objects of cultural significance, funerary items and human remains must be returned to the tribe of origin.
When government officials warned the theological school that what they were attempting to do was illegal, school officials backed off and canceled plans to sell the collection for cold hard cash.
The fact that school authorities were ignorant of federal laws regarding Native artifacts has been criticized as “difficult to believe.” School officials contend they never intended to thwart federal law, nor show disrespect to Native Americans.
The return of Native artifacts has long been a hot button issue for tribes and a great source of frustration. Tens of thousands of Native American items remains in hundreds of museums, college campuses and other venues across the U.S. Getting the items “repatriated” to their original creators and owners is an ongoing challenge.