Connecticut museums hold onto Native American objects despite federal ban

Leola One Feather, left, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, observes as John Willis photographs Native American artifacts. (David Goldman/AP)
Leola One Feather, left, of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, observes as John Willis photographs Native American artifacts. (David Goldman/AP)

Museums throughout Connecticut are still holding Native American remains and burial objects in their possession, despite a federal law that bans the practice. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which was passed in 1990, requires that institutions such as museums and universities return items belonging to Native American tribes to their respective places of origin.

More than 30 years later, many of the items remain where they were at the time of the law’s passage. This includes the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, which still possesses almost 90% of the unreturned remains from Connecticut tribes. Some of the lengthy delay in return can be owed to logistics; Jason Mancini of Connecticut Humanities said that the physical repatriation process itself presents difficulty because of a lack of knowledge of some items’ origin.

But Mancini also shared that in most cases, the line of communication to even begin repatriation is nonexistent. “There’s no relationship between tribes and these institutions that is meaningful and durable… it’s one that’s been based on extraction,” he said.

He urged museums and universities to go beyond just establishing contact to return items that are not their own, but also to push for established relationships of support and community building between the two entities.

The Peabody Museum announced measures to hasten their own repatriation progress, and have returned some artifacts, such as Hawaiian ancestral remains given back in late 2022. Similarly, some museums in Connecticut and the rest of the northeast have completed their own process.

In the meantime, Mancini said there are other methods to learn about Native American history and culture that support Indigenous communities directly.

“I think the interaction isn’t just around this sort of deeply personal and painful history of extraction,” Mancini said. “I think there are plenty of opportunities for residents of Connecticut to engage tribes here and now.”

He suggests activities such as visiting the tribally-owned Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center and attending tribe events open to the public.

This story is a production of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by WSHU.



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