Christina Rose
The Hall of Native American Cultures at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut, features the artifacts from several cultures, including the Plains and Alaska and the Tlingit items that have come under scrutiny recently.

Remaining Tlingit Items at Yale Cause Uproar

Christina Rose

When stories of stolen Tlingit objects at the Yale Peabody Natural History Museum hit the press this week, museum officials came under fire. Yale was not alone in having these kinds of items in their collection. In 1899, the Harriman Expedition, loaded with scientists, artists, and collectors ransacked an Alaskan Tlingit village, abandoned following a small pox epidemic. They brought the items back and distributed them to museums all over the country.

On Tuesday, April 15, Yale students and experts gathered for a panel discussion on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Three speakers presented the challenges tribes face when seeking repatriation of remains and sacred objects, and in Yale’s case, that includes the two Tlingit items, a carved wooden bear and a bird.

“The expedition took totem poles that ended up in different institutions,” said Chuck Smythe, anthropologist and director of the History and Culture Department at Sealaska Heritage Institute.

“Most of those items were returned 13 years ago, during Harriman Revisited,” Smythe said. “Some did it under NAGPRA and some under the policy of returning items unethically acquired.” Smythe said that when everyone else was returning the Harriman items, Yale did not. “Thirteen years later, they still have not repatriated them,” he said.

Erin Gredell, Tohono O’odham, is the repatriation coordinator at the Yale museum. She said that work has been done over the years to return the objects. “I have been in touch with them [the tribes], and it looks like the Central Council Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has applied for a grant to bring a group of elders here so they can look at the entire collection, at once. If there are other items that need to be repatriated, we could do one large shipment. Hopefully, that will happen, but I don’t know when.”

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven, Connecticut, came under fire this week for exhibiting items taken from a Tlingit village in 1899. (Wikimedia Commons)


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