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Students say Peabody
should return Tlingit carvings

The Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History should return two Tlingit carvings to natives in Alaska, two Yale students argued at a recent panel discussion.

Many museums have already returned native objects that railroad millionaire Edward Harriman acquired on an expedition to Alaska in 1899, Anya Montiel ’18PhD said at the panel discussion on repatriation of cultural artifacts, as reported by the New Haven Independent.

“I don't know why Yale hasn't.”

Montiel, a doctoral student in American Studies, organized the panel on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. She was joined by undergraduate Ashley Dalton '15, a University of Massachusetts professor, and a repatriation manager from the Smithsonian Institution.

There's a simple reason the Peabody hasn't returned the two Tlingit carvings—of a bird and a bear—museum director Derek Briggs says in a phone interview: the tribe hasn't asked for them.

The Peabody is “constantly working to comply with NAGPRA,” and “we make no attempt to conceal what we have,” he says.

“There is an ongoing dialogue with the Tlingit tribe. We returned another object to them recently; they specifically requested it under the legislation. But we don’t send back objects that we haven’t been asked for.”

If asked, “we would go through the normal procedures involved in a repatriation request,” Briggs adds in an e-mail.

Panelists raised another criticism of the Peabody: its presentation of Native American exhibits alongside rocks, dinosaurs, and "primitive" prehuman beings.

“It’s offensive,” said Jackie Swift, repatriation manager at the Smithsonian. Calling the Peabody exhibits “very antiquated,” she added: “It’s very dehumanizing.”

I don’t think that’s fair,” Briggs responds. Most major museums display Native American artifacts “under the same roof” as natural history objects, he says. While the Peabody's collections “overlap considerably with those of the Yale art gallery,” their approaches are different. “If you want to tell the story of the history of cultures, you normally do it in a natural history msueum.”

As for the Peabody's presentation of Native American artifacts, “I wouldn’t say it’s antiquated, but I would love to update it,” Briggs says. “Like a number of our exhibits, it would benefit from refreshing.”

But “any updating is dependent on funding”—which, he says, he always welcomes.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

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