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Treat Indigenous artifacts with respect
The history of people in what we now call Connecticut dates back thousands of years before European explorers arrived. Native Americans lived and died in North America for centuries, with entire civilizations rising and falling before the land was “discovered” by travelers from across the ocean.
Students of history know what happened next. Thanks to many factors — disease, mostly — the Europeans, arriving in ever-greater numbers, pushed out the Indigenous inhabitants and made the land their own. Communities were wiped off the map, some doomed to be forgotten. Others were dramatically reduced in numbers, and many more confined to what were considered undesirable pieces of land.
For many years, that was considered simply the way things were. Whatever remnants of that long-ago history were found were displayed by whoever happened to find them, with little recourse for people to claim their heritage. Those days were supposed to be over. Thanks to a law passed more than 30 years ago, museums and universities are obligated to return Native American human remains and burial belongings kept in their collections after being removed from graves and battlefields decades earlier. Many institutions have done so; others have not.
A Hearst Connecticut Media investigation has found that more than 200 pieces taken from sites across Connecticut have not been returned, among thousands more nationwide. There are likely many more thanks to undercounting. And the vast majority of unreturned remains in this state are in one place — the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History in New Haven.
The school and the museum must do better.
The institutions in question, including Yale, have not been accused of violating federal rules or intentionally withholding ancestral remains. Yale, for example, says it has taken steps to move forward on what is known as repatriation by hiring more staff and contacting tribes. This is welcome news, but it’s not unreasonable to think the process could move faster.
The Yale Peabody Museum is legendary in Connecticut. Uncountable numbers of schoolchildren have toured its exhibits over the years, and it remains a draw today.
Though best known for its dinosaur exhibits, the museum’s tour of natural history, including that of Indigenous life in Connecticut and beyond, is invaluable.
But it’s troubling to think where those artifacts may have come from. “This is the most sensitive subject matter you could engage a tribe around,” Jason Mancini, executive director of Connecticut Humanities and former head of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center, told Hearst reporters. It’s on the museums, not the tribes, to make this situation right.
It’s in everyone’s interest to better understand our history. Connecticut has gone through many cycles of development, from an era defined by farming, to one heavy on industry, to today’s suburban-centric housing. But there’s history that predates all of that, and it’s just as important to our understanding of who we are as a state, where we came from and where we are headed.
That history must be treated with the respect it deserves. Most institutions and museums have demonstrated that sensitivity. The rest must follow suit.
It’s not just the law. It’s the right thing to do.