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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.

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