Editorial: Native artifacts should be public treasures

Last modified: Saturday, July 05, 2014
Members of a Deerfield farm family are asking University of Massachusetts researchers for more information about — and the return of — Native American artifacts dug up from their property. While the question of who owns the artifacts may take time to sort out, we hope that the conversation gives the public a chance to learn more about a long-buried chapter of regional history.

Over nine years beginning in 1989, faculty and student researchers with the university’s Archaeological Field School conducted digs on the Pine Hill property owned by the Yazwinski family. The researchers did their work with permission from the landowners and permits from the Massachusetts Historical Commission.

Now, however, Chester “Chet” and Butch Yazwinski are seeking site reports and inventory lists of the artifacts taken away. And the farmers want more than information; they have asked state Rep. Stephen Kulik to help them get the artifacts back. In a May 29 letter to Elizabeth Chilton, who was one of the researchers and now directs the UMass-Amherst Center for Heritage and Society, Kulik said several thousand artifacts were taken from the site and the property’s owners want them back and plan to display them in public.

While the archeological excavations on their land concluded in the late 1990s, Chet Yazwinski last fall sent Chilton a letter requesting a copy of “all archaeological site reports for our Pine Hill property” to help in future management of the land. He told a reporter the family has learned the artifacts could be valuable, or entitle the landowner to a tax break. He said the family would put them in the Deerfield Town Hall or the Memorial Hall Museum at the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association.

In a November letter back to Yazwinski, Chilton said that to her knowledge no historical report was written or submitted to the state Historical Commission, which granted permission for the project. However, Chilton noted that in 1996 she had given Frank Yazwinski a copy of her 200-page dissertation about the site, which could provide at least some of the information sought by the family. She said she would provide another copy.

And what of the artifacts themselves? Chilton said the objects — including flakes from stone tool makings, wood charcoal and buried nutshells — are stored at UMass. Could, and should, UMass return the objects to the family?

Under state statute, artifacts found on public land by a properly permitted UMass research project would remain state property. However, state law is silent on what to do with artifacts found on private land. Federal law says artifacts found on private property belong to the landowner, unless a contract states otherwise. (Since 1990, federal law has also required museums and federal agencies to return “certain Native American cultural items — human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, or objects of cultural patrimony” to descendants and affiliated tribes.) Where does that leave UMass and the Yazwinskis? We hope the answer is this: in a thoughtful and public-spirited conversation.

It is possible that the artifacts hold economic value, perhaps in the form of a tax break for a family that opened its land to important research. It is possible that the Yazwinskis, the university and perhaps even Native American descendents can reasonably assert an ownership claim to the items.

But great value lies in the insights the objects might yield into the lives of the native people who were this valley’s true pioneers. Regardless of who technically owns the objects, they should be made available for public understanding, not locked away.