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When auction house looks to Tlingit art, the sacred goes on sale

Many in Southeast work to purchase clan hat to return it to its rightful home

Posted: May 16, 2014 - 8:40am

There are stories of wars fought over hats, Harold Jacobs said. Not just any hats — Tlingit clan hats carry the weight of history, the voices of ancestors and significance beyond what is easily fathomed in Western culture.

Jacobs, Cultural Resource Specialist with Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, saw that a Tlingit hat would be on Sotheby’s New York auction block May 21. With not even a week until the auction, he and others with an interest in seeing the hat returned to its owners, thought to be the Kiks.ádi clan of Wrangell, are taking action.

 

Importance of the clan hat

With several objects of Tlingit, Haida or Tsimshian origin featured in the Sotheby’s auction, it is important to understand why this hat has garnered the attention it has from people in the Tlingit community.

“Hats are the most important object any clan can have,” Jacobs said.

He brought up the Tlingit concept of Haa Shagoon, which is defined as recognizing the bonds between our ancestors, current generation and future generations, according to a glossary on the Sealaska Heritage Institute site.

“This hat represents the clan,” Sealaska Heritage Institute Director Rosita Worl said. “Sometimes this is hard for people to understand. They maybe understand it is sacred, it is sacred to us. But it embodies the spirit of our ancestors and ties us to our ancestors ... it ties present generations to ancestors and also to future generations. To who we are as a people.”

The hat also gives a voice to its clan, allowing a clan to speak in public and show respect to its counterparts in other clans. For example, the Kiks.ádi would use the hat in ceremonies paying respect to a recently deceased member of the Wolf clan.

“To not have a hat, as I can say from experience with my own clan, made it difficult to speak in public,” Jacobs said. “We had nothing to bring out to show our opposites.”

Jacobs flipped through photos during a Thursday interview, showing a recent Khoo.eéx, a potlatch, during which a man’s paternal aunts placed a recently repatriated marmot hat upon his head. The hat was used later as members of the clan paid respects to the recently deceased of their opposite clan.

“When they sit in a museum or on storage shelves, they are no different than a dead body; lying in a cabinet, they have no life in them. When we bring them out, they have life in them,” Jacobs said. “Until you see them in action, you really don’t realize how important they are when used in the context they were created for.”

 

Preponderance of evidence

Were this hat at a museum, getting it back would be simple. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act allows tribal organizations to petition a museum to have an object returned.

What they would need to have the object returned, Alaska State Museum Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson said, is a preponderance of evidence — 51 percent.

Jacobs said he is 99.9 percent sure the hat is of the Kiks.ádi clan, and Henrikson agreed that the evidence that exists supports this. But since it is being sold by a private collector, repatriation is not an option.

“I think it’s a distinctive enough tradition that’s really identified with Kiks.ádi, I personally think that’s what’s going on with this particular hat,” Henrikson said.

“It could be there’s another clan that I haven’t heard of that also performs Aleut songs and dances, but I’d be kind of surprised.”

The hat is unlike most, with maybe only two or three like it in existence, speculates Henrikson. It is an Aleut-style hat, but carved from a single block of wood unlike the traditional Unangan bentwood hats, and with Tlingit painting and, Henrikson said, evidence of other traditional Tlingit elements like possible shell dangles or sea lion whiskers. This blend of traditions is attributed to the Kiks.ádi clan because of relationships developed between the Aleut people and Tlingit Kiks.ádi clan, which exists in Sitka and Wrangell.

Henrikson found a photo in the state museum’s historical collections that showed a similar hat at an event in Wrangell.

Russians brought Aleuts to Southeast Alaska, Worl said, and “in their presence, interrelationships and sometimes kinships were developed. This is a historical object that really reflects that history, that relationship between Aleut and Tlingit people.”

Aleut people were also relocated to internment camps in Southeast Alaska during World War II.

Jacobs consulted a friend, a carver and Northwest Coast art expert, who attributed the style to a carver out of Wrangell whose wife and children were Kiks.ádi, William Ukas.

“We are a clan that has a long and old history but, unfortunately, much of our At.oow (owned objects) has disappeared for various reasons. I can’t even really tell you why or how,” said Wrangell Kiks.ádi leader Richard Rinehart Jr. “As much as we can bring it back to our town for our use, ceremonial and cultural, we want to be able to do that.”

 

The Tlingit art market

There is more Northwest Coast art on the East Coast than the West Coast, Henrikson said.

“There was a massive effort to collect on the Northwest Coast, around the country and the world collectors were looking for what they thought of as art,” Worl said. “We produced some very unique pieces, aesthetically.”

Collectors came to Alaska in search of these objects, many of which were sacred, like this hat. Worl said many collectors were not ethical.

“Some (objects) came from graves in Juneau. Some were purchased from individuals who had no right to sell them,” she said.

While the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act doesn’t apply to private collectors, Tlingit law dictates that these sacred objects be returned.

Worl said such a large number of sacred objects are held by non-Native organizations or private collectors that Sealaska’s attempt to inventory them was given up when the count surpassed 50,000.

“Because of the sacred nature of this kind of artifact, as well as the belief that many of them were taken — either outright stolen or because of the general power relationship between non-Native collectors and Alaska Natives — however it happened, it was an unfair situation,” Henrikson said, posing the question: “Should private collections and Sotheby’s be able to make huge sums of money on the sale of these things?”

 

Shady dealings and Nazi looters

What Henrikson sees as the best-case scenario for the Northwest Coast art market is that it receives treatment similar to art looted by Nazis from Jewish homes in World War II.

“There’s a big international movement to identify those pieces, whether in public collections or for sale at auctions,” Henrikson said. “There’s a really strong effort, with laws to back it up, to get those artworks back to the original owners or compensate them for them.”

Why this hasn’t happened with Native American artworks and objects is something Henrikson can only speculate about.

Even if there were some legal way for tribal organizations to reclaim their objects, the problem might not be solved so simply. There’s always the underground market.

“A tremendous amount of buying and selling takes place through dealers and is not public at all,” Henrikson said. “Some people believe that if a procedure comes up, it would just force it to go underground.”

 

The worth of a sacred object

The Kiks.ádi clan hat on the Sotheby’s auction block is expected to go for $300,000 to $500,000. In 1993, when it was up for auction before, it went for about $20,000, Jacobs recalled.

The best-case scenario for the Kiks.ádi clan is that the hat goes cheap — cheap enough that they can find a way to buy it.

What is it really worth? Jacobs said that in the 1970s and ’80s, less-than-scrupulous collectors would offer money and to make exact copies of the hats, claiming their families wouldn’t know the difference.

“One man was offered quite a bit of money for a hat that he had, and an exact copy,” Jacobs said. “He told that dealer, ‘You know, that hat would look really nice and that money sounds really good. But a new hat? My uncles and grandfathers never stood in that.’”

 

How to buy a sacred object

Buying an object like this Kiks.ádi clan hat is simple for a wealthy collector, but it’s much more difficult for a tribal organization with limited resources and, as in this case, limited time.

Rinehart, Worl said, is writing a letter to Sotheby’s to ask them to not sell the hat and instead return it to its rightful owners — the Kiks.ádi clan.

“We know it’s a long shot,” Worl admitted. “Maybe we might get someone who just has this sense of ethics and morality, who would want to do the right thing, at least based on our (Tlingit) laws.”

The next-best scenario is that an individual or entity will buy the Kiks.ádi clan hat and donate it to the clan.

The next-best after that is that an individual or entity with such funds assists in the purchase of the clan hat, allowing it to return to its rightful home.

Some of these scenarios have played out in the past, but they can’t be counted on.

Henrikson recalls when this hat was last at auction. He was new to his job and found out about the hat with little advance warning — similar to the timeline now.

“In our own budget we had about $50,000 a year to purchase things for the museum. I didn’t think that was enough,” he said. “We had little additional state funds and no time for a fundraising campaign. In the past we had been able to get something from the legislature to purchase fairly expensive items at auction.”

In the 1990s, Henrikson said, the Alaska State Legislature created a fund called the Heritage Endowment Fund to allow museums to accept donations and private money. It would act like the Alaska Permanent Fund, with the dividends available to invest in purchases like this Kiks.ádi hat.

“The Legislature never put any money in that fund,” Henrikson said. “They weren’t able to at that time. ... I’m not sure what the balance is right now, but not really enough to generate much in the way of earnings.”

There was a time, Henrikson said, when the Kiks.ádi clan of Sitka could pool resources with the state of Alaska, Sealaska Heritage Institute and Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska to purchase a sacred object. The object becomes part of the Alaska State Museum collection but belongs to the clan and can be used by them when they need it.

Rinehart spoke of a clan hat in the Wrangell Museum that the clan owns.

“There’s a wing in the museum just for clan hats,” Rinehart said. “They keep them safe, housed on display for people to see, and check them out for us whenever a clan leader wants to take them out and use them for ceremonial purposes.”

This particular hat has evaded organized efforts to return it, and Henrikson said these objects tend to go up in price by tens of thousands of dollars each time they reappear.

With so little time but so much motivation to act now, stakeholders are moving quickly to do what they can to raise both awareness and — hopefully — enough money.

Back to grassroots

There’s little time to arrange funding.

“Even if you have six months, it would be a tall order to raise sufficient funds,” Henrikson said.

It may not be enough time for institutions to come up with funding, go to the Legislature, or make much progress with grassroots funding efforts on the Internet.

Since there’s no guarantee of one or a few major donors stepping up in such short time, the various people working together to obtain the hat are casting a wide net. They’re reaching out wherever they can, not just to those with coffers full of cash.

“It’s grassroots, a wish and a prayer,” Rinehart said. “We know certainly of some that could (donate a large amount) and we’re going to reach out to those people, but we wouldn’t want any one donor to do all of it — it’s too much for one. We’d like to see a number of donors.”

Rinehart said there’s no way of knowing what the hat will really go for — the estimated $300,000-$500,000 or closer to $20,000 — but he’s hoping it will go for less.

It’s not a straightforward concept, hoping collectors might undervalue one’s cultural treasure, but it may be the best hope there is for the Wrangell Kiks.ádi clan.

“They can put a price on it,” Jacobs said. “But to us it’s priceless.”

 

Get More

For more on the current attempt to return the Kiks.ádi clan hat to its home, visit the facebook page: facebook.com/events/786230188055258/

Donations can be made on this page through PayPal.

 

Editor's note: The hat is the style of William Ukas (Yeeka.aas), but the hat finished by his son was not the hat on auction.

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