When Harold Jacobs, a Tlingit, saw a Native headband made of braided hair in a Philadelphia museum this month, he knew whose hair it was. He sang its song.
Jacobs' great-great-great-great-great grandmother of Angoon had cut her hair, made it into a headband and given it to her husband to be remembered by, said Leonard John, executive director of the Kootznoowoo Cultural and Educational Foundation.
The woman's father wrote a song about the headband to mark her marriage, Jacobs said.
"We still do that song today. She made that hairpiece for her husband using her own hair," Jacobs said.
John organized a visit of clan leaders with ties to Angoon to the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Feb. 1-7. The Natives consulted with museum officials about the possible return of tribal objects to clans under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
When Jacobs sang, it was "wonderful," said Lucy Fowler Williams, the museum's keeper of American collections.
Louis Shotridge, the Tlingit from Klukwan who bought Alaska Native objects in the early 20th century as a staff member for the museum, had written down the headpiece's story.
"But to actually have Harold here and have that special connection going back five great-grandmothers was exciting," Williams said.
The 1990 repatriation law requires museums that receive federal funds to list their objects and human remains of Native American origin, and to return them to tribes if asked and if the museum can't show ownership.
The remains of nearly 28,000 people as well as 640,000 objects, mostly funereal, have been repatriated so far, said the National Park Service, which administers the law.
Kootznoowoo Inc., the for-profit village corporation for Angoon, has been active in seeking repatriation of objects of cultural patrimony through its non-profit wing, the Kootznoowoo Cultural and Educational Foundation. Angoon, a Tlingit community of about 500 people, is 55 miles southwest of Juneau, on Admiralty Island.
Since fiscal year 1998, Kootznoowoo has received four hard-to-get federal grants totaling about $236,000 to help it recover objects from museums. That speaks to the tribe's activity, said Paula Molloy, a spokeswoman for the Park Service's NAGPRA program.
John said Kootznoowoo has helped repatriate to clan leaders about 20 objects so far, and has many claims pending. The clan leaders often ask Southeast museums to hold the pieces to preserve them.
"The significance of bringing these artifacts back home is very powerful," John said. "There's healing that flows. It's very exciting."
"Those artifacts are like chapters out of the Tlingit history book," said Steve Henrikson, curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau, who traveled with the clan leaders to Philadelphia. "If you have some of the chapters missing, it's very difficult to teach the history from one generation to the next."
Kootznoowoo has used its grants to fund visits to museums with Tlingit holdings, such as the Field Museum in Chicago and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Clan leaders identify what objects they want repatriated, sometimes even finding things they didn't expect see, such as the beaver-figure prow from a war canoe that Jacobs uncovered in storage in the New York museum in 1998. It may be the only war canoe that survived the U.S. Navy's bombardment of Angoon in 1882, John said.
"When they brought it out, everybody just started crying," he said. "People were weeping. They were shaking."
Among the objects of interest to the clan leaders during the Philadelphia visit were a house screen; a caribou-hide robe that may date from the early 1700s; a raven rattle with a protective cover of bark and goat wool; a Chilkat blanket; and a cape from Tahiti, made of coconut fiber and sharks' teeth, that somehow found its way to Southeast.
Some of the objects appear to date from before the 1882 bombardment, Henrikson said.
That incident stemmed from a whaling ship's accidental killing of a Native crew member who was a shaman. The trading company sought protection from the Navy.
"So much of their artifacts were destroyed in that incident, so anything that survived is considered to be exceptionally valuable," Henrikson said.
The next steps in the process are for the clans to submit their claims and for the museum to review them. The process can take months, and the museum's say on the return of cultural objects is up to the university's board of trustees, which meets only twice a year. Decisions can be appealed to a national review committee.
The museum's repatriation committee will decide whether the clans have cultural ties to the objects, whether the objects meet the law's definition of cultural importance, and whether the museum owns the pieces.
Ownership is based on the standards of property rights that were in place in the Native communities when the objects were removed. But a museum might return an artifact even if it owns it, if the object is of great importance to a tribe.
In this case, the museum has good records showing that Shotridge bought the objects. Removing objects from tribes is known as alienation.
"That issue of alienation is important," Williams of the museum staff said, "and I think the tribe is going to have to address it in their claims."
The Tlingit claimants likely will argue that the people who sold the objects didn't have the right to do so. The clans owned the objects, John said.
"If you don't own it, you can't sell it," he said.
John has a simple test for museums' lawyers when they dispute ownership: If the object is yours, sing its song.
Shotridge helped the museum collect artifacts partly because he believed, as many people did at the time, that Native culture was dying out from assimilation. Museums, he thought, would be able to preserve Native artifacts and show that they belonged side by side with other great cultures such as the Egyptians and the Greeks. But his letters show that he was torn about removing objects.
Repatriation is part of the museum's broader approach to issues of Native concern and education about Natives in a university context, said Bob Preucel, associate curator of North America at the University of Pennsylvania Museum.
Museums have seemed to present Native culture as being from the past. But the University of Pennsylvania Museum collects contemporary Native arts and crafts, and is inviting Natives to write essays about its objects. The university wants to establish a Native studies program, he said.
The repatriation act helps museums build relationships with Natives, Williams said. She'd like to work with Tlingits to make future exhibits more relevant to today's issues, she said.
Eric Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.