Native shaman items returned

Museums bring back 50 objects taken from Alaska in the 1800s

Posted: Friday, June 02, 2006

Sometime in the late 19th century, Lt. George Emmons, an officer with the U.S. Navy and a well-known ethnographic collector, is thought to have removed a series of shamanistic items from the Berners Bay grave of Kaawa.ée, leader of the Auk Tribe.

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Thursday afternoon, those items were reunited with their homeland during a two-hour repatriation ceremony at the Tlingit & Haida Community Building.

"It's a heavy, heavy feeling for all of us," said Robert Sam, a cemetery caretaker in Sitka, a member of the Dog Salmon house of the Auk tribe and a direct descendant of Kaawa.ée. "I've always believed that if you respectfully take care of your ancestors, future generations will always be healthy, and that's what I'm hoping to do here.

"I'm doing this for future generations of my clan to come together."

More than 50 repatriated items from Juneau and Angoon were displayed during the ceremony. The American Museum of Natural History in New York returned 30 objects, including a complete set of eight shaman masks that belonged to Kaawa.ée, who died in 1855.

Three items were connected to the Sheet'ka kwaan and 31 related to the Xoodzidaakwaan - most all from Angoon. The exact locations they came from and the dates they were created and taken are unknown, said Harold Jacobs, cultural resource specialist for Tlingit-Haida Central Council.

"A couple of the masks look like the style of work that was done in the early 1700s," Jacobs said. "A couple might be even older than that. There are some pretty old-style form lines."

Two Kiks.adi masks were repatriated in March by the National Museum of the American Indian. A hat was returned a week ago from the Minnesota Museum of American Art. Ray Wilson, a Kiks.adi elder, welcomed the items back to the state.

"They're coming back to make us strong again," Wilson said. "They're coming back to heal us. They're coming back to make us whole again. These are not objects to us - they're very spiritual. It's hard to explain to different people how we feel when we get our relatives back in Alaska when they've been gone a long time."

It took seven museum workers one hour to unpack all of the items for display. A large bentwood drum was too fragile to remove from its box.

A series of yeik, or "spirit songs," was performed before the shaman items were uncovered.

"Even though they've been in a museum for years and have been handled by who knows how many people, they're still sensitive objects to be handled," Jacobs said. "The spirit songs balance the spirits and make sure everything runs smoothly and make sure nothing happens."

The Executive Committee of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida began Thursday's ceremony with a few remarks.

"I'm very pleased that some of our culture bearers hung on to our identity through our clan crests and have passed on to us the value of these items that we're going to witness the repatriation of today," president Ed Thomas said.

Emmons collected all over the northern part of Southeast Alaska during his time in the state. He is thought to have taken the items from Kaawa.ée's grave between 1889 and 1891, Sam said.

Chief Kowee, a relative of Kaawa.ée's, is credited with helping Joe Juneau and Richard Harris discover gold-bearing ore in 1880.

The majority of Emmons' items are at the National Museum of the American Indian, the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum in Chicago, Jacobs said. One of Kaawa.ée's masks was returned a few years ago from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. The rest of the collection was returned Thursday from the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Sam formerly served as the Sitka Tribe of Alaska's Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Coordinator. He honored his mother, Bessie Kitka, who passed away Jan. 1, 2006. She was also a direct descendant of Kaawa.ée. He began researching his mother's lineage and discovered that a collection of the Kaawa.ée items were at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. In 1995, he began working with Jacobs to return the objects to Juneau.

The collection will be stored at the Alaska State Museum under his mother's name.

Ironically, Sam is also descended from Emmons on his father's side.

"These items should stay here for the people," Sam said. "It makes me feel good to be able to do something like this."

"My mother was a very proud woman," he said. "She always told us, be proud of who you are and where you come from. Most of her children were raised in Sitka, but we always knew that we came from Juneau."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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