Sealaska Heritage gets federal grant to help reclaim clan hats

$71,000 will go to document, establish ownership of cultural treasures

Posted: Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau can reclaim culturally significant Tlingit clan hats from museums in the Lower 48 with the help of a new federal grant.

The National Park Service awarded the institute a $71,000 grant to document and establish ownership of Southeast Alaska clan hats held by museums outside of the state. The institute is kicking in another $20,775 in funds and in-kind donations to pay for the cost of the project.

The grant was awarded under the 1990 Native American Graves, Protection and Repatriation Act. The act mandates that federal money be made available to tribes and museums so tribes can reclaim objects. It also required museums to inventory Native American objects and contact tribes.

The objects got out of the hands of tribes after either being sold, dug up from graves or stolen, said Kathy Miller, an ethnologist at the institute. The institute is a Native nonprofit that administers educational and cultural programs for Sealaska, the regional Native corporation.

Miller, who wrote her master's degree thesis on the repatriation act, expects some clans will want the hats, while others will turn them away because they've been out of possession for so long.

"It's kind of bittersweet," she said. "There is joy in seeing these objects that you only heard songs about. But then it also reminds them of the historical situation they're in - that their objects were taken away from them."

These missing hats have prevented clans from holding certain ceremonies that require the regalia, she said.

"Clan hats are critical or essential for our ceremonies," Sealaska Institute President Rosita Worl said. "They represent the clans. Our clan leaders, clan members bring them out in our ceremonies, and they represent a very tangible tie to our ancestors."

The institute is targeting three museums suspected of having Tlingit clan hats, Miller said. The Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., has more than 20 hats. The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, Calif., potentially has 37 hats, helmets, and headdresses from Southeast, Miller said. The Oakland Museum in Oakland, Calif., has an undetermined number of hats. More than 100 hats could be reclaimed over time, she said.

The institute determines tribal ownership of objects based on museum records and their history. Tlingit hats are "very distinctive," Miller said.

The hats, which can auction for $20,000 to $80,000 apiece, are either woven out of tree root or carved from wood. They can be ornamented with sea otter or sea lion whiskers, ermine and abalone shell.

The institute will photograph and videotape the hats and show them to elders for review next year.

Once the institute decides which hats to reclaim, it sends a notice to a museum that eventually reaches the National Park Service. After validating claims, the Park Service publishes the in the Federal Register for 30 days.

Other tribes can file a counterclaim to the objects during that time. If no counterclaims are made, the institute acquires the hats, Miller said.

• Tara Sidor can be reached at

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