Tlingit history heads home

Posted: Sunday, July 15, 2001

Travelers retracing a 1899 scientific expedition along Alaska's coast this month will start work where their predecessors left off.

The last stop of the railroad tycoon Edward Harriman's expedition more than a century ago was Cape Fox Village south of Ketchikan, where explorers removed Tlingit totem poles and other items without permission. Their ship - the George W. Elder - carried the artifacts to the Lower 48 where they ended up at museums and private collections across the country.

This summer, plans to return the items - a process called repatriation - coincide with the 2001 Harriman Expedition Retraced.

The objects belong to the Saanya Kwaan of Cape Fox Village who today live in Saxman, two miles south of Ketchikan. Cape Fox Corp., the Native village corporation for Saxman, has been working on the repatriation project for several years, representing the Teikweidi (brown bear), Neix.adi (eagle-beaver-halibut) and Kiks-adi (frog people) clans.

Cape Fox repatriation program manager Irene Dundas Shields said the effort to reclaim the items started before the corporation knew about the Harriman Expedition Retraced, but the projects soon connected.

Plans call for a "100 Years of Healing" celebration to coincide with the expedition's arrival July 23, she said.

"The items have already had a potlatch 150 and 200 years ago. This is supposed to be a small gathering, but because of the Harriman Expedition and it's a large collection with large items ... it's not going to be," Dundas Shields said.

After departing Prince Rupert, the Clipper Odyssey will stop in now-deserted Cape Fox Village then travel to Metlakatla. The ship should arrive in Ketchikan that afternoon.

While details are being finalized, dance groups are scheduled to meet the ship when it arrives. As the objects come off the ship, clan members will sing a memorial song. Following protocol, the items will be taken to visit clan houses in Ketchikan and Saxman.

"When we arrive in Saxman, we will sing a peacemaking song and then there will be no more mourning. It will be over and done with," Dundas Shields said.

Some of the smaller items will be taken to the Ted Ferry Civic Center in Ketchikan for the rest of the celebration. The event will include speeches and 12 dance groups have been invited to perform. Upwards of 1,000 people are expected to attend the gathering, Dundas Shields said.

A 26-foot Neix.adi totem pole from Chicago's Field Museum was placed in a special crate and shipped across the country by truck the first week of July. The pole has been a part of the museum since 1899 and has been on display in the Northwest Coast hall for the last 20 years, said Gary Feinman, chairman of the museum's anthropology department. There are no immediate plans to replace the pole.

Each Native artifact has its own history, and the museum has kept items on display or in special storage after discussions with a tribe, Feinman said. In other cases, such as that of the Cape Fox pole, it is appropriate to return the artifact, he said.

"It's been here 100 years and it's something very majestic and powerful. It will be missed, ... but we understand and are comfortable with what's happened. Like many things in the world today you have complex emotions," he said.

Items from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian in New York will be trucked across the country and should arrive in Ketchikan on July 18 on a barge from Seattle. A totem pole, two 12-foot houseposts and the front of a bear clan house are among the objects being repatriated.

"This is unusual because we're sending a back a 44-foot totem pole. It's the largest item we've ever returned to a tribe," said James Pepper Henry, repatriation program manager with the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Cape Fox items were part of the Heye Foundation collection in New York City until 1989 when Congress established the National Museum of the American Indian. Since then, they have been in protective storage. Museum representatives have be invited to attend the gathering in Alaska.

"This is something we're all been looking forward to. We're very excited about it," Pepper Henry said.

Clan leader Harvey Shields said Cape Fox representatives have worked with elders throughout Southeast Alaska to make sure they are doing things properly. He and other Saxman residents traveled to the National Museum of the American Indian in the Bronx to visit the items last year.

"It means a great deal not only for myself, but for the future of our community and of what we lost at one time. It also tells me about our ancestors - who they were and how they lived," he said.

With few people in the Ketchikan area who speak the Tlingit language, stories and objects help Saxman residents better understand their culture, he said.

"We want to keep it alive as much as we can and pass it to our nieces and nephews for them to understand," he said.

An eagle, beaver and halibut pole is being repatriated from Cornell University in New York and a bear den totem pole will arrive from Harvard's Peabody Museum in Massachusetts.

Two Teikweidi houseposts from the Burke Museum in Seattle will be trucked to Prince Rupert where they will be placed on the Clipper Odyssey with the expedition participants when it sets sail. Because of space limitations, the rest of the artifacts will arrive separately.

The Cape Fox clans are still finalizing the details of where the items will be kept, said Cape Fox Corp. Chief Financial Officer Diane Palmer. Some of the artifacts likely will go into Saxman's new community hall, which is under construction, she said. Another possibility is to seek funding for a museum, Harvey Shields said.

Joanna Markell can be reached at

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