Ancient artifacts reclaimed, returned to Hoonah

Objects from archeological excavation sites dated to 10,00 years ago

Posted: Monday, July 18, 2005

Native artifacts from one of the earliest known archeological sites in Southeast Alaska have come back to Hoonah.

The objects "bring us closer, almost spiritually, to our ancestors," said Frank White, leader of the Kaagwaantaan clan.

The U.S. Forest Service reclaimed the artifacts in November from a Washington State University professor who had excavated them in the 1960s and 1970s. They filled 47 boxes the size of those typically used to store files in offices.

In the artifacts' first public display, the Forest Service will show them in Hoonah on Friday and Saturday.

Agency officials hope locals can contribute to an understanding of the objects and begin the process of deciding what to do with them.

"This event is designed to let the people of Hoonah see the collection themselves and make their own conclusion of the value it might have in terms of culture and aesthetics," said Mark McCallum, the Petersburg-based Heritage Program manager for the Tongass National Forest.

Robert Ackerman, an anthropology professor at WSU in Pullman, held a permit to examine sites in Glacier Bay National Park in the 1960s, said Mary Beth Moss, a former Park Service employee and now curator for the Hoonah Indian Association.

Moss said it's not clear how it happened, but Ackerman excavated some sites on Forest Service land near Excursion Inlet and Point Couverden, just north and east of Hoonah.

The Forest Service now has reclaimed objects from three of those excavations, including objects that have been dated to 10,000 years ago.

"The beauty of it to the Hoonah Tlingit people is they had been telling folks for years their ancestors had been in the area for thousands of years," Moss said. "It was a pretty exciting discovery."

White, the Kaagwaantaan clan leader, remembers as a boy in Hoonah being trained to remember the tribe's ancient stories.

Every night for two hours, after chores and before bed, his uncle George Dalton told him the stories and asked him to repeat them. Each night he added to the store of knowledge. It's the time-honored way in oral cultures of forging a continuous chain of knowledge.

"I know the history, where we came from, the folklore of my tribe, famous people of my tribe, famous things that happened of my tribe," said White, 72, who now lives in Juneau. "It goes all the way back, when we were still in Glacier Bay."

The Groundhog Bay site is one of the most significant on the West coast of North America, said McCallum, who is an archeologist.

"Potentially it might play a role in putting together the peopling of the New World," he said.

The earliest layer of excavated material, from 10,000 years ago, includes a few stone arrowheads or spear points.

A later level, dated at 9,000 to 7,000 years ago, held small, sharp-edged blades often made of obsidian, a volcanic glass. The pieces of obsidian could be set into bone or wood and used as cutting tools or projectiles, McCallum said.

The most recent layer at Groundhog Bay was dated from 1,000 to 200 years ago. It held stone tools used as hammers, chisels and axes, for example. Excavators also found rubbish heaps of shells, charcoal and cracked rock, and rectangular patterns in the ground, reflecting the presence of houses.

McCallum sees the use of obsidian, which can be obtained only in a few places in the area, as a sign of cultures that traded with each other, or knew where to find it. In either case, the use of obsidian suggests that people had lived on the coast for a long time, he said.

Groundhog Bay and other archeological sites in Southeast Alaska lead some researchers to believe that early people may have traveled along the West coast and lived in grassy refuges from ice sheets.

The notion complicates the long-held theory that the New World was first peopled by travelers over the land bridge from Siberia.

The reclaimed artifacts also include objects from Grouse Fort, dated from the early 1700s to the 1900s, and Home Shore, a site dated from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

Grouse Fort was a Tlingit village known as Kaxnuwu, said Moss, the Hoonah Indian Association curator. It may have held about 20 houses, and is featured in oral histories as a place where the Kaagwaantaan clan fled to when ice advanced in Glacier Bay, she said.

At the same time, the Chookeneidi clan moved to Hoonah, and the Wooshgeetaan clan moved to Excursion Inlet, she said.

Natives had previously retrieved a painted house screen and house posts from the last Wolf House at Grouse Fort, White said. The objects are housed now at the Hoonah Indian Association offices.

White remembers being a boy on the seine boats that carried back the screen and posts about 65 years ago.

"They put the Eagle hat on me and a Wolf blanket, and they sang the Eagle song," White said.

When Professor Ackerman took away artifacts, the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act didn't exist.

NAGPRA, passed in 1990, provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items - human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony - to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes, and Native Hawaiian organizations.

John Baldwin, the Forest Service district ranger in Hoonah, said he "fully supports" quickly repatriating eligible items.

The Forest Service also is willing to help the Hoonah Indian Association with museum work if the association chooses to display objects, Baldwin said.

Ackerman, the Washington State professor, could not be reached immediately for comment. Baldwin said Ackerman did not dispute the Forest Service's ownership of the objects.

"Needless to say," Moss said, "it was difficult for him to part with the collection. He put many years of his life into them. I think he understood that for the Hoonah people, these were treasures."

On Friday evening, Kaagwaantaan clan members will be asked to view the objects, and may talk about which items they believe are sacred or part of their cultural patrimony, two possible NAGPRA criteria for repatriation.

The Hoonah Indian Association will file a claim for those objects, Moss said.

On Saturday, the objects will be shown to the public from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Hoonah school.

"It's a big step for us, for our clan, to get repatriation of things that were taken from us without having our say in it," White said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at

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