Peace Hat comes home

Historic Russian gift to Sitka Tlingits repatriated in weekend ceremony

Posted: Wednesday, July 23, 2003

After years in exile, the Peace Hat given to the Kiksadi Tlingits of Sitka by the Russians during peace negotiations almost 200 years ago is home.

The repatriated artifact, which has been in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, was returned during a Saturday ceremony at Sitka's Centennial Hall.

The brass hat was made by the order of Alexander Baranof, the manager of the Russian America Company, and carries the stamp of the Russian factory. It was presented to head chief Mikail Koox'aan, also known as Shk'aawul Yeil, in ratification of a treaty of peace between the Russians and the Kiksadi following the Tlingit-Russian battles of 1802 and 1804, according to museum records.

The hat was designed after the Native ceremonial spruce root dancing hat, ornamented with sea lion whiskers and Russian beads. It was displayed or worn on ceremonial occasions such as the death of a chief, accession of a new chief or the dedication of a new clan house.

The first caretaker, Mikhail Koox'aan, was head of the clan at the time of the 1804 battle at Indian River in present-day Sitka. Other items given by the Russians to the Tlingit at that time included a gold coat, a plumed hat and a Russian Double Eagle medallion, all of which are in the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

Records don't show who sold the brass hat, or when.

Harold Jacobs, cultural resource specialist for the Juneau-based Tlingit-Haida Central Council, said the hat was included in an inventory of collections published in 1991.

Jacobs, a former Sitka resident living in Juneau, came upon the hat in 1999. He was at the American Museum of Natural History, looking at Angoon artifacts, browsing through the cases, when he saw the hat.

It was an exciting moment for Jacobs.

"This is the most important possession a clan can own, and this one has a pretty unique history having to do with Russian peace negotiations," he said.

For the hat to be repatriated, Jacobs said a claim had to be submitted by a federally recognized tribe through the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The Tlingit-Haida Central Council turned the claim in to the museum in December 2001.

In October 2002, museum personnel informed the council of its decision to return the hat to the Kiksadi.

A museum representative brought the hat to Alaska in June, ready for Saturday's ceremony. At the event, Central Council President Edward Thomas turned the hat over to the clan. A ceremonial dressing of clan leaders and two "spirit" songs were performed before the box containing the hat was opened by children of the clan. The hat was placed on Fred Hope, the head of the Point House of the Kiksadi in Sitka whose Tlingit name is Aak'wtaatseen.

Also brought out during the ceremony were two previously repatriated items, Katlian's hammer, a weapon used by a Tlingit chief during a battle with the Russians, and a Raven hat.

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