Stolen Tlingit artifacts returned to Ketchikan

Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2001

KETCHIKAN - Ketchikan's Native community welcomed lost artifacts home Monday with singing, dancing and the beating of drums.

Tribe members gathered at the Ted Ferry Civic Center to see a house front and three totem poles that were taken from a Cape Fox village by the Harriman Alaska Expedition in 1899.

Some artifacts arrived in Ketchikan on July 16 and were set up Saturday in anticipation of the Clipper Odyssey and its cargo of house posts and a 25-foot totem pole that would be the last of repatriated artifacts coming back to the Tlingit people who made them.

The 340-foot Clipper Odyssey, a Smith College vessel, was returning the artifacts as part of its retracing of the Harriman Expedition.

"It's like if one of your family members had left and come back home," said Richard Shields, a member of the Saanya Kwaan, a division of the Tlingit tribe. "Seeing (the artifacts) reminds me that that's our family."

More than 60 Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian dancers who were dressed in ceremonial garb and accompanied by drums performed for a packed civic center Monday afternoon. Many of the dancers' faces were painted with black stripes.

"Two lines are bear tracks," said Tlingit Saanya Kwaan James Llamos. "So this is bear-track mourning for the artifacts that are coming back. We're still in sorrow because we haven't received them yet."

Many at the civic center had a double reason to wear the mourning stripes. For one of the Saanya Kwaan, 100 years was a week too long to wait for the totems' return. Cecilia White died in Seattle on July 16 as she was preparing to travel north for the festivities. Her body joined her Native brothers and sisters in the civic center.

"With this (casket) here, she'll still be with us," said her brother, Harvey Shields. "This is in memory of her. ... We pay respect to our artifacts and we pay respect to our sister at the same time."

The 45-foot totem from the Smithsonian Institution, which was repatriated on July 16 via a barge from Seattle, was touched with an eagle feather and anointed by Richard Dalton of Hoonah as a way of welcoming the pole back.

At about 4 p.m. tribe members and others went to Ketchikan's Downtown Dock to greet the Odyssey and its cargo. The crowd waited for almost two hours for house posts from the University of Washington's Burke Museum to be unloaded and opened by Tlingit tribesmen. Native dancers sang songs to the beat of a single drum, and clan members performed a welcoming ceremony for the artifacts.

"This is a day of great celebration for people all over Alaska," said Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer, dressed in a Tlingit robe, from the Odyssey's deck.

"These treasures coming back to Alaska are an important way of bringing unification and healing," Ulmer said to tribe members as she came off the ship.

Alaska State Troopers escorted the artifacts and its caravan to the civic center. The house posts and final totem were rolled into the packed center by 8 p.m. for tribe members to uncrate.

"It's good to see these here," said Richard Shields as the 25-foot totem from Cornell University was uncovered. "Our heritage has come home to us. It makes our heritage stronger because it lives."

Tom Litwin, Odyssey expedition director, presented the Saanya Kwaan with a silver bowl from Smith College, the Massachusetts school that sponsored the Harriman Expedition Retraced. The engraving on the bowl reads, "To the Saanya Kwaan of Saxman Village, Alaska, commemorating the ceremony One Hundred Years of Healing, protected in friendship."

Kitty Freedman, great-great-granddaughter of Edward H. Harriman, presented the tribe with a blanket dating from 1895 as a way of celebrating the last 100 years, and closing a circle and looking to the future.

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