GREELEY, Colo. - The totem pole that gave the University of Northern Colorado its mascot is being returned to Natives in Angoon.
The 15-foot totem pole with a bear on top, nicknamed "Totem Teddy," has been the center of rallies and campus pranks.
But Tlingits in Alaska recently filed a repatriation claim, saying it is part of the tribe's cultural heritage and needs to be returned. University officials will turn over the totem this fall.
"It's kind of like adopting a child and having its birth mother claim it," university archivist Mary Linscome said. "But there's nothing we could do but return it, not only for lawful reasons but for what's right and what's wrong."
The totem pole mysteriously disappeared from Angoon in 1908. Alumnus Andrew Thompson, a former assistant U.S. education commissioner in Juneau, presented it as a gift to the university six years later.
Another UNC alum, Sitka museum curator Peter Corey, who graduated in the 1960s, realized the totem belonged to the Tlingits when he saw it in a historical photo.
"I didn't know it was still in existence. We used to hear stories," said Harold Jacobs, a cultural resource specialist for the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. A grandmother of one of his friends told the story that one morning it was just gone.
It wasn't until the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 that Native Americans could legally reclaim artifacts.
"It's almost like it has a life again - it comes alive again because it comes back to the people," said John P. Feller, chairman of the Wrangell Cooperative Association, a Tlingit tribal group.
Over the years, students from rival schools kidnapped the totem pole and tarred and feathered it, likely not realizing its cultural significance. In 1962, students voted to pay for a concrete replacement for its crumbling bear head.
"There were a lot of jokes about what Totem Teddy saw and didn't see," said UNC alumnus Glen Stenson, 76, who graduated in 1951. "I'm sad to see it go. There's going to be a lot of old alums with sad eyes."
In March Tlingits visited UNC and told the story of the totem.
The Brown Bear Totem is far more than art to its owners. It is a memorial to the ancestors of a group of Tlingit - the Bear House of the Teikweidi Clan of Angoon.
A carving of an upside-down man on the totem represents the legend of Kaats, who fell in love with a female bear and sired two cubs, said Jacobs. But when Kaats broke a contract with his bear wife, he was killed by the cubs, causing the bear-wife to sing a song of grief that is an important part of the Tlingit culture, Linscome said.
Totem poles and the designs on them identify clans and symbolize the special relationship clan members have to the animals depicted on them. They cannot be owned by a single person: They belong to the entire clan.
They also embody spirits that are a vital part of ceremonial rites that help clan members maintain relationships with their ancestors.
Some scholars compare the presence of spirits in sacred objects with the belief that the blood and body of Christ are present in the sacrament of Communion.
The abuse the totem pole has endured during the past 88 years may change its spiritual role, said Jacobs. "Hopefully we can restore that - take away that part of it," he said.