Welcome return of artifacts

Posted: Monday, July 30, 2001

The following editorial was published July 25 in the Ketchikan Daily News

The return of Native artifacts to Saxman is a welcome event on this island as well as throughout Alaska.

About 100 years ago railroad millionaire Edward H. Harriman led about 125 Americans on a two-month trip to Alaska with the intention of hunting and killing a Kodiak bear. Among those invited on the trip were scholars and scientists. They explored and studied during their travels through the Inside Passage and stopped in communities from Metlakatla to Juneau and eventually even the Diomede Islands 200 miles north of Nome.

They collected 100 trunks of scientific specimens and took more than 5,000 photographs before they decided to stop at Cape Fox Village near Ketchikan on their return trip to Seattle. The village had been struck by smallpox; many of the Tlingit villagers had died. From the devastation, Harriman recovered totem poles, house posts, blankets and other artifacts. Since then those artifacts have been in museums and private collections in other states.

This week a portion of the Harriman Expedition is being retraced from Prince Rupert, British Columbia. But instead of taking artifacts from the Tlingits, scientists and scholars are returning what the original expedition removed from Cape Fox Village. Some of those were returned earlier in preparation for an official ceremony.

With the return of the artifacts, a wrong has been made right. Harriman and his explorers didn't recognize what removing the artifacts from the area meant to the Tlingits and their culture, but Natives and all Alaskans today are well aware of the importance of the poles being returned to their rightful place. They will help the Tlingits retain their culture and to explain their culture to their descendants as well as others living in or passing through the Tlingit community in Saxman and Ketchikan.

It is remarkable that the poles can be returned. Some poles in the area have had to be replaced because of the effects of time's passage on them. Natives raise new poles annually to commemorate current events. But none is as valuable to the culture as the old poles.

The culture of the Tlingits and Saxman has become an integral part of Ketchikan. Many bonds of friendship exist. Business partnerships have developed through the years. And the communities share a long history. Each is part of the richness of the larger island community.

So as friends and partners it is invigorating for all on the island to see the return of a significant and important part of the Tlingit culture. It's as one of the Tlingit leaders said: "It's like one of your family members had left and come back home." Now the family is restored in Alaska where it belongs.



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