`Our grandfather's property' returned

Tlingits welcome back repatriated Angoon artifacts

Posted: Sunday, August 06, 2000

Over and over the floor reverberated with feet stamping -- the Tlingit equivalent of hands clapping -- as four priceless Angoon artifacts were welcomed back Friday afternoon at the Alaska State Museum.

The occasion was Haa Leelk'wu Has At.oox'u, ``Our Grandfather's Property.'' Sacred objects, ceremonial regalia, the four at.oox were greeted with traditional Tlingit protocol almost as if they were living chiefs.

Clan elder Cyril George likened the experience to the return of a long-lost relative. ``A person they gave up hopes of ever seeing comes walking around the corner. What a feeling!'' George said.

``It's a very exciting thing for not only the clan leaders but also the whole community of Angoon to share in this event,'' said repatriation representative Leonard John as he anticipated the occasion Wednesday from his Alaska Native Brotherhood office in Juneau.

Asked to speak, linguist Nora Dauenhauer said she felt ``puny'' at so auspicious an occasion, and called on deceased leaders like Austin Hammond and Jimmy Marks to speak through her. ``The people from Raven House are standing along side of you, rejoicing to have your senior relatives, these at.oox, back in your home,'' Dauenhauer told the audience.

The objects being celebrated, commonly called hats, are frontlets -- carved, wooden headdresses worn on the forehead. They are a type of dancing headdress called shakee.at.

One is the Sleeping Man shakee.at, a mesmerizing blue-green face with red and black features, surrounded with blue abalone inlays. It is complete with all its accouterments. The frontlet is attached to a frame topped with sea lion whiskers and feathers. To the frame is attached a train of white fabric, to which are sewn ermine skins.

The Sleeping Man frontlet is documented in a 1904 photo, showing visitors from Angoon at a Sitka potlatch. It is thought to date from the mid- to late-1800s, said Steve Henrickson, the museum's curator of collections.

A second frontlet lacks its accouterments. Its design is a humanoid bird holding a human. It appears in photos taken in the 1890s and is thought to date from the early 19th century, Henrickson said.

``It's safe to say that it is one of the artifacts that survived the (1882) bombardment of Angoon. These objects are artistically and culturally important,'' Henrickson said.

Three of the four frontlets are the cultural property of the Yei'l.hit (Angoon's Raven House).

All four frontlets were repatriated from a New York City museum. The third is a hook-beaked hawk frontlet from the Deishu.hit.

June Pegues and Lucy DeAsis opened the property box containing the fourth frontlet, a shaman riding the back of a crane, its ermine sides intact. This frontlet is the traditional property of Dakl'aweidi (Killer Whale House).

The crowd's attire mirrored the mix of ingredients that is contemporary Tlingit culture. Children shod in Nikes wore black and red wool vests bordered in mother-of-pearl buttons. Jeans were topped with Chilkat blankets, United States Marine Corps baseball caps, beadwork bibs and shark tooth earrings.

Under the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, thousands of human remains and sacred objects have been claimed by and returned to their original tribes or clans.

Leonard John, Harold Jacobs and Joe Bennett Sr. were among the group of Chilkat Kaagwaantaan clan leaders who in October 1998 traveled to New York to identify clan objects at the National Museum of the American Indian preparatory to requesting their return.

The frontlets on view Friday are part of a continuum of efforts to reclaim Alaska's past. ``At last count we had over 100 pending claims,'' John said.

Much of Angoon's material culture went up in smoke on Oct. 16, 1882, when the U.S. Navy bombarded the village in a symbolic show of force. The beaver figure was saved because the dugout canoe to which it was attached was away. The beaver potlatch bowl was rescued from the Raven House.

The Angoon Kaagwaantaan stands out as ``one of the most active groups'' of Native Americans filing claims under NAGPRA. ``Leonard has done a fantastic job in locating this material,'' Henrickson said.

Angoon's elders are particularly active on this front because they are gearing up for their own museum.

``Most of the communities in Southeast Alaska have plans for a cultural center of some sort, but Angoon is ahead of everybody else in that they have a building already. Now they need funds for maintenance, improvements like climate control and an administration to oversee its daily operation,'' Henrickson said.

If Angoon also gets the airport they're angling for, the isolated village of 700 also hopes to become an important player in Southeast tourism.

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