After 95 years, Angoon's lost bear is home.
Tlingits reclaimed their bear totem pole from the University of Northern Colorado in October and held a welcoming ceremony Saturday in Angoon.
"When we brought it back, we had to welcome it home," Daniel Brown of Juneau said. "It was a happy time to have it back home."
The totem mysteriously disappeared from the outside of an Angoon Brown Bear House in 1908, Brown said. It appeared at the college as a gift from U.S. Commissioner of Education for Alaska Andrew Thompson, an 1897 alumnus. The totem became known on campus as "Totem Teddy" and inspired the creation of UNC's bear mascot in 1923.
Natives also retrieved a ceremonial woven blanket, a shaman's rattle and a dagger from the Koshare Indian Museum in La Junta, Colo., when they visited the college in mid-October. They collected a bear headdress that a curator at the Logan Museum of Anthropology in Beloit, Wis., had brought to UNC.
UNC students viewed the pole as a symbol of the school mascot, but the meaning runs much deeper for the Tlingits. The totem is a memorial to a Tlingit man named Kaats, who married a bear and fathered two cubs. They are the ancestors of the Bear House of the Teikweidi Clan of Angoon.
Members of several clans gathered at Angoon Elementary School on Saturday afternoon to celebrate the return of the totem pole. They left the 16-foot-tall pole in a crate while they danced and sang cleansing and spiritual songs to celebrate a return of their history.
The pole was left in the crate because the Tlingits planned to move it to Angoon High School later that day, Brown said.
Brown's sister, Maureen, said the pole was driven around Angoon, stopping at all of the Brown Bear Houses to let them know their lost bear was back. The children of the Brown Bears had the honor of welcoming the pole home. They brought the bear into the elementary school gymnasium and unwrapped him, she said. When the totem was unwrapped, everyone danced, letting him know that he was welcome. They looked in his box to coax him out, she said.
"I watched the people, hats, blankets and totem pole give back to us the spirit and pride we seem to have lost in the past," Maureen Brown said.
UNC Director of Media Relations Gloria Reynolds attended the ceremony to represent the university and write an article for the alumni magazine.
"It was so moving to see how much it means to this whole community," Reynolds said. "It was a different world, like a place where you have never been. The history that comes together is unfathomable."
Harold Jacobs, a repatriation expert at Tlingit-Haida Central Council, started the reclamation process. In 2001 he was looking through photos and found a picture of his father's house in Angoon. Jacobs showed the picture to Peter Corey, then the curator of a museum in Sitka. Corey, an alumnus of UNC, recognized the totem pole in the picture and told Jacobs of its location at the university.
In April 2002, the Tlingits contacted UNC and asked for the return of the totem pole. The 1990 Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act gives Indian tribes the right to reclaim human remains as well as archeological objects that have religious or special cultural significance.
The pole is now sitting in a crate in an office of the high school library until a construction crew can erect it for public display, Jacobs said. The history of the UNC ownership will be outlined on one side of the pole and Tlingit history will be depicted on the other side.
The library was the safest place to hold the pole, where it will serve as an educational tool for students, he said. Some collectors who came through the area during the turn of the 20th century bought or stole Indian artifacts and robbed graves of valuables, he said.
"Another one home and a couple of thousand more to go," Jacobs said.
Tara Sidor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.