Mystery donor bestows new cultural objects to Sealaska

Posted: Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Folks at the Sealaska Heritage Institute may not know the person's name, but are grateful for his or her philanthropic spirit.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

An anonymous donor has given the institute 18 Native cultural objects and tourist items. SHI President Rosita Worl said the collection contained significant ceremonial pieces and would provide important research opportunities.

Worl said such donations are unusual. Those who part with such collections most often do so for a price.

"What I was most amazed about the donor is he wanted it to return home," said Worl, noting she was only assuming the donor was a "he."

She said the collection came home Nov. 10. All of the items appear to be from Southeast Alaska, yet one looks like it may be an Eskimo object.

Wohl said SHI was not able to obtain provenance on the pieces other than they were from Michigan. She said their path to Juneau started when a colleague of hers was contacted by a Native woman who informed her a collector had these items and wanted them to return home.

She said the fact the donor opted for their return was a special thing, as such ceremonial pieces are considered by Natives to be more than art and are culturally significant.

Some of the items included a clan hat with a beaver crest. Worl said this crest was used by three different clans, so the team is working on determining the hat's origin.

Another item is a raven rattle used in different ceremonies. There is also a classic design eagle rattle.

Some of the tourist items include miniature totems and wall hangings.

"The one that I found very intriguing was a rattle with woman's face with a lebret. That has powerful emotions," said Worl.

Emotions hold a valuable research aspect for Worl. She said anthropologists have written about some of the institute's masks before but never examined the emotions except for warriors' helmets. She said the emotions hold a valuable significance to the different clans and show cultural aspects beyond the warriors. She said she met with the research team and decided they should start studying the emotions on these masks and rattles.

In fact, research opportunities are a prime benefit of the new collection. Worl said studies can be done to determine origin and makeup of the items.

"They were all identified as Tlingit, but when our team began to look at them we began to suspect there may be some others," she said. She said one piece may be either Haida or Tlingit and another could be either Tsimpshian or Tlingit.

She also wants to further examine the age of the different pieces. She said the team suspects they come from around the early 1900s. The only dated piece is a wall hanging apparently made of ducks with beading that reads, "Sitka 1909."

While the collection is here for research, it's also here for the public. Worl said she would like to have a special exhibition in the lobby in the future with a more immediate plan of working on a showing in the SHI boardroom.

The collection can also be viewed at the SHI website,

Worl said SHI welcomes people who may have information about Native items at SHI to inform the institute.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at

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