Spokesman: 'We proved ... that we owned it'

Posted: Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Years ago, two different Native clans made claims for the ownership of certain objects in museums in Alaska and Pennsylvania. Those claims are now one step closer to fulfillment, and the clans couldn't be happier about it.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGRA, Review Committee in Washington, D.C. found a Native object in the Alaska State Museum and several in the University of Pennsylvania Museum are actually the property of the Teeyhíttaan Clan of Wrangell and T'akdeintaan Clan of Hoonah, respectively. This means the committee found the museums did not have the right to possess these objects without the clans' consent.

The decision was a verification of ownership that both clans had waited a long time to hear. While there is still a long process ahead to see if the courts will transfer possession away from the museums, this was an acknowledgement of the clans' rights.

"We proved by the committee that we owned it and they do not," said Teeyhíttaan Clan spokesperson Richard Rinehart Sr.

The two clans sought repatriation of these items through the help of Sealaska Corp., Wrangell Cooperative Association, Hoonah Indian Association and Huna Totem Corp. Sealaska Heritage Institute President Rosita Worl said the road to recognition of ownership was a long one. Both museums claimed to have rights of possession and turned down the repatriation claims.

"Sealaska asserted that no one individual has the right to alienate the objects. They belong to the clan. The clan is the entity to own the objects, and they are the ones that have to give permission for them," she said.

NAGPRA dictates objects must be repatriated if found to be sacred or hold cultural paternity. They must be repatriated to tribes rather than clans, however, Native corporations are recognized as tribes under NAGPRA.

Members of both clans addressed the NAGPRA committee on their claims.

"That's the best evidence you can have is to hear from the clans' people," Worl said.

The object sought by the Teeyhíttaan Clan is a raven clan hat known as the Yéil Aan Kaawu Naa S'aax. It has been held by the Alaska State Museum and currently resides at the museum in Wrangell. The clan has been trying to reclaim it for 6 years on the grounds it is a sacred object.

Alaska State Museums' chief curator Bob Banghart said the hat was loaned to the museum by Teeyhíttaan leader William Paul in 1946 and was made into a full donation in 1969. He said while the museum holds the hat, it is open to appropriate clan use. He said a Ceremonial Use Agreement was put in place in 1982 that allows the hat to be used by clan ceremonies the museum finds appropriate.

Rinehart, who is also the hat's caretaker, said this does not make it a donation under Tlingit law because one person cannot gift anything unless the whole clan agrees to it, even if that person is a chief or leader. He also said the clan feels seeking permission to use it is not right.

Rinehart said if the museum agrees to the clan's ownership, the hat will remain in the Wrangell museum. He said nothing will change except the ownership.

"All we ask is that they say, 'Yes, the federal government said you're the rightful owners and we're not,'" he said.

"The NAGPRA process is a fairly laborious process to engage in, and we're working through it as required," Banghart said

The T'akdeintaan Clan is attempting to reclaim 50 objects sold to the Philadelphia museum in the 1920s. Among these are blankets, masks, rattles and a drum box, among others. They are part of the clan's Snail House.

T'akdeintaan members Marlene Johnson and Ronald Williams also attended the panel. Williams said he told them the clan made a determination of the cultural and spiritual aspect of these items according to Tlingit law, which is why they are seeking the return.

T'akdeintaan made its original claim in 1995.

Williams said the museum may have purchased the objects long ago but couldn't produce any names or receipts from the sales.

"So we have no idea how they got them," he said.

Lori Doyle, vice president of communications for the University of Pennsylvania, said, "In terms of Penn, we were very disappointed and are still working with the claim to reach a resolution." She said she could not comment further.

Johnson said if the items are returned, they will be brought to Hoonah. Then it will be up to the clan on how to house them.

She said there are efforts being made to raise money for a cultural center museum by the Hoonah Indian Association. She also said deals could be worked with Sealaska, the state museums or the University of Alaska.

"I was very happy. We've been working on this with all the clan members on Hoonah for the last 15 years," she said, but remarked. "That doesn't mean it's over."

Worl said the committee's decision is only a step. The committee's findings are advisory, not law. She said that while courts often consider such findings in reaching a final a decision, they are not required to. Therefore, while the artifacts are federally recognized as belonging to the Native clans, it must be finalized in court before a ruling can be made to transfer ownership. In the meantime, it's still unclear what the museums will do.

"In the past, we've had some museums return objects, and some do not," she said.

Worl said the next step in the process to take the NAGPRA committee's decision to the Secretary of the Interior to see if he concurs with it. Then a notice of the findings must be published in the Federal Register.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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