Some Native donations may not be so Native

Posted: Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Sealaska Heritage Institute received a collection of 18 Native cultural objects and tourist items from an anonymous donor last month. However, studies on these objects have led SHI researchers to believe three of them may not be Native made.

Michael Penn/ Juneau Empire
Michael Penn/ Juneau Empire

SHI President Rosita Worl said a beaver crest clan hat and two rattles among the collection may have been made by a non-commissioned non-Native.

Worl said the researchers came to this conclusion because, while the items look old, the wear and tear on them was not consistent with the apparent age. The paint on the three items is also similar, leading the team to believe they came from the same artist.

Worl explained traditional protocol requires those outside of a clan to be commissioned to make ceremonial objects. She said this person apparently made the hat and then it was sold to a clan for ceremonial use, although none of the three objects were originally made for ceremonial purposes.

She suspects these particular items were made to look old to be sold as ceremonial objects.

What's more, Worl said the institute may have an idea who the maker is. She said there is also a belief this person may have made and sold another hat that is currently being used in Tlingit ceremonies. She said SHI is trying to track that hat down for further research.

Worl noted this is speculative and she couldn't be sure if this person made or sold the objects, which is another reason for continuing the research. The team is doing further tests on the donated items, including tests on the glue used, to determine more about them.

"It still has value even though it's not made for cultural purposes," said Worl.

"Nevertheless, they are still fine pieces, but Indian arts and crafts legislation says its illegal to sell objects that appear as if Indian objects unless it's disclosed," she said, adding this sort of illegal manufacturing and selling happens a lot around here.

Worl said while the items may have been sold to represent authenticity, the anonymous donor probably wasn't aware of this.

"We suspect the donor didn't know this because it was made in good faith, and suspect he would have disclosed it if aware of it," she said. "He felt very strongly they should return home."

World said that the rest of the collection appears authentic, which adds to the conclusion the donor wasn't aware of the possible discrepancy of these three items. In any case, she said she is appreciative of the donation.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or at

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