Repatriation conference helps clans learn about bringing their past home

Posted: Monday, December 09, 2002

Thousands of objects made by Tlingit and Haida people - artwork, tools and sacred religious items - were taken from Southeast Alaska during the past 200 years.

Some of these artifacts will remain in private collections and public museums. Others may be returning to Alaska, thanks to a federal law that allows Native Americans to reclaim cultural objects and even human remains. Last week, Sealaska Heritage Institute sponsored a three-day conference in Juneau to help Southeast clans from Ketchikan to Yakutat learn about repatriating cultural objects.

Johanna Dybdahl was among representatives of 11 tribes and Native corporations to attend. Dybdahl, a tribal administrator from Hoonah, has worked with repatriation issues in the past and wanted to learn more. She explained there are some situations where objects belong with the current owners and others where they belong back with Native people.

"If art was bought from an artist, that's a genuine sale," she said. "But in a lot of cases a family was appointed as caretakers and then they sold the work. An artist has the right to sell his work; caretakers do not."

Caretakers held an important role as keepers of community property. Dybdahl said in some cases, Native people embracing Christianity felt pressured by missionaries to sell or dispose of "witch doctor" artifacts in their keep. In some instances, objects were acquired with honorable intentions; in other cases, they were simply stolen.

The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act became law in 1990. Since then, about 20 objects have been repatriated in Southeast, about nine under NAGPRA, including Chilkat blankets, daggers, hats, masks, and the village canoe prow from Angoon, said Rosita Worl, Sealaska Heritage Institute President.

Worl said the three-day conference brought national NAGPRA experts to Southeast, and allowed experts already here to share their knowledge.

NAGPRA is more than just a law, it has helped raise awareness of the value of historical objects for academic institutions and for Native people, said Worl. In many cases, museums have returned objects voluntarily.

"There has been a great change in the attitude of museums and many scientists and archeologists in particular about the benefits of repatriation," Worl said. "In the beginning it was like civil war, there was a lot of tension. But in the past 10 years one of the remarkable benefits has been the improved relationships and growing understanding."

Clans are using cultural objects, tools and utensils - such as colanders, feast spoons and tongs for handling wood in a fire - to teach young people about their history.

"Our ancestors had tools for everything," Dybdahl said. "It's important for the younger generation to see these artifacts that tie them to the land."

Dybdahl said in some cases museums seem fearful that tribes may strip them of entire collections. A few years ago she and a group of Hoonah Tlingits traveled to New York and Chicago to look at Southeast Alaska cultural objects in museums. Dybdahl said curators in New York were very helpful, but in Chicago they were just the opposite.

But in many cases, museums and tribes are working together to share objects. In some cases the museums are modern-day caretakers.

Scott Carrlee, a curator with the Alaska State Museum, said museums offer security, fire suppression and climate-controlled storage that keep the objects safe from insect and other pest damage and decay. Clans have access to the objects, but families are freed from the responsibility of their care. Some groups plan to build their own museums and cultural centers in the future and museums can turn the objects over to the tribes when they are ready.

Years ago, many objects were treated with hazardous pesticides and preservatives by the people who collected them or the museums that stored them. Native people interested in using the objects are concerned that they may be contaminated by the arsenic or mercury used. Carrlee and Ana-Marie Osorio of the Food and Drug Administration helped shed light on contamination issues at the conference.

Jim McKeown of National Park Service, who has been with NAGPRA since its implementation, said it applies only to museums and institutions that receive federal funds, and not to private collections.

Dybdahl said the Hoonah Indian Association is helping clans bring objects back, but is not taking the lead on the action. The clans will decide what to do. In some cases actual objects are returned and in other cases replicas may be made. In some cases religious objects may be returned and reburied.

• Riley Woodford can be reached at

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