Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Guardians of Culture and Lifeways International Awards Announcement

Guardians of Culture and Lifeways International Awards Announcement

Oklahoma City, OK, June 3, 2014- The Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM) today announced the winners of its 2014 Guardians of Culture and Lifeways International Awards. 
Archives Institutional Excellence, which recognizes indigenous archival organizations that demonstrate a significant commitment to the preservation and use of documentary heritage, is awarded to the Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) Library, Archives, and Collections Program, SHI President Dr. Rosita Worl, Archivist and Collections Manager Zachary Jones, staff, interns, language consultants, and the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people of Southeast Alaska served by the Sealaska Heritage Institute. The development of the SHI Library, Archives, and Collections Program has followed a careful and deliberate path from a site-based repository to a priceless resource of rare books, photographs, recordings, and manuscripts accessible online from anywhere in the world. Creating partnerships with local, national, and international organizations, SHI has ensured that collections donated to the archive encompassing Tlingit oral histories, Alaska Native Brotherhood have been processed and made accessible employing the highest professional standards. Exemplary is the current project to reveal the hidden treasures in their Tlingit language recordings by migrating cassette tapes to digital format and employing native speakers who listen and record metadata about the oral history and traditional ecological knowledge contained therein. SHI Archivist Zachary Jones serves on the Alaska State Historical Records Advisory Board and enthusiastically offers his expertise as a consultant and mentor to Southeast Alaska tribal organizations and many others far afield that are just beginning their journey to uncover hidden treasures in their own collections.

Established in 2007, the awards program identifies and recognizes organizations and individuals who serve as outstanding examples of how indigenous archives, libraries, and museums contribute to the vitality and cultural sovereignty of Native nations. Eight award recipients will be honored at a luncheon ceremony on Tuesday, June 10, opening day of the International Conference of Indigenous Archives, Libraries, and Museums that is taking place at the Renaissance Palm Springs, Palm Springs California that is located on the Agua Caliente tribal lands. The award ceremony is open to conference attendees, guests of the awardees, and credentialed media representatives.

Friday, May 16, 2014

When Auction House Looks to Tlingit Art, the Sacred Goes on Sale

There are stories of wars fought over hats, Harold Jacobs said. Not just any hats — Tlingit clan hats carry the weight of history, the voices of ancestors and significance beyond what is easily fathomed in Western culture.
Jacobs, Cultural Resource Specialist with Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, saw that a Tlingit hat would be on Sotheby’s New York auction block May 21. With not even a week until the auction, he and others with an interest in seeing the hat returned to its owners, thought to be the Kiks.ádi clan of Wrangell, are taking action.
Importance of the clan hat
With several objects of Tlingit, Haida or Tsimshian origin featured in the Sotheby’s auction, it is important to understand why this hat has garnered the attention it has from people in the Tlingit community.
“Hats are the most important object any clan can have,” Jacobs said.
He brought up the Tlingit concept of Haa Shagoon, which is defined as recognizing the bonds between our ancestors, current generation and future generations, according to a glossary on the Sealaska Heritage Institute site.
“This hat represents the clan,” Sealaska Heritage Institute Director Rosita Worl said. “Sometimes this is hard for people to understand. They maybe understand it is sacred, it is sacred to us. But it embodies the spirit of our ancestors and ties us to our ancestors ... it ties present generations to ancestors and also to future generations. To who we are as a people.”
The hat also gives a voice to its clan, allowing a clan to speak in public and show respect to its counterparts in other clans. For example, the Kiks.ádi would use the hat in ceremonies paying respect to a recently deceased member of the Wolf clan.
“To not have a hat, as I can say from experience with my own clan, made it difficult to speak in public,” Jacobs said. “We had nothing to bring out to show our opposites.”
Jacobs flipped through photos during a Thursday interview, showing a recent Khoo.eéx, a potlatch, during which a man’s paternal aunts placed a recently repatriated marmot hat upon his head. The hat was used later as members of the clan paid respects to the recently deceased of their opposite clan.
“When they sit in a museum or on storage shelves, they are no different than a dead body; lying in a cabinet, they have no life in them. When we bring them out, they have life in them,” Jacobs said. “Until you see them in action, you really don’t realize how important they are when used in the context they were created for.”

Preponderance of evidence
Were this hat at a museum, getting it back would be simple. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act allows tribal organizations to petition a museum to have an object returned.
What they would need to have the object returned, Alaska State Museum Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson said, is a preponderance of evidence — 51 percent.
Jacobs said he is 99.9 percent sure the hat is of the Kiks.ádi clan, and Henrikson agreed that the evidence that exists supports this. But since it is being sold by a private collector, repatriation is not an option.
“I think it’s a distinctive enough tradition that’s really identified with Kiks.ádi, I personally think that’s what’s going on with this particular hat,” Henrikson said.
“It could be there’s another clan that I haven’t heard of that also performs Aleut songs and dances, but I’d be kind of surprised.”
The hat is unlike most, with maybe only two or three like it in existence, speculates Henrikson. It is an Aleut-style hat, but carved from a single block of wood unlike the traditional Unangan bentwood hats, and with Tlingit painting and, Henrikson said, evidence of other traditional Tlingit elements like possible shell dangles or sea lion whiskers. This blend of traditions is attributed to the Kiks.ádi clan because of relationships developed between the Aleut people and Tlingit Kiks.ádi clan, which exists in Sitka and Wrangell.
Henrikson found a photo in the state museum’s historical collections that showed a similar hat at an event in Wrangell.
Russians brought Aleuts to Southeast Alaska, Worl said, and “in their presence, interrelationships and sometimes kinships were developed. This is a historical object that really reflects that history, that relationship between Aleut and Tlingit people.”
Aleut people were also relocated to internment camps in Southeast Alaska during World War II.
Jacobs consulted a friend, a carver and Northwest Coast art expert, who attributed the style to a carver out of Wrangell whose wife and children were Kiks.ádi, William Ukas.
“We are a clan that has a long and old history but, unfortunately, much of our At.oow (owned objects) has disappeared for various reasons. I can’t even really tell you why or how,” said Wrangell Kiks.ádi leader Richard Rinehart Jr. “As much as we can bring it back to our town for our use, ceremonial and cultural, we want to be able to do that.”

The Tlingit art market
There is more Northwest Coast art on the East Coast than the West Coast, Henrikson said.
“There was a massive effort to collect on the Northwest Coast, around the country and the world collectors were looking for what they thought of as art,” Worl said. “We produced some very unique pieces, aesthetically.”
Collectors came to Alaska in search of these objects, many of which were sacred, like this hat. Worl said many collectors were not ethical.
“Some (objects) came from graves in Juneau. Some were purchased from individuals who had no right to sell them,” she said.
While the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act doesn’t apply to private collectors, Tlingit law dictates that these sacred objects be returned.
Worl said such a large number of sacred objects are held by non-Native organizations or private collectors that Sealaska’s attempt to inventory them was given up when the count surpassed 50,000.
“Because of the sacred nature of this kind of artifact, as well as the belief that many of them were taken — either outright stolen or because of the general power relationship between non-Native collectors and Alaska Natives — however it happened, it was an unfair situation,” Henrikson said, posing the question: “Should private collections and Sotheby’s be able to make huge sums of money on the sale of these things?”

Shady dealings and Nazi looters
What Henrikson sees as the best-case scenario for the Northwest Coast art market is that it receives treatment similar to art looted by Nazis from Jewish homes in World War II.
“There’s a big international movement to identify those pieces, whether in public collections or for sale at auctions,” Henrikson said. “There’s a really strong effort, with laws to back it up, to get those artworks back to the original owners or compensate them for them.”
Why this hasn’t happened with Native American artworks and objects is something Henrikson can only speculate about.
Even if there were some legal way for tribal organizations to reclaim their objects, the problem might not be solved so simply. There’s always the underground market.
“A tremendous amount of buying and selling takes place through dealers and is not public at all,” Henrikson said. “Some people believe that if a procedure comes up, it would just force it to go underground.”

The worth of a sacred object
The Kiks.ádi clan hat on the Sotheby’s auction block is expected to go for $300,000 to $500,000. In 1993, when it was up for auction before, it went for about $20,000, Jacobs recalled.
The best-case scenario for the Kiks.ádi clan is that the hat goes cheap — cheap enough that they can find a way to buy it.
What is it really worth? Jacobs said that in the 1970s and ’80s, less-than-scrupulous collectors would offer money and to make exact copies of the hats, claiming their families wouldn’t know the difference.
“One man was offered quite a bit of money for a hat that he had, and an exact copy,” Jacobs said. “He told that dealer, ‘You know, that hat would look really nice and that money sounds really good. But a new hat? My uncles and grandfathers never stood in that.’”

How to buy a sacred object
Buying an object like this Kiks.ádi clan hat is simple for a wealthy collector, but it’s much more difficult for a tribal organization with limited resources and, as in this case, limited time.
Rinehart, Worl said, is writing a letter to Sotheby’s to ask them to not sell the hat and instead return it to its rightful owners — the Kiks.ádi clan.
“We know it’s a long shot,” Worl admitted. “Maybe we might get someone who just has this sense of ethics and morality, who would want to do the right thing, at least based on our (Tlingit) laws.”
The next-best scenario is that an individual or entity will buy the Kiks.ádi clan hat and donate it to the clan.
The next-best after that is that an individual or entity with such funds assists in the purchase of the clan hat, allowing it to return to its rightful home.
Some of these scenarios have played out in the past, but they can’t be counted on.
Henrikson recalls when this hat was last at auction. He was new to his job and found out about the hat with little advance warning — similar to the timeline now.
“In our own budget we had about $50,000 a year to purchase things for the museum. I didn’t think that was enough,” he said. “We had little additional state funds and no time for a fundraising campaign. In the past we had been able to get something from the legislature to purchase fairly expensive items at auction.”
In the 1990s, Henrikson said, the Alaska State Legislature created a fund called the Heritage Endowment Fund to allow museums to accept donations and private money. It would act like the Alaska Permanent Fund, with the dividends available to invest in purchases like this Kiks.ádi hat.
“The Legislature never put any money in that fund,” Henrikson said. “They weren’t able to at that time. ... I’m not sure what the balance is right now, but not really enough to generate much in the way of earnings.”
There was a time, Henrikson said, when the Kiks.ádi clan of Sitka could pool resources with the state of Alaska, Sealaska Heritage Institute and Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska to purchase a sacred object. The object becomes part of the Alaska State Museum collection but belongs to the clan and can be used by them when they need it.
Rinehart spoke of a clan hat in the Wrangell Museum that the clan owns.
“There’s a wing in the museum just for clan hats,” Rinehart said. “They keep them safe, housed on display for people to see, and check them out for us whenever a clan leader wants to take them out and use them for ceremonial purposes.”
This particular hat has evaded organized efforts to return it, and Henrikson said these objects tend to go up in price by tens of thousands of dollars each time they reappear.
With so little time but so much motivation to act now, stakeholders are moving quickly to do what they can to raise both awareness and — hopefully — enough money.
Back to grassroots
There’s little time to arrange funding.
“Even if you have six months, it would be a tall order to raise sufficient funds,” Henrikson said.
It may not be enough time for institutions to come up with funding, go to the Legislature, or make much progress with grassroots funding efforts on the Internet.
Since there’s no guarantee of one or a few major donors stepping up in such short time, the various people working together to obtain the hat are casting a wide net. They’re reaching out wherever they can, not just to those with coffers full of cash.
“It’s grassroots, a wish and a prayer,” Rinehart said. “We know certainly of some that could (donate a large amount) and we’re going to reach out to those people, but we wouldn’t want any one donor to do all of it — it’s too much for one. We’d like to see a number of donors.”
Rinehart said there’s no way of knowing what the hat will really go for — the estimated $300,000-$500,000 or closer to $20,000 — but he’s hoping it will go for less.
It’s not a straightforward concept, hoping collectors might undervalue one’s cultural treasure, but it may be the best hope there is for the Wrangell Kiks.ádi clan.
“They can put a price on it,” Jacobs said. “But to us it’s priceless.”

Get More
For more on the current attempt to return the Kiks.ádi clan hat to its home, visit the facebook page:
Donations can be made on this page through PayPal.

Editor's note: The hat is the style of William Ukas (Yeeka.aas), but the hat finished by his son was not the hat on auction.

    Tuesday, May 6, 2014

    Southeast student awarded Ethel Montgomery Scholarship

    Juneau Empire - May 4, 2014
    The Friends of the Alaska State Libraries, Archives and Museum has announced Alyssa R. Peterson of Kake as the recipient of a $2,000 Ethel Montgomery Scholarship. The scholarship will go toward her education at San Jose State University where she is working on a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science with an emphasis in archiving.
    Peterson received her bachelors degree in liberal arts with an emphasis in anthropology and Northwest Coast art from the University of Alaska Southeast. She has worked with the Sealaska Heritage Institute Archives. As a member of the Tlingit Deisheetaan clan, Peterson said, “It is my dream to put my skills to use in tribal archives i
    n Southeast Alaska to ensure that our cultural heritage is preserved for generations to come.”
    The Ethel Montgomery Scholarship Fund was established in the 1990s to assist university-level Alaska Native students majoring in museum studies.
    Applications for the 2014-2015 school year may be obtained by emailing Jackie Schoppert at or Majorie Menzi

    Wednesday, April 23, 2014

    SHI Works With Organized Village of Kake on Archives

    This past week SHI’s Archivist & Collection Manager Zachary R. Jones traveled to Kake to work with the Organized Village of Kake (OVK) and its Charles “Topsy” Johnson Tribal Library & Archive. As part of an SNAP grant program administered by the Alaska State Historical Records Advisory Board (ASHRAB), the OVK facilitated Jones’ (a member of ASHRAB) travel to Kake where he met with Dawn Jackson, OVK Operations & Planning Director, Falen Mills, OVK Language/Archives Department, and as well as Alyssa Peterson, a Kake community member who is nearing the completion of her Master’s degree in library and archival science. Together they worked on the important historical collections held by the OVK. From this venture portions of OVK’s historical collections were surveyed, boxed, and preserved for future generations. Established in 1947, the OVK is a federally recognized IRA tribal government that works to serve the community of Kake, Alaska. The OVK, those working for the tribal government, and community members of Kake are doing wonderful and exemplary things in their community, such as using archival Tlingit language recordings to assist in language and cultural education. The OVK is an exemplary tribal government working to preserving its historical collections for present and future generations. It was an honor for Jones to see some of the excellent work individuals like Dawn, Falen, and Alyssa are doing in one of Southeast Alaska’s village communities.

    Photo credit: OVK staff Falen Mills holds historic records cared for by the OVK Charles “Topsy” Johnson Tribal Library & Archive, photo by Zachary R. Jones.

    Sealaska Heritage Institute was founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.

    Tuesday, March 18, 2014

    Native American Image in Children’s Literature

    Presently, discussions continue to occur about Native American image in the United States and Canada. These include how Native American Indians/Alaska Natives are represented and portrayed in film*, as sport mascots, and in literature.

    If you are the parent of young child, or a K-12 educator, perhaps you have been concerned about how Native American Indians/Alaska Natives are presented in some children’s books. Perhaps you been concerned about the consequences of inadequate representation in some these purportedly educational resources. If so, you may be interested to learn about the American Indians in Children’s Literature (AICL) organization and the resources it provides.

    Established in 2006 and operated today by Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo), the AICL provides critical perspectives and analysis of indigenous peoples in children's and young adult books, the school curriculum, popular culture, and society. The AICL operates a user-friendly website that allows the public to search for book reviews, learn about Native media, and more. For many, the AICL offers an important resource toward helping our schools and communities improve.

    The AICL’s website can be accessed here;

    * For those interested in a good educational program about Native American image in film see Reel Injun (2011). Website here;

    Sealaska Heritage Institute was founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.

    Thursday, March 6, 2014

    Tináa Art Auction a big success

    By Amy Fletcher

    Juneau Empire - Feb. 3, 2014
    The artwork on view at Saturday night’s Tináa Art Auction at Centennial Hall highlighted the vibrancy and range of what’s been happening recently in the world of Northwest Coast art, while paving the way for a project that will help carry that energy forward into the future.
    Tináa, Sealaska Heritage Institute’s first-ever art auction, drew a sold-out, black-tie crowd of more than 300 people, who collectively raised more than $300,000 for the Walter Soboleff Center, currently under construction on Front Street downtown. The building, named for a highly influential Tlingit elder and spiritual leader who died in 2011 at age 102, will house an array of art programs, as well as performance and exhibit spaces and a retail shop.
    Excitement about the new building, and for the quality of the work on display, was very much in evidence at Saturday night’s high-energy event, which combined aspects of a museum opening, a gourmet dinner, a runway fashion show and a high-end art auction. Auctioneer David Karp of Nome kept the tone playful and personal, calling to audience members by name as he shepherded the crowd through the 13 live auction items. A silent auction featured nearly 40 additional pieces, from jewelry to basketry to sculpture.
    Many of the internationally celebrated artists who donated works to the auction were in attendance, and several took turns at the microphone to share their enthusiasm for the Soboleff Center and for the man himself. Among them were David Boxley, a Tsimshian carver whose bentwood chest was among the largest items in the live auction, and Haida artist Robert Davidson, who donated another major piece, a black and red painting called “Greatest Echo.” Another big-ticket item in the auction was a rare 14-foot spruce river canoe carved by Tlingit artist Fred Bemis of Yakutat, so light that it requires ballast when operated by only one person.
    The live auction also featured work by Nicholas Galanin, Preston Singletary, Steve Brown, Chloe French, Louise Kadinger, Duane Bosch, TJ Young, Delores Churchill, David R. Boxley and Sonya Kelliher-Combs.
    Prior to the auction, a runway show of innovative Northwest Coast fashion was presented to whistles and cheers from the audience. Among the items on view was a salmon skin dress created from 35 Kenai river salmon and a luxurious coat made from sea otter fur (sea otters have the densest fur of any animal, with up to 1 million hairs per square inch). Designers who participated in the fashion show were Janice Jackson, Kandi McGilton, Ricky Tagaban, Brenda Lee Asp, Joel Isaak, Marcus Gho, Shaadoo’tlaa.Gunaaxoo’Kwaan and Louise Kadinger.
    The title of the event, Tináa, is a Tlingit word that refers to a traditional copper shield representing wealth and trade. In planning the auction, SHI drew on longterm research of the Sante Fe Indian Market, an annual event held since 1922 that draws more than 150,000 people to Sante Fe, N.M., every August.
    A beaming Rosita Worl, addressing the crowd at the end of the evening, said she sometimes hears that Juneau is a divided community, but that the outpouring of support for the Soboleff building from so many individuals and businesses has been an overwhelmingly positive example of how we can work together for a common goal of creating a regional hub in Juneau for Northwest Coast art.
    “We are going to make this the Northwest Coast art capital of the world,” Worl said.

    Wednesday, January 8, 2014

    Alaska State Historical Records Advisory Board seeks to send professional archivists to communities

    SHI’s archivist, Zach Jones, is participating in a state program to offer consulting services to organizations with archives. Applicants can request that the Alaska State Historical Records Advisory Board (ASHRAB) send a professional archivist to their community to give two to three days of hands-on service. This includes help processing collections, training staff, preserving collections, helping with policy development, and offering a planning and preservation survey. No charge. SHI is hoping to serve Southeast Alaska tribal organizations. More:

    Emergence of rare Tlingit war helmet raises a chorus for homecoming

    Anchorage Daily  News
    By Laurel Andrews January 7, 2014

    Tribal leaders are hoping a rare Tlingit war helmet that sat mislabeled in museum archives in western Massachusetts for more than 100 years will be returned to Southeast Alaska now that the artifact, considered a sacred object, has been brought to light.
    The helmet, uncovered this autumn in the Springfield Science Museum archives, was put on display in late December. Records show that the object was accepted into the museum’s collections around the turn of the 20th century, spokesperson Matt Longhi said. The helmet was logged into museum archives simply, and incorrectly, as “Aleutian hat.”
    But after scrutiny by curator of anthropology Dr. Ellen Savulis, and with coordination with the Alaska State Museum, the helmet was quickly identified as a rare Tlingit war helmet.
    The helmet is one of less than 100 known in existence today, said Alaska State Museum curator of collections Steve Henrikson. It’s likely from the early to mid-1800s, and was intended for use in battle by Tlingit warriors. Only three or four of those helmets remain in Alaska today, Henrikson said.
    In 2008, a similar helmet sold at auction for more than $2 million. But its monetary value is of little matter to either the museum or the Tlingit people.
    Sealaska Heritage Institute vice chair Rosita Worl described the war helmet as an at.óowu -- meaning “an object that was owned by a clan and holds the Spirit of the Eagle. It embodies the spirit of our ancestors” who created and used the hat. Worl wrote in an email that “its emergence signifies that the ancestral spirits want and need to come home.”
    “I would trust the Springfield Museum will understand that the sacred value of this hat lies in its return to its home,” Worl wrote.
    The belief that the object is calling to be returned home is shared by other Tlingit people, as well. Leona Santiago, admiral for the yaanwhasshaans (women of the Kaagwaantaan clan), said she feels “it’s a really positive change in terms of our ancestors letting us know that they’re still here.”
    “People are excited about the re-emergence of this one,” Santiago said.

    Uniqueness complicates the process

    The Springfield Science Museum has begun the repatriation notification process, sending letters to thirty Alaska tribal organizations notifying them of the helmet’s existence. The museum is also including a list of all items in their archives identified as being from Southeast Alaska, in case tribes want to make further repatriation claims -- a step beyond the federal mandate, Longhi said.
    The Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has already started the repatriation process on the helmet, President Edward Thomas confirmed on Tuesday. Founded in 1935, the Tlingit Haida Central Council is a federally recognized regional tribe in Southeast Alaska. Folks who are aware of the object's existence are excited about it, Thomas said.
    However, the uniqueness of this object may present an additional challenge for the council.
    Most objects are associated with a clan, not a moiety (either the Eagle or Raven moiety, in Tlingit-Haida lineage). Since the helmet appears to belongs to the Eagle moiety, “we want to be careful” not to offend any involved parties, and will take some broad discussions to determine where the helmet will end up if brought back to Alaska.
    Henrikson said Tuesday that while the bird appears to depict a bald eagle, it could be some other bird or even a supernatural creature -- which would also affect the question of ownership.
    For now, though, the Tlingit Haida Central Council is moving forward with the idea that the helmet belongs to the Eagle moiety and not an individual clan. No clans have yet come forward to claim the helmet as their own, Thomas said.
    The council is also working with the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans Association to gather input on the future of the object, as it was once intended for battle.
    “I would like to see it be used ceremoniously with the veterans group,” Thomas said, whose members are “so very interested and active” in advocating on behalf of veterans.
    Thomas said he is confident that the object will be brought back to Alaska. He hopes it will be stored in the new Sealaska Heritage Institute building slated for construction in Juneau because it will offer climate-controlled conditions for the priceless artifact.

    NAGPRA process: 'Intense'

    The object would be brought home under the auspices of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law passed in 1990 which provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain cultural items.
    The process can be daunting, however, especially for folks living in remote areas, short on time and resources.
    The repatriation process is “intense,” said Dr. Bambi Krauss, president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization of tribal government officials who implement federal and tribal preservation laws. Cases average around three years, but can take longer, she said.
    “A lot of villages don’t have the resources to hire someone to go through the process, so it’s very frustrating,” Krauss said. And grant money is limited -- museums and tribes must compete for the same federal grants from the National Park Service.
    Federal agencies have also come under scrutiny for not fully implementing NAGPRA. Two reports issued by the Government Accountability Office, one in 2010 and the other in 2011, outlined shortcomings by both the Smithsonian Institute and Federal agencies in complying with the act.
    However, at least the initial steps are relatively straightforward, said John F. C. Johnson, vice president of cultural resources for the Chugach Alaska Corporation. Johnson has helped to repatriate objects to Chugach tribes for more than 20 years. A federally recognized tribe sends a letter to a museum, stating in broad terms what its purpose is, and what it is searching for. Under NAGPRA, museums are mandated to send back an inventory of all items in their collection that hail from a particular region.
    Then the longer process begins. A tribe will make its case to the museum, providing evidence that a certain object belongs to them. The museum makes the final call on whether to return the object. After that, an appeals process through the National Park Service is available if disputes remain.
    Johnson urged tribes to designate a tribal liaison to take charge of repatriation, who can take the lead in the process.
    Repatriation law falls only within the borders of the United States -- There’s no law to provide for the return of objects that are bought and sold across international lines. Sometimes objects are returned with the help of organizations. Such was the case in December 2013, when the Annenberg Foundation purchased more than $500,000 worth of Hopi and Apache artifacts at a Paris auction.

    Part of the bigger picture

    Repatriation is seen as part of a larger movement of cultural preservation to bring traditional Alaska Native culture to the forefront of people’s minds.
    “If some big part of the puzzle was broken, it’s your obligation to make it whole again,” Johnson said.
    Ancestral objects are “your identity, your heritage,” Johnson said. Bringing these sacred objects back to Alaska helps to unite a tribe, and bring younger generations closer to their ancestral history, Johnson said. He pointed to other measures, such as the Nuuciq Spirit Camp in Prince William Sound, a 3-week camp where elders and youth come together to explore language, traditional arts and culture. It’s a way to unite the young and old, he said.
    One of the Chugach tribes’ top priorities are the return of human remains and funerary objects, many of which were excavated by archeologists around the turn of the 20th century. Native Alaskans want those remains to come home. “Reverence for human remains is embedded in everyone,” Johnson said.
    In the early 1900s, both grave robbers and members of the scientific community pulled up hundreds of thousands of Native American graves. Today, in museums across the country, more than 120,000 Native American human remains are still sitting in collections -- the vast majority of which are listed as “culturally unidentifiable.”
    The attitude of the scientific community has changed immensely since the early 1900s, and now there’s far more cooperation between tribes and museums. Today, these parties “work together for the betterment of everyone,” Johnson said.
    Contact Laurel Andrews at laurel(at) Follow her on Twitter @Laurel_Andrews