Artifacts returned by Portland museum belong to the entire clan

Twenty years ago, the Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska asked the Portland Art Museum to return nine objects that were taken from the Naanya.aayí clan in Wrangell almost 100 years ago.

Among them are a mudshark hat and shirt, killer whale stranded on a rock robe, killer whale hat, killer whale with a hole wooden fin, killer whale flotilla Chilkat robe, two mudshark shirts, and a headdress the clan says was captured from the Tsimshian during a battle near the mouth of the Stikine River, according to a federal register listing announcing that the museum intended to return the items.

They're "at.óww," which means they belong to the entire clan. They were a small part of a collection of more than 800 Indigenous objects that a former Wrangell schools superintendent either purchased or was given in the early part of the 20th century. The descriptions of his acquisitions show that he generally purchased or acquired them from people who were part of the clan or connected to it, though at least one shirt made its way to him through someone who did not belong to the clan.

But when Tlingit & Haida made their request, on behalf of the Naanya.aayí clan and the Wrangell Cooperative Association, they argued that no one person should have been able to sell or dispose of clan property - the objects are sacred and they're cultural patrimony, meaning they belong to everyone in the clan.

Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of Native American Art at the Portland Art Museum and a member of the Navajo Nation, said someone once explained the concept of cultural patrimony like this:

"The Bill of Rights is also a piece of paper. ... And if someone was to take that piece of paper and sell it to a collector in another country, that collector could not use the receipt as a justification for keeping that object because that individual did not own it." she said. "It belongs to the citizens of the United States."

Tlingit & Haida was able to demonstrate that the objects listed on their claim belong to the whole clan, partially through photographs that date back to the late 19th century and the very early 20th century, including a photo of Chief Shakes VI displaying some of the objects that belong to the clan in the clan house.

"It was a pretty clear demonstration that many of these specific objects belonged to this clan," Ash-Milby said.

"We are so grateful for all of the work that was done to return the Naanya.aayí clan's at.óow," Luella Knapp, a member of the Naanya.aayí clan and the Wrangell Cooperative Association, said during a private transfer ceremony at the Portland museum on May 27.

"As a caretaker of these clan items, it is an honor. Receiving them back, one by one, brings back the spirit of the person who wore them," Knapp said at the ceremony.

While they were at the art museum, they were treated like other historical art collections, Ash-Milby said. "That means that they were kept in climate-controlled conditions and staff wore gloves when handling them," she said. "A lot of care was taken to make sure they stayed in the same condition as when they arrived at the museum in 1948."

Now that the objects have been returned to Alaska, they are being held by Tlingit & Haida for the next decision.

It's not clear what arrangements are being made to prepare for the arrival of those objects in Wrangell. Both Ash-Milby and Tlingit & Haida Cultural Resource Specialist Harold Jacobs emphasized that those details are clan business.

"Ultimately these are objects of cultural patrimony that belong to the tribe, and they know best how to care for them going forward," Ash-Milby said.

This specific claim was the first she was able to resolve after she arrived at the Portland museum in mid-2019. She said she focused on it partly because it had been in limbo for so long. "I told them when I interviewed for the job that my first priority was to start working on these long overdue claims."

And, even after she got approval from her board and raised the funds to start the process of returning the objects, Ash-Milby said there was delay after delay.

When she was ready to post about the objects in the national federal register, a requirement before they can be returned, the COVID-19 pandemic hit. "All those federal offices closed," she said. That meant no federal notice, which meant even more delays.

Ash-Milby said she was aiming to get the objects back home in time for Sealaska Heritage Celebration 2022 in Juneau. But, when it came time to ship them via Alaska Airlines, the museum had a hard time getting transport to the airport because of a shortage of drivers. Then the flight was delayed.

But they did make it back to Alaska in time for the gathering.

Tlingit & Haida has a few more repatriation claims pending with the Portland Art Museum, though Ash-Milby said she doesn't think these current claims are ultimately Wrangell-bound.


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