Federal grants will help Tlingit and Haida bring back more artifacts
August 16, 2023
Alaska tribes, including the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks will receive more than $350,000 in federal grants to use toward bringing objects of cultural significance back to the state and tribal clans.
The National Park Service announced the funding on Aug. 7, as part of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, known as NAGPRA.
"It's very significant," Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida, said of the $143,000 in grants to the Southeast Alaska tribal nonprofit. "I've been the president for nine years and probably one of the most meaningful aspects of the job is when these artifacts are returned."
NAGPRA requires federal agencies and institutions that receive federal funds, like museums, universities or state agencies, to return Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian human remains and other cultural items to the rightful owners.
The Alaska grants are part of $3.4 million in funding that will go to 16 Indigenous tribes and 28 museums across the nation. This year marks the largest amount of funding provided under the act passed by Congress in 1990.
"It's one of the most culturally responsible things that we do ... to repatriate our artifacts that oftentimes were either stolen or wrongfully taken," Peterson said. "We consider these objects to carry spirit. ... It's really been kind of a spark of cultural revitalization."
Peterson said he's seen items return to his own clan and knows firsthand the power of the work. "I've been left in tears and just with goosebumps - it's so amazing and so meaningful. It's exciting to be a part of that. It's exciting to see our ancestors return."
Tlingit and Haida has repatriated more than 130 objects since its first NAGPRA grant in 1993.
In addition to other work, Tlingit and Haida will use some of the money to visit the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California Berkeley and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, where its specialists will determine which objects of cultural patrimony should be restored to clans.
Desiree Duncan has worked with Tlingit and Haida since it began receiving NAGPRA grants. She said she used to go on museum consultations with the late Elder Cyril George and remembers hearing him talk about repatriation work in the Tlingit language: "Yeedát sá yei át yatee, oo awduudlixhaaji kháa, heinaxh kháa géidéi yaxh ghaagoot. Life should be this way, that someone you've given up hope of ever seeing again suddenly comes walking around the corner."
She said this year the tribe is looking to bring home a speaker staff, a couple of masks, a raven totem, a box drum and a killer whale tunic.
"It brings back our culture, which is sacred to us and our clans," she said. "It brings us life again."
The Alaska Beacon is an independent, donor-funded news organization. Alaskabeacon.com. Clarise Larson of the Juneau Empire contributed reporting for this story.