Clan objects return to Wrangell after nearly a century away

Members of the Tlingit community gathered outside the Wrangell airport last Friday while chests carrying four objects -a mudshark hat, a mudshark tunic, a blanket and a blanket with a killer whale stranded on a rock while hunting - were carefully lowered back into their hands after 91 years of separation.

The objects, which belong to the Naanya.aayí clan, were taken by Wrangell police from the home of Mary Kunk, Eva Blake and Betty Carlstrom in the 1930s. In an effort to right past wrongs, police escorted the objects from the airport back to the Blake home near the present-day community gym on Sept. 1 and then to Shakes Island to be used in the Ku.éex' - a memorial celebration - last weekend.

More than 40 tribal members, clan members and others followed the procession to Shakes Island, celebrating the items' return with dancing, singing and speeches.

The Central Council of the Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has been working for decades to repatriate these and 20 other cultural items from the Portland Art Museum, Burke Museum in Seattle, Denver Art Museum and others on behalf of the Naanya.aayí clan and Wrangell Cooperative Association.

A total of 24 recently repatriated items returned to Wrangell last weekend, including a marmot mask, grizzly bear mask, Chief Shakes killer whale hat, killer whale staff and Gunakadéit pipe.

Tlingit & Haida filed a claim for nine of these items with the Portland Art Museum in 2002 under the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which aims to return and protect cultural patrimony, sacred objects, funerary objects and human remains.

After nearly 20 years of negotiation with the museum, Tlingit & Haida's claim was approved in 2019, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the objects' return.

Tlingit & Haida has successfully repatriated more than 130 objects to Southeast since 1993, when its cultural resources program was established.

Many of the items returned to Wrangell last weekend were part of the Rasmussen Collection, named for Wrangell schools superintendent Axel Rasmussen, who accumulated over 800 Indigenous objects from the region between 1921 and 1944.

Acquisition documents from the collection show that Rasmussen generally purchased objects from clan members.

The four objects from the Carlstrom home, however, were taken by police. The late Arnie Dalton, Yaxhgoos, recalled his mother, Betty Carlstrom, telling him how some of the objects were taken away. "She was 6 years old when her great-grandma died and she remembered the Wrangell police coming in the house and just grabbing the trunks with the objects," he said in a 1986 interview.

"It was after the acculturation started for us Natives," said Luella Aanshaawasnook Knapp, speaker for the Naanya.aayí clan, on Friday. "It would have been the generation right before my mom's when they started the removal of objects, the cultural objects. They wanted us to go the Western way, so hats and robes and things like that - the police came in and took them from the homes."

Regardless of how they made their way into the collection, "these objects shouldn't have been collected in the first place," said Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of Native American Art for the Portland Art Museum and a member of the Navajo nation, last year. "These objects are of cultural patrimony and that's meaningful. They never should have been sold."

Items of cultural patrimony, or at.óow, cannot be sold by individuals because they do not belong to individuals, they belong to the entire clan.

Frequently cited analogies include the Queen of England selling her crown or the president of the United States selling the original copy of the Bill of Rights - the receipts for these items would be invalid since the individuals selling them didn't own them in the first place. They belong to the nation as a whole.

Knapp said having the items back in Wrangell is "important because they bring back our ancestors who have been gone," she said. "There's a spiritual connection with the items."

By returning the items to their clans, museums help bring the community's ancestors home, explained Tlingit & Haida's Chief Operating Officer Roald Helgesen at the 2022 repatriation event in Portland. "Our clans and our people know our ancestors through song and story," he said. "Reuniting our ancestors with our people is a humbling honor."

Repatriating clan items is one piece in a larger cultural revitalization effort - the revival of language, family trees and celebrations go hand in hand with the return of these items.

"I think we're in a positive era of healing," said tribal citizen Kenneth Hoyt, who recently moved back to Wrangell and attended the weekend's ceremonies. "There was a point where we had a lot of animosity here in this town and this state and this country. We're not in that place right now. We're in the place of people coming home and things coming home, language coming back, ceremony is becoming increasingly vibrant over time."

On Saturday, the objects were used during the Ku.éex' at the Nolan Center.

Knapp is not certain where all of the objects will be stored moving forward, since the Nolan Center museum has limited space and is not climate-controlled.

"We don't have a really big museum for holding our artifacts," she said. "They do in Juneau, they have a controlled area where they can keep them. We have some items down here in the Wrangell Museum already, but the total number is going to be 24 items, which is a lot."

"We're looking and thinking that the tribe might need to get their own museum," she added, "because there's so much more that we will be getting back. Not just our clan, but other clans in Wrangell."

The 24 repatriated objects are "just to get it out there as a beginning," she added. There are at least 200 other items belonging to the Kiks.ádi and Teeyhíttaan clans, along with other items associated with Chief Shakes, that she hopes will be repatriated in the future.


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