Alaska tribe fighting Pennsylvania museum over artifacts

Anchorage, Alaska (AP) December 2010

An Alaska tribe has demanded the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology return artifacts the tribe considers sacred.

The Anchorage Daily News said the collection includes a shaman’s owl mask, brass loon spirit hat and faded hide robe that memorializes ancestors of the Hoonah T’akdeintaan clan wiped out by a tidal wave in Lituya Bay.

The Philadelphia museum has offered to return eight objects, and university spokeswoman Lori Doyle said it hopes to reach a settlement with the tribe. The federally recognized tribe wants the entire collection.

A federal review committee acting under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act voted Nov. 19 in Washington, D.C., to recommend returning the collection of about 40 objects to the clan, the newspaper reported las week.

The advisory decision now goes to the secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior for consideration.

“As long as there’s one of us around, it belongs to us,” said Marlene Johnson, a T’akdeintaan elder.

Most of the items were purchased for $500 in 1924 in Hoonah by Louis Shotridge, a Tlingit man from Klukwan who worked for the Philadelphia university. The school’s museum added the items to its collection.

“I guess he believed he was doing the right thing by preserving it,” review committee chair Rosita Worl said. “Whereas a good Tlingit wouldn’t do that. They would see the most important thing is it’s used in our ceremonies and see it as sacred objects.”

Following the passage of the graves protection act, photos of the collection were shown to members of the T’akdeintaan clan about 15 years ago in Juneau.

“Let me tell you, it’s just breathtaking,” Johnson said.

The Hoonah Indian Association and Huna Totem Corp. said it’s not clear who sold the objects and the clan as a whole did not consent to the sale.

University spokeswoman Doyle said the museum is disappointed with the committee’s decision.

The university has argued that Hoonah’s claim to the items misreads federal law and threatens to upset the balance between tribes and museums that seek to protect, restore and share the cultural objects.

“The selling of ceremonial regalia and clan objects has a long history in the Northwest coast and among the Tlingit,” museum officials wrote in a July letter to the repatriation committee.

Johnson indicated a federal lawsuit is possible if the items aren’t returned to the tribe.