On Wednesday, June 8, nine significant objects formerly in the collections of the Portland Art Museum arrived in Juneau, Alaska, on their way back to the Tlingit community whose artisans had fashioned them.
After years of negotiations following a claim originally filed in 2002 under the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and approved by the museum in 2019, the objects, including the Killerwhale Hat pictured above, have been repatriated to the tribes – and specifically to the Naanya.aayí clan in and around Wrangell, where they had originated. Covid complications delayed the transfer until now, according to a museum statement released Friday.
“We are so grateful for all of the work that was done to return the Naanya.aayí clan’s atóow,” Luella Knapp, a member of the Naanya.aayí clan and of the Wrangell Cooperative Association, said during a private handing-over ceremony at the 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. We are so happy to have them returned to Wrangell’s Naanya.aayí.”
Among other tribal representatives at the repatriation ceremony was Michael Hoyt, a lineal descendant of the Naanya.aayí clan members whose clan house X’átgu Naas’i Hít (Mudshark Intestines House) once stood on Shakes Island in Wrangell. The objects repatriated to the Naanya.aayí clan were removed from X’átgu Naas’i Hít in the 1930s.
Repatriation is a global issue in the museum world, and picking up steam. It’s been very much in the news in cases involving art stolen or bought in desperation sales from Jewish owners by Nazis or dealers turning a profit, during or shortly before World War II.
It’s been a huge issue in the antiquities trade, with pieces smuggled or stolen or bought on the black market from Egypt, Italy, Greece, and elsewhere then landing in Western museums. The Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles, created in Athens in the fifth century B.C. and taken to London in the early 19th century, where they remain in the British Museum, remain the most famous case.
And it’s a significant issue in Indigenous cultures worldwide, from the Americas to Africa to Australia, New Zealand, Southeast Asia, the Pacific islands, Arctic cultures, and beyond. In such cases, the issue of cultural patrimony – of who “owns” objects – goes beyond bills of sale and to matters of historical inequities and cultural independence.
The objects returned to Alaska include the Killerwhale Hat shown above, from the original Chief Shakes House Flotilla of Killerwhale Hats; Killerwhale Flotilla Chilkat Robe; Killerwhale Stranded on a Rock Robe; a Mudshark Hat; three Mudshark Shirts; Killerwhale with a Hole Fin; and a Storm Headdress.
The returned pieces were part of a collection of more than 800 Indigenous objects acquired between 1921 and 1944 by Axel Rasmussen, who had been superintendent of schools in Wrangell and later in Skagway, Alaska. The Portland Art Museum bought the collection in 1948, three years after Rasmussen’s death, and it remains a linchpin of the museum’s expansive Native American collection.
How at least some of those pieces arrived in the Rasmussen collection remains controversial. The late Yaxhoos carver Arnie Dalton (1944-2001), who pressed for the objects’ return, “shared that his mother Betty Carlstrom (1925-1994) remembered as a child when several of these objects were taken away,” a statement by the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska related. “’She was six 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 shared during an interview in 1986.”
Kathleen Ash-Milby, curator of Native American Art at the Portland museum and a member of the Navajo Nation, said that repatriation has been one of her top priorities since she joined the museum in 2019. “I understand that these objects shouldn’t have been collected in the first place,” she declared in the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes statement. “These objects are of cultural patrimony and that’s meaningful. They never should have been sold.”
“I am grateful that times have changed and the museum is committed to moving in the right direction with this first repatriation to the Tlingit by the Portland Art Museum,” she added in the museum’s statement. “By returning these ancestral objects to their communities, we can begin to repair a complicated history between Indigenous people and museums. It has been an honor to help with the final steps of this repatriation and see these ancestors finally swim home.”
“This is a landmark occasion, too long in the making,” Brian Ferriso, the Portland museum’s director since 2006, said in the museum statement. “Although museums continue to try to do the correct thing and be on the right side of history in fulfilling their mission, sometimes mistakes are made and it is essential for the wrongs of the past to be made right. That is what we are attempting to do with the return of these works.
“Stewardship is not just about storage and exhibitions—it is also about our relationships with communities. We are honored to take this important step with our partners in the Tlingit communities, and we look forward to working together in future discussions.”
The opening of the headline “Nine Works from the Portland Art Museum” reinscribes the notion that these works “belonged” to the museum and that is an act of their largess to return them. The article reveals that is far from the case, both in terms of how the works were originally taken from the tribe and clans *and* in the reality that it has taken two decades for the museum to recognize to whom these pieces rightfully belong.
If someone stole something from your grandmother a century ago, and your family finally got it back, would you frame it as “Item belonging to thief/person who bought it from a dubious source” or would you frame it in terms of who it really belonged to, even while it was in other hands?
The words we choose reflect and shape the way we experience the world.
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