Foundation Swoops in to Save Sacred Alaskan Artifacts at Auction

Archivist and collection manager for Sealaska Heritage Institute Zachary Jones holds up the wood panel, which arrived last week. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)
Archivist and collection manager for Sealaska Heritage Institute Zachary Jones holds up the wood panel, which arrived last week. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

As early as the late 1700s, European visitors and explorers in Alaska wrongly took objects that were sacred and important to the indigenous people. Several of these items were set to be auctioned off in Paris last December, despite protest from tribal groups around the U.S. It was a done deal, until an anonymous buyer stepped in.

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Sealaska Heritage Institute president Rosita Worl flips through a printed catalog of items that were up for bid at a Paris auction house last December. She points to several Native items taken from Southeast Alaska a long time ago.

“That one. This is probably from the northern area. This is another Northwest Coast piece, another Northwest Coast piece, something that should be here at home,” says Worl. “This makes me sad when I see them.”

Sealaska Heritage and other tribal communities around the country had written letters to protest that Paris auction and another, which featured sacred Native objects. The U.S. Embassy in Paris got involved but nothing could legally stop the auctions.

“So we thought it was a done deal and then all of a sudden, a couple days later we got a call from the Annenberg Foundation,” says Chuck Smythe, culture and history director at Sealaska Heritage.

A carved wooden panel painted with a Chilkat design would be returning home to Southeast Alaska.

“They had purchased this item unbeknownst to us, so it came as a huge surprise,” Smythe says.

Little is known about the panel, which is 20 inches tall, 18 inches wide with wood nails and detailed carving. It was likely part of a Tlingit bentwood box that could’ve belonged to a shaman or used by a clan to keep ceremonial objects and regalia. Sealaska Heritage officials think the panel could date back to the early 1800s, a time when many outsiders wrongly took Native objects.

The Annenberg Foundation, a philanthropic organization based in Los Angeles,anonymously purchased 27 Native objects from two Paris auction houses last December, the majority of which will be returned to the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes in Arizona. Besides the wood panel to Sealaska Heritage, another object was repatriated to the Chugach Alaska Corporation. The two Alaska items were purchased for several thousand dollars each, according to the foundation.

Carol Laumen was one of the foundation’s bidders during the auctions. She says this isn’t normal practice for the foundation, but there was a great interest to repatriate the items.

“These artifacts were in some cases over a hundred years old and it was suspect in some cases how the artifacts actually ended up in private hands, so to return them to the rightful owner was the right thing to do,” Laumen says.

Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act took effect in 1990, Worl says Sealaska Heritage has been active in bringing sacred items back to Southeast Alaska.

“The objects that we are trying to get back are what we call at.óow. That means they’re owned or purchased property. They belong to clans. They represent our ties to our ancestors and spirits of our ancestors are associated with our at.óow and we know that our ancestors want to come back home,” Worl says.

Sealaska Heritage has repatriated dozens of objects from museums on behalf of individual clans. But thousands more remain in museums and private collections.

Worl remembers being part of a group visiting the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum for the first time.

“The curators thought they were doing a wonderful thing in letting us see their collection. There was about 10 of us and when we saw our at.óow, I saw 10 Tlingits just crying over those objects,” Worl says.

A large part of repatriation is educating people on the cultural significance of objects to indigenous people, Worl says. She recognizes that people pay a lot of money for these items and wants to figure out a financial incentive for collectors.

“For example, a tax credit. Could the government provide a tax credit to a collector for donating it back to a tribe?” Worl says.

In some cases where objects are repatriated from museums, Worl says tribes have given back.

“Cape Fox — they repatriated a totem pole from the Harvard Peabody Museum and in return, they carved a totem pole and left a totem pole there,” Worl says.

She’s thankful to the Annenberg Foundation for bringing the wood panel back to Southeast. It arrived at Sealalaska Heritage August 29.

“We couldn’t believe it, couldn’t believe that an organization would do this on our behalf,” Worl says.

Sealaska Heritage doesn’t know the panel’s origins but hopes to find out and return it.