3D-printed replicas: Savior or scorn of rare Tlingit artifacts?

The Smithsonian is using 3D printing and scanning technology to preserve and repatriate Hoonah Indian Association items.

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This Tlingit rattle was scanned and 3D printed with the same size beads inside. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
This Tlingit rattle was scanned and 3D printed with the same size beads inside. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

But because they’re culturally sensitive objects, being able to make infinite copies isn’t necessarily a good thing. At last week’s “Sharing Our Knowledge” clan conference in Juneau, tribal members were adapting to the new technology.

A group of people crowd around a small table in the back of the conference room at Centennial Hall. The 3D-printed objects are carefully laid out. They’re gray and beige. Most are not painted yet.

Although these items are replicas, we are advised we can look but we can’t touch. Robert Starbard, the tribal administrator for the Hoonah Indian Association, handles the copies with gloves.

I ask if he can describe one of the objects, but he declines.

Eric Hollinger and Robert Starbard put away the replicas. Photography can be a sensitive subject when it comes to shamanic objects. These were photographed with permission. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)
Eric Hollinger and Robert Starbard put away the replicas. Photography can be a sensitive subject when it comes to shamanic objects. These were photographed with permission. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins/KTOO)

The original items are yéik: objects that have a spirit embedded in them.

Eric Hollinger, a repatriation case officer at the Smithsonian, says traditionally they would have been left at the above-ground grave houses of Tlingit shamans.

“Some shamanic objects have actually been passed on from multiple shamans. They may be hundreds of years old before they were removed and sold into museums illegally. And that’s what happened with these objects.”

After a repatriation request, the ownership was transferred back to the Hoonah Indian Association in 2013. But the items remain in the Smithsonian.

“They’re on a five-year loan to us while we explore this project together and CT scan it, but they own and control everything about ‘em.”

That’s right. A CT scan, like the medical machine that shows the inside of your body. Except, this scan creates 3D digital renderings that can be printed or studied.

In 2005, the National Museum of Modern History repatriated a killer whale hat belonging to the Tlingit  Dakl’aweidí. With the clan’s permission, the hat was recreated. It’s now used for educational purposes and in the museum’s exhibition.

Robert Starbard said, during the panel, that most of Hoonah’s cultural items were lost in a fire in 1944.

“In one of the few places that we had access to some of these cultural objects, that were otherwise stolen from us, were in the museums.”

He says the partnership with the Smithsonian provides two things: there are copies of the items in case something happens, and there are educational opportunities.

“Where we could take these objects and with our elders and our youth actually start sharing some of the stories and some of the histories and some of the techniques that went with them.”

Throughout the process, Starbard has been consulting with the elders and will continue to do so about the items’ sensitive nature.

He said it’s never easy to take a new technology and start using it for something that’s culturally and historically significant to the clans.

“And so there is a level of suspicion, there’s a level of distrust, and there is an apprehension to move forward, which is why we’re doing it in an incremental, very slow process.”

The Hoonah Indian Association is involved in another repatriation claim with the University of Pennsylvania. So far, Starbard says the college hasn’t been receptive. But he hopes the partnership with the Smithsonian can serve as an example.

“Even if they are replicas for display or in the case of UPenn they’re sitting in the backrooms, perhaps we’d be able to move that relationship off of the standoff that we have now.”

Tlingit artists in Hoonah are painting the items and milling their own paddles and masks from the scans.