Objects that are culturally important to tribes in Alaska like ceremonial masks and drums are scattered throughout the collections of museums across the globe. A new round of federal grants worth $357,000 will help two tribes and two museums in the state bring some items home.
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Anthropologist and explorer Ted Banks collected items from the Aleutians in the 1940s. Some were human remains.
“Like human bones and skulls and jaw bones and things like that,” said Chris Price, CEO of Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska.
The Qawalangin Tribe is receiving about $15,000. The money will help them bring back items from the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
“Lots of different archaeologists and explorers over time have come to Alaska,” Price said. “And they removed sacred objects, including human remains.”
The Qawalangin Tribe plans to bring some of the items back to their island and others will stay at the museum for research. The returned remains will likely receive a ceremonial burial, depending on what the tribal council decides.
Carter Price writes grants for the Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska. He says culturally, it’s very important to get ancestors’ remains back to their homes. He says museums and others are more understanding of that now.
“There has been a shift with some of these organizations with wanting to return items,” said Carter Price. “I think there’s a recognition that housing some of these items isn’t morally correct. So we’re seeing more work with the tribes and trying to get the artifacts back.”
Alaska’s grants are part of $3.4 million awarded to tribes and museums throughout the country through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or what’s called NAGPRA, a law that was passed by Congress in 1990.
The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska is receiving two federal repatriation grants totaling about $144,000. The Tribe has been awarded similar grants over the past three decades and have worked with museums in California, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Maine to return items. So far, they’ve repatriated more than 140 objects.
“They were either bought by the museums or donated from individuals that acquired them, sometimes illegally,” said Desiree Duncan, who oversees the NAGPRA program for the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska.
Duncan says they repatriate and store the cultural items in Juneau and then loan them out to clans for memorial parties.
The Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has over 36,000 tribal members and several clans. The grants help elders and clan leaders travel to the museums where they look through archive rooms and identify items that belong to their people.
Duncan says it’s very moving.
“Looking at the objects and just seeing them come to life and be in there with the clan leaders and elders,” Duncan said. “It’s just very, a very powerful experience. It’s very emotional. . . you go through different emotions while you’re in there.”
She says they just repatriated a killer whale shirt from the Minnesota Museum of American Art to Juneau. And they’re in the process of getting several more items back — a wolf clan mask, a ceremonial mask, a shaman figure, blankets, a box drum, and totem poles that were taken from communities across Southeast.
Duncan says they are grateful for the funding, which has increased over time, but it’s not enough to do all the work. She says Tlingit and Haida is always looking for more opportunities to bring their culturally important items back home.
Other grant recipients in Alaska include the University of Alaska Fairbanks and the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak.
FY 2023 NAGPRA Repatriation Grant Recipients
Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (3 grants) – $44,029
Qawalangin Tribe of Unalaska – $14,962
FY 2023 NAGPRA Consultation/Documentation Grant Recipients
Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository – $99,713
Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska – $99,122
University of Alaska Fairbanks – $98,925