AD Main Menu

Tribe seeks return of artifacts taken from abandoned Alaska village

Alex DeMarban
A prominent Southeast Alaska cultural leader says that Yale University's museum that has held onto a pair of Tlingit carvings taken from an abandoned village more than a century ago should voluntarily return the items instead of waiting for tribal officials to make a formal request. Courtesy Yale University

An East Coast museum that houses a pair of Tlingit carvings taken from an abandoned village more than a century ago should voluntarily return the items instead of waiting for tribal officials to make a formal request, said a prominent cultural leader from Southeast Alaska.

At issue are a pair of large wooden crests on display at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University. The relics, including a bird that was part of a shaman’s gravesite, once adorned totem poles, museum officials said.

The carvings received attention this week after a Yale student, as part of a research paper, argued that they were stolen by the Harriman expedition in 1899 and that the museum should return them, according to the New Haven Independent. The expedition was part of a two-month scientific survey of coastal Alaska organized by a railroad magnate. After the trip, scientists on the steamship distributed items they'd collected to universities and other institutions, which is how Yale Peabody acquired the carvings.   

Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute, agrees with the argument presented by the student, who is not Alaska Native. Worl said the artifacts were removed from the old village of Cape Fox by members of the expedition after the village had been abandoned following an epidemic, perhaps the flu. Villagers believed the deaths were caused by witchcraft and had relocated, she said. 

“This is really a violation,” she said of the original removal. “We don’t run into other people’s graves and take their objects.”

If the museum wants to do what is “ethically and morally right,” it will return the objects without a repatriation claim filed under federal law, she said.

“The important thing is they can return it now; they don’t need to wait for a claim,” Worl said.

Staff at the museum said they’re awaiting a formal request from a tribal organization, and are working with the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska to help the process along. 

“It isn’t the museum’s place to say what is or isn’t important to the tribe,” said Erin Gredell, repatriation compliance coordinator at the Yale Peabody museum. “That right lies with the tribe to say what’s important for their culture and traditions.”

She said the museum possesses 230 artifacts from the Pacific Northwest region, including Canada, some of which are eligible for a repatriation request by the tribal organization.

The museum recently sent a letter to support the tribal group’s effort to acquire a federal consultation grant. The grant would help cover costs for elders and tribal representatives to travel to the Yale museum, where they can help determine which of the 230 items should fall under a formal request, said Gredell.

Harold Jacobs, the cultural resource specialist for the tribal council, said he noticed the crests on an earlier trip to the museum and realized they should be returned. He said the tribe hopes to secure the grant for the trip to the Yale museum and to make a repatriation request under the law.

The museum houses three items from the Harriman expedition's time at Cape Fox, Gredell said. The bird crest, still decorated with paint, was depicted in a sketch by George Bird Grinnell, a naturalist who was part of the trip. Museum records suggest the bird is a heron, but Worl said it may be a raven. 

The carving of the bear, meanwhile, was a crest outside a house, said Gredell, citing original documents.

Both the carvings were given to the museum in 1900 by W.R. Coe, a biologist on the trip, she said.

The third item from the expedition’s time at Cape Fox, a wooden box, was given to the museum by the naturalist Grinnell in 1913.

Derek Briggs, director of the Yale Peabody Museum, said the museum will be “more than happy” to continue working with the council on a repatriation request. He added that some tribes don’t necessarily want all objects returned, because artifacts can serve as cultural ambassadors to the world.

“Bear in mind that were these things not here they probably would not have survived,” he said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at or on