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Two Alaska Native artifacts return home after clandestine auction bid by nonprofit

Sean Doogan
A panel that appears to be part of an old Tlingit bentwood box with a painted Chilkat design has been donated to Sealaska Heritage Institute. The Annenberg Foundation anonymously purchased sacred objects at auction in Paris last year, and returned this piece to Alaska in August. Kathy Dye / Sealaska Heritage Institute

Two Alaska Native artifacts have been returned to local Native organizations after some behind-the-scenes intervention from the U.S. State Department and a clandestine buy at a European auction by a Los Angeles-based nonprofit foundation. The artifacts -- a small wooden mask believed to have been carved by members of the Chugach tribe, and part of a wooden box believed to be from the Chilkat Tlingit tribe -- were returned to Alaska in August after being purchased at a Paris auction house.

Some may call it serendipity, but people from the tribes where the artifacts were originally created before they were taken away hundreds of years ago might see some spiritual guidance involved in their repatriation to Alaska.

"These are not just material objects," said Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. "They are associated with our ancestors, and their return is like an ancestor is coming back home."

The Sealaska Heritage Institute, the nonprofit cultural arm of Sealaska Corp., a Southeast Alaska Native corporation, is the recipient of the Chilkat artifact. Worl said the small wooden slab was once part of box that was made by steaming and bending wood. It would have likely been used to transport sacred objects belonging to one of the Chilkat clans that now populate the Haines and Klukwan area.

The bentwood box piece and the Chugach mask were both purchased at a December 2013 Paris art auction by members of the Annenberg Foundation after a request for help from the state department, according to Annenberg Foundation General Manager Carol Laumen.

"That day was one of the high water marks in my career at the foundation, it was an amazing, positive, value-added gesture that left you on an emotional high," Laumen said.

The Sealaska Heritage Institute had asked the unnamed Paris auction house to stop the auction when the box piece was discovered on the company's sale list, along with artifacts from the American Southwest. The auction house refused, and the state department contacted an Annenberg Foundation trustee who lives in Paris, to help out, according to Laumen.

Using foundation money, the group was able to anonymously purchase 25 of the 27 Native American artifacts for sale at the 2013 auction. Both the box piece and the Chugach mask were returned to Alaska in August.  The remaining 23 items are from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes of Arizona and will be returned to tribe members there soon, according to Laumen.

The Chilkat box piece is believed to have been made in the early- to mid-1800s, a time during which Worl said Alaska Native artifacts were heavily, and illegally, collected.

"It could have been taken from a grave," Worl said. "Often, the box would be left at a shaman's grave until a spirit came as a successor, but they were often stolen from those grave sites."

The Chilkat box-piece will be stored at the Sealaska Heritage Institute in Juneau. The Chugach mask has been given to Chugach Alaska Corp.