German museum hopes to reconnect Alaska Native communities to artifacts collected in 1880s

The rise in access to hundreds of items follows work by Chugach Alaska’s John F.C. Johnson to repatriate funerary objects and human remains taken from the region.

Staff from a museum in Germany traveled to Anchorage this month to stoke interest in reconnecting Alaska’s Indigenous communities to artifacts in its archives.

Two representatives from the Berlin Ethnological Museum spoke at the Alaska Federation of Natives conference about its work with Chugach Alaska Corp. and nonprofit Chugachmiut to make accessible hundreds of items removed from the region in the 1880s.

“We are open to welcoming Native people wanting to connect and reconnect with their cultural belongings,” said Ute Marxreiter, curator of education for the Berlin Ethnological Museum, to the AFN audience last Saturday.

The portion of the collection from the Chugach region contains 482 objects gathered by Johan Adrian Jacobsen. All told, Jacobsen’s travels along the Pacific Northwest coast, through Prince William Sound, Lower Cook Inlet, along the Yukon River and across a swath of Western Alaska from 1881 to 1883, amassed 6,000 objects for the museum.

“These collections, they have a really difficult history, because all these cultural belongings were extracted in a settler-colonial context,” said Marxreiter. “Our museum, and I think most ethnographic museums in Germany and in Europe, they’re very aware of that, and we’re really trying to decolonize that kind of connection.”

Its partnership with Chugach Alaska grew from inquiries made by John F.C. Johnson, the corporation’s vice president of cultural resources. Both Chugach Alaska and Chugachmiut represent a region that includes Alaska Native communities on Prince William Sound and the Kenai Peninsula. For years, Johnson has researched culturally important items kept in museum collections in the U.S. and overseas. In 2022, AFN named Johnson one of its Citizens of the Year for his longtime effort to get human remains and funerary objects repatriated.

Johnson said the Berlin Ethnological Museum understood the importance of his search and what Alaska’s people have to offer. “We want to share what we know about them,” he said. “They want to return things, what they can, or possibly put on long-term loans or get us nice 3-D digital images.”

“Working with the Berlin people, and other groups, they all realize that their collection becomes 10 times more valuable when they involve the local people to share knowledge,” Johnson said.


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Hauke Ziessler, transcultural cooperation project coordinator for the Berlin Ethnological Museum, said the museum’s project with Alaska involves learning more about how the items were acquired by Jacobsen more than 140 years ago. Jacobsen’s records indicate that some were collected through purchase or trade, he said. Others were sourced less ethically.

“Part of the research is figuring out how they got there. And sometimes it’s very vague on how they were obtained,” Ziessler said. “There are buying records, but then the question is also under which context was it bought, who was it bought from.”

Other items were looted. That’s what led to the return of nine artifacts, including masks, figures and a baby blanket, to Alaska in 2018. “The nine funerary objects that were returned were stolen from grave sites, taken without clear permission,” he said.

Johnson first traveled to Berlin to see the collection in 2015. Since then, Chugach Alaska and Chugachmiut have sent delegations to Germany on several occasions, including earlier this month. Among the hundreds of items specific to the Chugach region are tools, arrows, eagle down jackets, harpoons, seal oil lamps, books, and ritual items like rattles, masks, robes and headdresses.

Dawn Randazzo, archivist for Chugachmiut, traveled to Berlin in the spring with a delegation that included elders. “It was more emotional and spiritual than we were anticipating,” she said.

“Our region has had a lot of culture loss, due to colonization and due to a lot of historical trauma that’s happened to a lot of Indigenous communities,” Randazzo said in a video presented at AFN. “So this is a chance for us to start that healing process of reconnecting.”

The collaboration, called “Getting Our Stories Back,” is one way to recast German ethnology, Ziessler said. “To date, it has often been a German ethnologist researching these really rich collections,” he said. “And now we’re actually bringing Indigenous researchers in to work with the objects.”

The Berlin Ethnological Museum has worked with Alaska’s Indigenous communities before. In the 1990s, a delegation of Yup’ik elders joined cultural anthropologist Ann Fienup-Riordan to study the museum’s Yup’ik portion of the Jacobsen collection. That resulted in the book “Yup’ik Elders at the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin,” published in 2005.

Randazzo said Chugachmiut is in the process of building an archive of digital images of the items in the Berlin collection.

Marxreiter said the museum heard requests from Eyak elders recently that more items be physically returned to Alaska. The museum is open to those discussions, she said, but it’s a complicated process involving legal considerations and would require more case-by-case research.

“Some objects like a funerary object, it’s easy because this is totally illegal, and so there’s no question with human remains, you have to give it back,” she said. The origin of items that were bought or traded for are less black and white, she said.


“Because of unclear research of Jacobsen and his notes, we know where they were collected, but we don’t actually know who they’re from,” Ziessler said. “So part of this collaboration is really researching that, and figuring out also, if there is a claim on returning them, who is it returning to?”

Johnson said the partnership is serving Chugach Alaska’s mission to revitalize culture and educate future generations. By discussing his work at the AFN convention, he hoped to spark interest from other Native communities in Alaska whose artifacts may be included in the Jacobsen collection in Berlin.

Staff from the museum said that’s why it was important to come to Alaska.

“There’s a readiness and an openness to make these things more accessible …,” Zeissler said. “And figure out solutions with the communities in a way that is also respectful to their way of life.”

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Marc Lester

Marc Lester is a multimedia journalist for Anchorage Daily News. Contact him at