Art Beat: Alaska Native elders, Juneau churchman seek return of Tlingit objects

For the past several months, a back-and-forth debate over Alaska Native items held in Massachusetts has embroiled one of America's oldest museums, the oldest graduate theological seminary and the Sealaska Heritage Institute of Juneau. Bits and pieces of the story have popped up as the matter has evolved, with many assertions presented, some denials and numerous personalities involved -- notably the late, revered Tlingit elder Walter Soboleff.

Soboleff died in 2011 when he was more than 100 years old. Sealaska's new cultural research facility in Juneau is named for him.

At issue are objects collected in Southeast Alaska a century ago and held by Andover Newton Theological School near Boston. The school was reportedly planning to sell some pieces that have been on loan to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, for about 70 years. Elders advising Sealaska Heritage Institute determined that some of the things were "at.oow" (at-OO), Tlingit for "treasured clan objects," said the institute's President Rosita Worl. "We don't call them 'artifacts.'"

When clan leaders came together in Juneau to assess the available information in July, they raised questions about two specific items. Worl said one was a halibut hook with a wolf form on it, considered sacred, and another was what she thinks might be "a shamanic doll."

Under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990, such objects of cultural patrimony are to be returned to the tribes of origin. But it's not an easy process.

"When I was on the NAGPRA board one of the concerns I had was that there's no mechanism to ensure that entities are complying with the law," Worl said. "NAGPRA has done some great things, but the burden rests on tribes to present proof, and that process can be very costly."

Worl said she became concerned when she learned from Peabody officials that Andover Newton, America's oldest graduate seminary, had decided to sell some of their collection. "There were things in the collection that we felt were subject to NAGPRA," she said.

In a letter to Peabody on Sept. 8, Andover Newton President Martin Copenhaver acknowledged, "We did explore the possibility of selling some objects (but) have no current or future plans to sell items" from the collection. Copenhaver added, "We will proceed to repatriate artifacts, however, if feasible."

In a reply dated Sept. 12, Dan Monroe of the museum urged Copenhaver to prepare an inventory of the collection and stressed that Peabody personnel would not be qualified to determine what might or might not be covered by the law. Various press reports had Andover suggesting it had been misinformed by Peabody and Peabody saying that Andover had ignored previous efforts to repatriate items.

Into the fray stepped an unexpected ally of the Tlingit cause, the pastor of Northern Light United Church in Juneau, Phil Campbell. In a letter to school faculty members, Campbell noted that Andover Newton had yet to respond to Worl's letters. "I am distressed that ANTS (Andover Newton) has shown no interest in returning the objects to their rightful owners and has been unwilling to communicate with Sealaska," he wrote.

"Christian missionary activity has left a painful mark on Native peoples across the continent," he wrote. "Natives were pressured to reject their cultural practices and relinquish their sacred items. ANTS can offer a powerful expression of repentance by returning these cultural objects."

Campbell told Alaska Dispatch News that he had a "personal reason" for getting involved. Northern Light United has a combined congregation of United Methodists and Presbyterians. Soboleff was the first Alaska Native to be ordained as a Presbyterian minister and preached for years in one of the churches that eventually coalesced into Northern Light.

"Soboleff's life showed a way to be Christian and Tlingit that was not contradictory," Campbell said. "He embodied that."

Additional motivation came from David Katzeek, an elder who presented an affidavit regarding the importance of the halibut hook and who is part of the present congregation.

Campbell said he was initially cautious about getting involved in a tribal concern. "I told Rosita, I don't want to speak on your behalf. But she encouraged me to do it."

"I was ecstatic," said Worl. "I was so taken with the fact that we do have friends in our community who do not view our belief systems as they did in the past but respect it."

The items were originally taken out of Alaska by missionaries associated with Andover Newton. "Some may have been given to them," Worl said. "But for the most part they were taken from clans because they were viewed as pagan. I always quote the elder Joe Hotch, who said, 'The Christians came and gathered our sins.'"

Whether they were confiscated, given or sold is not the point, said Campbell. "Regardless of how they came to be in the possession of the school, it was the result of missionary activity and I believe the right thing is to return these sacred cultural objects to their rightful owners. If the Native community says, 'This is important to us and we'd like you to return it,' then the proper thing is to return it. It's not a matter of what's legal. It's about doing the right thing."

On Oct. 5 Copenhaver reiterated in another letter that Andover Newton had "begun the process of repatriation" and was "exploring the possibility of transferring the collection to another museum or museums." He stated that the school had not been notified of any investigation from Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act authorities. A program manager, Melanie O'Brien, however, told Alaska Dispatch News that the agency had received allegations of noncompliance and was investigating them. There is no timeline that the agency needs to follow in resolving these cases, she said.

Worl was cautious about Andover Newton's remarks. "They say they'll repatriate 'if it is feasible,' which is kind of a disclaimer," she said. "Whether they'll go further without us having to go through the onerous NAGPRA process, we'll have to see. You need to take everything with a grain of salt."