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Emergence of rare Tlingit War helmet raises a chorus for homecoming

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The discovery of a rare Tlingit war helmet that sat misidentified in the archives of a western Massachusetts museum has Tlingit tribal leaders calling for the artifact to be returned to Southeast Alaska. Courtesy Springfield Science Museum. Tribal leaders are hoping a rare Tlingit war helmet that sat mislabeled in museum archives in western Massachusetts for more than 100 years will be returned to Southeast Alaska now that the artifact, considered a sacred object, has been brought to light.

The helmet, uncovered this autumn in the Springfield Science Museum archives, was put on display in late December. Records show that the object was accepted into the museum’s collections around the turn of the 20th century, spokesperson Matt Longhi said. The helmet was logged into museum archives simply, and incorrectly, as “Aleutian hat.”

But after scrutiny by curator of anthropology Dr. Ellen Savulis, and with coordination with the Alaska State Museum, the helmet was quickly identified as a rare Tlingit war helmet.

The helmet is one of less than 100 known in existence today, said Alaska State Museum curator of collections Steve Henrikson. It’s likely from the early to mid-1800s, and was intended for use in battle by Tlingit warriors. Only three or four of those helmets remain in Alaska today, Henrikson said.

In 2008, a similar helmet sold at auction for more than $2 million. But its monetary value is of little matter to either the museum or the Tlingit people.

Sealaska Heritage Institute vice chair Rosita Worl described the war helmet as an at.óowu -- meaning “an object that was owned by a clan and holds the Spirit of the Eagle. It embodies the spirit of our ancestors” who created and used the hat. Worl wrote in an email that “its emergence signifies that the ancestral spirits want and need to come home.”

“I would trust the Springfield Museum will understand that the sacred value of this hat lies in its return to its home,” Worl wrote.

The belief that the object is calling to be returned home is shared by other Tlingit people, as well. Leona Santiago, admiral for the yaanwhasshaans (women of the Kaagwaantaan clan), said she feels “it’s a really positive change in terms of our ancestors letting us know that they’re still here.”

“People are excited about the re-emergence of this one,” Santiago said.

Uniqueness complicates the process

The Springfield Science Museum has begun the repatriation notification process, sending letters to thirty Alaska tribal organizations notifying them of the helmet’s existence. The museum is also including a list of all items in their archives identified as being from Southeast Alaska, in case tribes want to make further repatriation claims -- a step beyond the federal mandate, Longhi said.

The Central Council of Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska has already started the repatriation process on the helmet, President Edward Thomas confirmed on Tuesday. Founded in 1935, the Tlingit Haida Central Council is a federally recognized regional tribe in Southeast Alaska. Folks who are aware of the object's existence are excited about it, Thomas said.

However, the uniqueness of this object may present an additional challenge for the council.

Most objects are associated with a clan, not a moiety (either the Eagle or Raven moiety, in Tlingit-Haida lineage). Since the helmet appears to belongs to the Eagle moiety, “we want to be careful” not to offend any involved parties, and will take some broad discussions to determine where the helmet will end up if brought back to Alaska.

Henrikson said Tuesday that while the bird appears to depict a bald eagle, it could be some other bird or even a supernatural creature -- which would also affect the question of ownership.
For now, though, the Tlingit Haida Central Council is moving forward with the idea that the helmet belongs to the Eagle moiety and not an individual clan. No clans have yet come forward to claim the helmet as their own, Thomas said.

The council is also working with the Southeast Alaska Native Veterans Association to gather input on the future of the object, as it was once intended for battle.

“I would like to see it be used ceremoniously with the veterans group,” Thomas said, whose members are “so very interested and active” in advocating on behalf of veterans.

Thomas said he is confident that the object will be brought back to Alaska. He hopes it will be stored in the new Sealaska Heritage Institute building slated for construction in Juneau because it will offer climate-controlled conditions for the priceless artifact.

NAGPRA process: 'Intense'

The object would be brought home under the auspices of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), a federal law passed in 1990 which provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain cultural items.

The process can be daunting, however, especially for folks living in remote areas, short on time and resources.

The repatriation process is “intense,” said Dr. Bambi Krauss, president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit organization of tribal government officials who implement federal and tribal preservation laws. Cases average around three years, but can take longer, she said.

“A lot of villages don’t have the resources to hire someone to go through the process, so it’s very frustrating,” Krauss said. And grant money is limited -- museums and tribes must compete for the same federal grants from the National Park Service.

Federal agencies have also come under scrutiny for not fully implementing NAGPRA. Two reports issued by the Government Accountability Office, one in 2010 and the other in 2011, outlined shortcomings by both the Smithsonian Institute and Federal agencies in complying with the act.

However, at least the initial steps are relatively straightforward, said John F. C. Johnson, vice president of cultural resources for the Chugach Alaska Corporation. Johnson has helped to repatriate objects to Chugach tribes for more than 20 years. A federally recognized tribe sends a letter to a museum, stating in broad terms what its purpose is, and what it is searching for. Under NAGPRA, museums are mandated to send back an inventory of all items in their collection that hail from a particular region.

Then the longer process begins. A tribe will make its case to the museum, providing evidence that a certain object belongs to them. The museum makes the final call on whether to return the object. After that, an appeals process through the National Park Service is available if disputes remain.

Johnson urged tribes to designate a tribal liaison to take charge of repatriation, who can take the lead in the process.

Repatriation law falls only within the borders of the United States -- There’s no law to provide for the return of objects that are bought and sold across international lines. Sometimes objects are returned with the help of organizations. Such was the case in December 2013, when the Annenberg Foundation purchased more than $500,000 worth of Hopi and Apache artifacts at a Paris auction.

Part of the bigger picture

Repatriation is seen as part of a larger movement of cultural preservation to bring traditional Alaska Native culture to the forefront of people’s minds.

“If some big part of the puzzle was broken, it’s your obligation to make it whole again,” Johnson said.

Ancestral objects are “your identity, your heritage,” Johnson said. Bringing these sacred objects back to Alaska helps to unite a tribe, and bring younger generations closer to their ancestral history, Johnson said. He pointed to other measures, such as the Nuuciq Spirit Camp in Prince William Sound, a 3-week camp where elders and youth come together to explore language, traditional arts and culture. It’s a way to unite the young and old, he said.

One of the Chugach tribes’ top priorities are the return of human remains and funerary objects, many of which were excavated by archeologists around the turn of the 20th century. Native Alaskans want those remains to come home. “Reverence for human remains is embedded in everyone,” Johnson said.

In the early 1900s, both grave robbers and members of the scientific community pulled up hundreds of thousands of Native American graves. Today, in museums across the country, more than 120,000 Native American human remains are still sitting in collections -- the vast majority of which are listed as “culturally unidentifiable.”

The attitude of the scientific community has changed immensely since the early 1900s, and now there’s far more cooperation between tribes and museums. Today, these parties “work together for the betterment of everyone,” Johnson said.