For years, European and American researchers dug up land where Native Americans buried their dead. They recovered countless bones and cultural artifacts as part of their studies.
Now, museum officials have begun returning some of these artifacts to Native American tribes.
Late last month, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation returned nine such objects to the Alaskan Native Chugach tribe. The objects included a wooden mask, a wooden idol, and a basket for carrying a baby. They were taken by a Norwegian explorer, Johan Adrian Jacobsen, in the late 1800s. He found them in tribal lands along the northwest coast of North America.
Jacobsen gave the artifacts to the Royal Museum of Ethnology in Berlin. They were stored for many years at Berlin’s Ethnographic Museum. Hermann Parzinger is president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. He said that since the artifacts were taken from the Chugach people without their approval, they do not belong to the museum.
The first step of cooperation
John F.C. Johnson is with the Chugach Alaska Corporation. He represented the tribe in Berlin at a ceremony marking the official return of the nine artifacts.
Johnson told VOA that, for years, he has traveled to Europe to document all the objects taken from the tribe’s territory. He plans to create an online registry showing where the artifacts can be found around the world.
The process for returning the mask, baby’s basket and other objects began in 2015. That is when a Chugach delegation visited the Berlin museum to identify Chugach artifacts in its collection. Some of the artifacts were found to be funerary objects.
Johnson said he does not expect that everything will be returned to the tribe, but it is important that funerary or religious objects are sent back.
“When we do reburials, different elders will say that it’s a basic cultural value that you have to...respect…honor, and give dignity to the human remains and funerary objects. If different cultural organizations or states went by those value systems, I think our world would be a lot better place to live in.”
After the German museum confirmed that the nine objects had been taken without the tribe’s approval, museum officials agreed to give them back.
After the artifacts are officially returned to the Chugach, Johnson says they will be kept in local museums or community centers.
Returning their history
In the United States, the federal government is supporting Native Americans' efforts to recover lost or missing artifacts. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires museums to make Native American artifacts available to government-recognized tribes.
Johnson said this means that if tribes wish to have objects returned from an American museum, they need to make an official request.
However, European countries do not have such laws. So Native American tribes depend on the willingness of European museum officials to return artifacts. Johnson said that with Berlin’s Ethnographic Museum, this was not a problem.
“People in Germany are doing it out of their own good will, and I’m really impressed with their efforts of doing that.”
Monika Zessnick is the curator of American ethnology at the Ethnographic Museum. She said the return of the artifacts was a first step in an ongoing cooperation between the museum and the Chugach people.
She added that this event comes at a time when many museums in Europe are looking closely at how their artifacts were collected.
Future cultural exchanges
Zessnick said that working directly with tribal representatives helps museum officials widen their own knowledge about the artifacts in their collections.
“These are old collections of about 130-150 years, and evidence and information is sometimes very thin… it’s really a lot of help for us for presenting collections,” she noted.
Johnson agrees, and said the Chugach are working with the Berlin museum for possible future exchanges.
“With Berlin, we’re developing cultural exchanges where in the future we can have some of our members come to Berlin and see some of the collections,” he said.
Zessnick said that she and Johnson are also working on having the museum’s members travel to Alaska to experience a Chugach culture camp, called the Nuuciq Spirit Camp. The camps bring the tribe’s young and older members together for cultural programs, such as dancing, language, art and cooking.
Johnson added that he would also like to see community artists create models of the returned artifacts, which they can then give to museums overseas.
Zessnick said the two sides have discussed working together on a possible exhibition, or a long-term loan of the more than 200 other Chugach objects the museum has in its collection.
Artifacts coming home
This is not the only time a museum has returned artifacts back to Alaska Natives.
Last year, National Public Radio reported on the return of human remains to the small Yupik village of Igiugig from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. Local tribal leaders accepted and later reburied the remains of their ancestors.
The bones had been taken in 1931 by Ale353; Hrdli269;ka, the director of the museum’s department of anthropology at the time. He dug them up as part of his research of how people first came to North America.
In 2016, The Anchorage Daily News reported that two artifacts were returned to Alaska Native Organizations after they were discovered on sale in Paris. After assistance from the U.S. State Department, the artifacts were purchased in secret by a nonprofit group, which then returned them to the tribes.
The two objects were small wooden boxes belonging to the Chugach tribe and the Chilkat Tlingit tribe. Experts believe that at one time the boxes probably were used to transport important religious objects.
I'm Dorothy Gundy. And I’m Phil Dierking.
Phil Dierking reported this story for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Do you have important artifacts from your country that were taken by explorers for museums? Write to us in the Comments Section or on 51VOA.COM.
Words in This Story
artifact - n. a simple object (such as a tool or weapon) that was made by people in the past
curator - n. a person who is in charge of the things in a museum, zoo, etc.
dignity - n. a way of appearing or behaving that suggests seriousness and self-control
elder - n. a person who has authority because of age and experience
idol - n. a picture or object that is worshipped as a god
online - adj. connected to a computer, a computer network, or the Internet
exhibition - n. an event at which objects (such as works of art) are put out in a public space for people to look at : a public show of something
impress - v. to cause (someone) to feel admiration or interest
mask - n. a covering for your face or for part of your face
museum - n. a building in which interesting and valuable things (such as paintings and sculptures or scientific or historical objects) are collected and shown to the public