In 1899, a group of Seattle businessmen wanted a centerpiece for Pioneer Square. They took a steamship north to the Tlingit village of Tongass, chopped down a totem pole and erected it in Seattle to the applause of a large crowd.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, tourists and businessmen treated Alaska Native culture as another resource to be extracted from the territory. Native art was exhibited at the 1876 Columbian exhibition in Philadelphia. Clan hats and regalia walked away with French visitors.
Slowly, the tide that carried away so much Alaska Native heritage is starting to come back in.
Last week, the Annenberg Foundation returned a formline carved and painted wood panel to the Sealaska Heritage Institute. The panel was one of several pieces up for bid at a Paris auction house.
For the past several years, the Annenberg Foundation has been donating money to repatriation efforts by bidding on art objects that become available through foreign auctions.
Rather than send the art to a private collector, the foundation sends the art back to the clan, tribe or group it belongs to.
This is a noble effort and one we’d like to see more of. Too often, we see Tlingit items appear on the auction block, only to disappear again into private collections.
In May, a Tlingit clan hat up for auction by Sotheby’s of New York was sold for $365,000. We don’t know if the hat was taken like the Pioneer Square totem pole, given away or rightfully purchased.
What we do know is that Alaska Native history has far too many holes, created either through the benevolent malevolence of missionaries or by simple neglect.
We may not be able to repair these holes entirely, but by bringing Native artifacts home, we’ll at least have a fighting chance. The Annenberg Foundation and Sealaska Heritage Institute should be congratulated for another step forward.
— Juneau Empire,