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Lesson Plan
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Extra Credit
Instructional Guide

Extra Credit
Extra Credit


What Do We Learn From the Repatriation of Alaska Native Artifacts?


Grade level: 6th through 8th grade

Subjects: Geography, history

Time Needed for Completion: Three to five class periods

Objectives for Students

  • To observe and evaluate evidence of Alaska Native cultural symbols and artifacts.
  • To research historical data from a variety of primary resources, including the Harriman expedition journals, related web sites, oral accounts, maps, and photographs.
  • To analyze data, make observations and generate and answer questions.



  • Correlates to the national standards set by the National Council of Geographic Education.
  • The informed student knows and understands the characteristics, distributions, and complexity of Earth's cultural mosaics. (Standard 10)
  • The informed student knows and understands how to apply geography to interpret the past. (Standard 17)


  • Correlates to national standards set by the National Center for History in the Schools.
  • The student is able to engage in historical analysis and interpretation. (Standard 3)
  • The student is able to conduct historical research. (Standard 4)


  • Each student will need a writing journal and, if assigned, a copy of the Artifact Assessment Chart.
  • A map of coastal Alaska for classroom use.
  • Computer with Internet access.



Introductory Reading and Class Discussion:

Part I: The Taking of Artifacts at Cape Fox

The taking of the Native totem poles and other objects from Cape Fox is one of the most frequently retold episodes of the Harriman Expedition. Earlier in the trip, on Kodiak Island, the artist Frederick Dellenbaugh had met a man who told him about an empty but intact Tlingit village "full of totem poles opposite St. Mary's Island." On the return leg of the voyage, Harriman set out to find the site, comparing the simple map that Dellenbaugh had with navigational charts of the area. South of Wrangell they found the village, with its many weathered totems, and a string of painted houses facing the water.

It is not surprising that, within an hour, Harriman ordered several crew members to the beach to lower the carved poles and take them aboard the Elder. Expeditions to Alaska often included this kind of collecting -- at the very least, travelers to the coast expected to buy souvenir Native artifacts made and sold at every steamship stop between Vancouver and St. Lawrence. Large expeditions, like the Harriman, often hoped to bring back pieces of size and importance that would be of value to museum in the United States.

Acquiring Native artifacts was so much a part of the Alaskan experience for whites in the nineteenth century that almost no one on the Harriman Expedition protested as the poles came down and the houses were emptied. Only John Muir, in his later writings, referred to it as "a sacrilege."

Questions to Explore:

  1. How does a cultural symbol differ from an artifact?
  2. What do we learn from artifacts?
  3. Should artifacts be taken for preservation in museums and private collections? Why or Why not?

Part II: Artifact Collection in Historical Context

The collecting of Native objects -- including everyday tools, garments, art and ceremonial pieces, and even human remains -- can, in a way, be traced back to a packet boat that arrived in New York Harbor in 1838 with 105 bags of gold on board. This was the fortune of James Smithson, a British mineralogist who had never once set foot on American soil. But he held the ideals of American democracy in such esteem that he left his entire fortune to the creation of an American "establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Eight years later, the Smithsonian Institution was created; its early curators set out to build collections that would fully illustrate the ethnic history of America. Explorers, surveyors and private collectors were all encouraged to contribute to this growing trove, and other museums followed suit. Indian artifacts seemed particularly valuable because they were remnants of a way of life that was fast disappearing from the continent. When Alaska became a US possession in 1867, it was seen partly as a new and fertile collecting site.

In some cases, Native tribes sold their objects, and some even crafted items solely for the collection and tourist trade. Collectors soon learned that prices were lower in winter, that ceremonial objects were often much more expensive than everyday items. Oftentimes the precious ceremonial pieces were not for sale, and more ruthless collectors resorted to thievery. When it was discovered that burial boxes and shaman grave houses of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian Natives in southeastern Alaska were a rich source for ceremonial blankets, rattles, headdresses and masks, these graves were routinely opened and robbed. Sometimes the human contents of the grave -- bones and mummified bodies -- were removed and placed in ethnological collections. Museums in the United States were eager to assemble osteological collections for research purposes, and the fact that they were willing to pay for such material meant that Native graves were likely to be robbed.

At Cape Fox, the Harriman crew did not open the graves they found, but Merriam took one of the Chilkoot blankets covering a shaman's grave, and the crew removed a set of carved bears from a burial site. These items, along with several totem poles and countless smaller artifacts were taken aboard the Elder over two day's time. Eventually the large totems were donated to museums in the United States, including the Field Museum in Chicago and the California Academy of Sciences. In 1920, one of the poles was donated to the Peabody Museum at Harvard. Most of the other artifacts were taken to the Smithsonian, a few were held in private collections.

Questions to Explore:

  1. How would you share artifacts today?
  2. Should there be limits to how cultural symbols are replicated? Explain.
  3. How can the authenticity of an art piece or artifact be determined?

Part III: Repatriation

In February of 2001, as part of the Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced project, a group of Natives from the village of Saxman, some of them descendants of the Cape Fox tribe, visited New York City and viewed a number of the totem poles and other objects taken from the village in 1899. This was one of the first steps in a repatriation process that, in the coming years, may see the return of some of the artifacts taken on that July day in 1899.

Questions to Explore:

  1. Do you feel that repatriation is a reasonable way to handle artifacts removed from Native sites?
  2. Are all artifacts equally worthy of repatriation? Should human remains be given priority for repatriation over domestic objects or religious objects?
  3. Who owns history?

Class Assignments -- Essays

Using what you've learned from the above questions, write an essay responding to the essential questions:

  1. How has the handling of cultural symbols and Native artifacts in village sites changed since the Harriman expedition of 1899?
  2. What is the difference between a symbol and an artifact? Can symbols be repatriated or protected?
  3. Is a Native art piece authentic only if it is created by an Alaska Native or is it also authentic if a on-Native artist creates it? Explain.
  4. Locate Saxman and Cape Fox on the map, and discuss the ways that geography could influence the development and distribution of Native cultural objects.

Class Assignment -- Activity Chart

Working in groups, have the students discuss the following listed items, and answer questions raised. Groups may present their finding to the class, or individuals can fill in the chart.


Is this an artifact or a symbol?
Is the cultural symbol or artifact authentic? How determined?

A piece of Native jewelry purchased in a museum gift shop



A chilkoot blanket



The painting on the front of the chief's house at Cape Fox



The raven image on a Tlingit totem pole



A Tlingit totem pole



Assessment Suggestions

  • Students can be assessed for their participation in the discussions and activities you may have implemented after viewing the online souvenir album.
  • Students can be assessed on how thoroughly and thoughtfully they completed the essays on the handling of artifacts and on authenticity.
  • Students can be assessed on the completeness of the activity chart.



  • Search the on-line Harriman Souvenir Album for artifacts from the other Native cultures that the Harriman expedition encountered. Compare the ways that the different communities used (and did not use) symbols in decorating their homes.
  • Have students identify Native American communities in your own area, and the tribal artifacts and symbols that are connected with these groups. Students can collect information on these local tribes and repatriation issues at the National Museum of American History Repatriation Web site.


  • For information on the Tlingit culture, visit the Crossroads of Culture on-line exhibit.
  • Check out the Web sites under the Alaska Native Cultures section of the Harriman Links page for a number of sites with information on Native language, culture, history and present-day issues.

Prepared by Debbie A. Chalmers, teacher, Alyeska Central School, Juneau, and team leader, Harriman Young Explorers Team.




For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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