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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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Rosita Worl

Introduction to the Tlingit Culture and Repatriation


The Tlingit Indians assert that they have owned and lived in Southeast Alaska since time immemorial. The archaeological records attest to a minimum of 10, 000 years of occupation.

Living in an environment rich in natural resources, the Tlingit developed a complex, stratified society not generally characteristic of hunting and gathering cultures. This complexity is particularly reflected in their social organization, ceremonies and arts.

The Tlingit, who are united by common customs and language and who live in a geographically bounded area, divide themselves into Eagles and Ravens. This duality plays a significant role in their social, ceremonial and everyday life. Balance and reciprocity between the Ravens and Eagles are required to ensure social and spiritual harmony. Their traditional custom demanded that marriage occur only between individuals who were Eagles and Ravens. This rule has been relaxed in the present day period.

These two groups or moieties are further divided into clans that are then subdivided into house groups. Descent is matrilineal -- meaning that children belong to their mother's moiety, clan and house. The Tlingit were formerly ranked into classes or a hierarchy ranging from those who were considered to be nobles to those on the lowest social rank of their society. They also owned slaves until this practice was outlawed by the United States.

The clan persists through time. Sergei Kan, a noted anthropologist of Tlingit culture, has labeled this phenomenon as a form of "Symbolic Immortality." A clan owns a host of names, and succeeding generations of individuals cycle through these names. The Tlingit have a concept known as "Haa Shagoon" that means "our ancestors" and simultaneously unites ancestors with the present and future generations.

The traditional Tlingit legal system includes a well defined code of property law. Property included both tangible and intangible objects such as land, names, songs, stories, and crests. Children acquire the right of ownership of property through their membership in a clan rather than through the process of inheritance. The clan rather than individuals holds collective rights to property.

At.oow are the most prized possessions of a clan. At.oow is literally translated as "an owned or purchased object" and can refer to land or sacred sites, celestial bodies such as the moon and sun, names, stories, songs, spirits and crests. The rights to these objects or a clan's at.oow were acquired through an ancestor. On occasion, the payment involved the death of an ancestor. The event in which this occurred may be recorded as a crest or spirit design on a physical object or through names, songs and stories. Clan crests and spirit designs are socially and spiritually important to the Tlingit. A crest depicted on an object identifies clan members and reinforces the kinship bonds among clan members. Crests are also considered to be sacred in that they embody the spirits of ancestors and unite them with their living clan members. The ownership of a clan's at.oow is validated through ceremonies most often referred to as "potlatches" in the general ethnographic literature.

When explorers and traders first arrived on the shores of Southeast Alaska after 1741, they demonstrated keen interest in acquiring clan objects decorated in an art form that would soon gain international attention and acclaim. Northwest Coast art, as it became known, was eagerly sought by succeeding waves of museum collectors, anthropologists, and tourists. Often clan treasurers and human remains were taken from gravesites under the cloak of science.

Native Americans detested the collection of their ancestors' human remains by Westerners. They made no distinction between those who collected for scientific purposes or those who viewed Indians as sub-humans and collected the remains of their ancestors as curios. Unlike the Westerners who believe the spirit of the deceased leaves the human body and goes to heaven or hell, Native Americans, including the Tlingit, believe in a dual spirit, one of which remains with the body even after death.

American Indians across the country clamored for the return of their ancestors and their sacred objects. Their insistence for the return of their ancestors and cultural objects coalesced as a political movement in the 1970s and 1980s. Archaeologists and museum professionals conversely argued that the human remains and cultural objects were necessary for science and belonged to the public rather than the individual tribes.

After contentious and emotionally laden debates, Congress acted on the side of the Indians. The National Museum of American Indians Act was enacted in 1989 followed by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. Under these legislative acts, Indians can reclaim the human remains of their ancestors and certain cultural objects held in museums or by institutions that receive federal funds.

After the passage of the repatriation laws, the Tlingit of Southeast Alaska began to submit repatriation claims to various museums. Among them were the Saanya Kwaan Tlingit of Cape Fox.

In 1899, the Harriman Expedition removed numerous objects, including totem poles and other crest objects, from the Cape Fox village which they presumed to be abandoned. Today the Harriman Expedition Retraced is returning many of those objects. Emotions are bound to be mixed. The Tlingit can be expected to feel renewed anger that their clan treasurers were removed without their permission. They will blacken their face in sorrow and express their apologies to their ancestors that they were complacent in the removal of the objects. They will then welcome the return of their ancestors and clan treasurers as well as the visitors who are returning the objects. Finally, they will then join in celebration for the return of their at.oow.


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