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Federal Advisory Panel on Repatriation Rules in Favor of Southeast Clans; Ruling a victory for the Teeyhíttaan and T’akdeintaan


November 20, 2010
Saturday PM

A federal advisory panel decided Friday in favor of two Southeast Alaska Native clans seeking to repatriate more than 50 sacred and patrimonial objects from two museums.

In separate unanimous decisions, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) Review Committee found that the Alaska State Museum and the University of Pennsylvania Museum did not have the right of possession to the items, meaning the museums did not acquire the objects with the consent of the clans that owned them.

The ruling was a victory for the T’akdeintaan and Teeyhíttaan clans, which had sought to repatriate the objects through Sealaska Corporation, Wrangell Cooperative Association, Hoonah Indian Association and Huna Totem Corporation.   Under NAGPRA, objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects, or at.óowu, must be repatriated through a federally recognized tribe,  and Native corporations are recognized as Indian tribes under NAGPRA.

The Teeyhíttaan Clan of Wrangell was attempting to reclaim its clan hat, known as the Yéil Aan Kaawu Naa S’aaxw (Leader of All Ravens Clan Hat), which was being held by the Alaska State Museum. The museum rejected the clan’s repatriation claim, and the matter went before the NAGPRA Review Committee on Wednesday. The panel heard testimony from Teeyhíttaan Clan Leader Richard Rinehart, Sr., who told the committee the hat was a sacred object that belonged with the clan and that the clan never agreed to relinquish it.

The T’akdeintaan Clan of Hoonah was attempting to reclaim 50 objects that belong to the Snail House (a subdivision of the clan) and were sold to the University of Pennsylvania Museum in the 1920s. The collection includes a range of items including blankets, headdresses, rattles, masks, a box drum and cedar-bark neck rings. The museum rejected a repatriation claim by the clan, and on Wednesday, T’akdeintaan Clan Leader Ken Grant and clan member Ron Williams, among others, successfully argued that all 50 objects were the clan’s at.óowu and subject to repatriation under NAGPRA.

“In my view, the preponderance of the evidence supports the Hoonah Indian Association and T’akdeintaan Clan claim that the Snail House Collection consists of objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects,” said committee member Dan Monroe during deliberations. “And, the UPM has not demonstrated a right of possession to these objects because it has not documented or proven that members of the T’akdeintaan approved the sale of these objects.”

The findings in favor of the clans mean it’s now up to the museums to act. “Now we’ll wait and see what the museums decide to do—we hope they will do the right thing,” said Rosita Worl, vice-chair of Sealaska Corporation and the chair of the NAGPRA Review Committee.  Worl recused herself from the proceedings to eliminate any perceived conflict of interest.

A large delegation of Southeast Native people traveled to Washington, D.C. to support the clans and to testify. The delegation repeatedly emphasized a tenet of Tlingit law that says a clan’s at.óowu belong to the clan and cannot be separated from the clan by a single person.  Such alienation may occur only with the consent of the clan, and only then under special and exceptional circumstances. The federal panel found in both cases that the evidence did not demonstrate that the clans had authorized the sale or transfer of the objects to the museums.


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