A federal advisory committee has recommended that the University of Pennsylvania return a trove of native artifacts it acquired nearly 90 years ago from a clan of Tlingit people in southeast Alaska.
PHILADELPHIA — A federal advisory committee has recommended that the University of Pennsylvania return a trove of native artifacts it acquired nearly 90 years ago from a clan of Tlingit people in southeast Alaska.
The recommendation last month regarding the collection of more than 40 items — among them headdresses, carved masks and ceremonial horns — is not binding on Penn’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The museum has offered instead to turn over eight of the objects, allowing the clan to serve as co-curator of the rest.
Clan members say if that is the museum’s best offer, they will take the matter to court.
“We have the right of possession,” said Marlene Johnson, a member of the T’akdeintaan clan and chair of the nonprofit Huna Heritage Foundation, which worked on the clan’s claim.
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University spokeswoman Lori Doyle said the school was “very disappointed” with the committee recommendation and was “still hoping to be able to work out a resolution with the claimants.”
Such disputes are becoming more common since passage of a 1990 federal law requiring museums to return certain Native American artifacts and human remains. But this case has a curious wrinkle that evokes a painful era, when the Tlingit and other tribes were pressured to abandon the old ways: Penn’s collection was bought from the Tlingit people by one of their own.
He was born Stoowukaa, “Astute One,” in the Alaskan town of Klukwan, learning the native ways as he grew up in the late 1800s. He also was called Louis Shotridge and studied at a Presbyterian school near his village. After a chance meeting with a Penn anthropologist in 1905, he eventually was invited to work for the university’s museum, nearly 4,000 miles away.
Shotridge first came to Philadelphia in 1912 for a temporary job, building models, documenting artifacts and speaking to museum-goers. He and his wife, Florence, captivated audiences in their native garments, and he also studied at Penn’s Wharton School. By 1915, Shotridge was named an assistant curator of the anthropology museum, and he was sent back to Alaska on a collecting expedition financed by department-store titan John Wanamaker.
He bought most of the items involved in the current dispute during a subsequent trip, in 1924, apparently from a Tlingit leader named Archie White, though there is no direct evidence White was the seller.
Shotridge’s present-day Tlingit counterparts regard his activities with dismay. They see the artifacts as communal property that no individual clan member had a right to sell, arguing that Shotridge’s actions were a form of betrayal.
“I think he was a better anthropologist than he was a Tlingit,” said Johnson, the foundation chair.
Some historians have taken a more nuanced view. Maureen Milburn, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Shotridge at the University of British Columbia, said Shotridge wanted to preserve a culture that he feared was disappearing. The old ways — languages, traditions, religions — were suppressed amid the influx of missionaries and other European American settlers.
“He really very strongly believed that he wanted the Tlingit people to be represented for the sake of history,” Milburn said.
Whether the clan gets the items back is governed by the 1990 law. Museums are directed to return objects that are sacred, meaning they are needed by present-day religious leaders to conduct ceremonies. Institutions also must give back items that constitute cultural patrimony — “having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself.”
There is no question that today’s clan considers the objects sacred or culturally vital; the legal question concerns how they were viewed in 1924, according to the 1990 law. Penn says most of the items do not meet these definitions; the clan says they do.
Johnson, the Tlingit clan member, hopes that someday soon she will get to see the disputed objects back in Alaska. For now, she still has memories of seeing them during a 2005 visit to Philadelphia.
Johnson was joined at the museum by clan elders, some of whom were moved to tears when the objects were placed before them, she said.
They included a shaman’s owl mask, a wooden box drum and a caribou-skin robe that depicts a long-ago tidal wave.
Afterward, the elders conducted a ceremony outside the museum, placing food for the spirits into a bowl and setting it aflame.