Cape Fox Artifacts Home at Last
Early one morning this past July on the beach at tiny Cape Fox Island in southeastern Alaska, three Tlingit women wrapped in felt blankets started a small fire as a gesture of respect for their ancestors. As smoke from burning kelp curled around them, one woman beat a single skin drum while another sang in tones as raw as the cry of a raven.
This was a ceremony their people had waited more than a century to perform.
The women were celebrating the upcoming return of sacred objects to their tribe in Ketchikan from museums all over the United States. With the help of Smith College's Harriman Expedition Retraced, an academic travel project, that morning they began to heal a 100-year-old wound.
"Goo-nuck-cheesh -- thank you in Tlingit," said Eleanor Hadden, a descendent of the original owners of the items, who addressed Harriman participants, many of them Smith alums, gathered on the beach near the fire. "This repatriation helps us to study our history, and we do this for our ancestors and our grandchildren. We wanted to thank you for being the caretakers of our objects."
At the turn of the 19th century, during a time of exploration and budding ethnological curiosity, railroad tycoon Edward Harriman organized an expedition, traveling, with the top scientists, nature writers and artists of his time, along the coast of Alaska and across the Bering Sea to Russia. It was during the expedition that Harriman's crew collected the items, including totems and an entire house, from the empty village of Cape Fox. The people of the village, affected by smallpox brought by outsiders, had moved to the neighboring village of Saxman, where a Presbyterian missionary had founded a school.
One hundred years later, the pieces, among them Tlingit house poles and totems, were in museums across the country, including University of Washington's Burke Museum, Harvard Univer-sity's Peabody Museum, Chicago's Field Museum, Cornell University and the Smithsonian Institu-tion's National Museum of the American Indian.
The Harriman Expedition Retraced, a special offering of the Smith College Travel Program, was the propitious catalyst for the repatriation. The modern expedition was the brainchild of Tom Litwin, director of the Science Center at Smith, and Larry Hott, a filmmaker with Florentine Films based in Haydenville, Massachusetts. Along with scientists, anthropologists and writers, Smith alumnae traveled Harriman's original route, learning about Alaska's history, ecology, culture and politics. Litwin coordinated the lecturers (and will produce a book about the experience) and Hott is in the process of creating a documentary focused on the voyage's main theme: "100 Years of Change." Hott and Litwin discovered that Cape Fox was involved in repatriation proceedings while doing the preliminary research for the project.
"The descendents of the Cape Fox people had a deep emotional interest in having the artifacts returned. Because of this project, we were able to help them accomplish their goals. We were able to bring the story of the last century to a close," Litwin said.
The people of Cape Fox began plans in the mid '90s for the retrieval of their belongings under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act or NAGPRA, which allows tribes to file claims for museum artifacts of special importance to them.
Phoebe Wood '75 was living in Alaska at the time and was involved, along with Litwin and Hott, in organizing the trip. When she found out about the repatriation efforts she called the tribe, the Tlingit San-ya-kwaan of Ketchikan, to offer help. The original plan had been to return one totem from one museum. In the end, a dozen artifacts were returned from several museums as part of the modern-day expedition. The totems were some of the largest objects to be repatriated in the history of the act.
"I'm really glad we could help this happen," said Wood as she walked the beach at Cape Fox where she joined Harriman participants as they dropped crumbs on the ceremonial fire as a gesture of goodwill. "I dreamed that we could take one back, but this shows that you can dream too small."
After the ceremony at Cape Fox, Harriman participants boarded their ship, Clipper Odyssey, which took them to Ketchikan. The artifacts were met at the dock by hundreds of local Tlingit people clad in traditional button blankets and hats. Once unloaded at the dock, the crated artifacts were taken by flatbed truck to Saxman, a Tlingit community just outside of Ketchikan. There, Harriman participants attended a potlatch, or Alaska Native community celebration, at the tribal house where leaders opened the wooden crates that contained the artifacts. At the same time, representatives from each museum were present to sign each artifact back to the tribe.
The all-purpose room at the tribal hall was packed with local people: men, women, children and elders of the San-ya-kwaan tribe sat in folding chairs, craning their necks to get a look at the long-awaited pieces. People feasted on traditional foods like seal, smoked salmon and herring roe. House posts, like puzzle pieces painted with wide-eyed Tlingit interpretations of eagles, leaned against the walls. A large totem depicting an eagle, beaver and halibut in its worn wood was displayed in its box. A man in a beaded leather vest ran the length of it with an eagle feather in blessing.
Tom Litwin presented the San-ya-kwaan with a silver bowl from Smith. The engraving reads: "To the San-ya-kwaan of Saxman Village, Alaska, commemorating the ceremony 'One Hundred Years of Healing,' protected in friendship."
"I felt very deeply honored for
Smith on being a part of this repatriation," said Mary Maples
Dunn, Smith's former president who traveled on the Harriman expedition.
"It was wonderful sitting amongst the group of older women
and hearing them talk about their experiences and their happiness
about the repatriation.... There was no harboring of ancient
ill-will about it, it was truly a joyful moment."
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