Behind the glass, a contested history

The Penn Museum’s Native American Voices exhibit features items Alaskan natives have tried to repatriate

· March 2, 2014, 2:10 am   ·  Updated May 15, 2014, 7:05 pm

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Sophia Lee | DP


The exhibition hall at the Penn Museum was packed.

Native Americans from diverse communities stood next to their elders. Parents wrapped their arms around their children. In the back of the quiet room, a mother soothed her crying baby as she tried to catch a glimpse of the main attraction.

The crowd filled the hall of the new Native American Voices exhibit at 11 a.m. on Saturday. The spectators watched as five Native Americans from around the country, along with the museum director and exhibit curator, cut a red ribbon to declare the official opening of a project that took at least eight years to complete.

The exhibition opening demonstrates the collaboration and efforts of over 80 Native Americans from many backgrounds and cultures, the curator said.

But the stories behind some of the new artifacts that line the pristine museum walls have more complicated histories mired in legal battles.

When a representative of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology visited a Native American clan in September of 1995 , members broke down at the sight of objects sacred to their clan, which had been lost to them for decades.

After years of negotiation, hundreds of pages of documents and a federal review panel in a fight for ownership of these cultural artifacts, at least two of them are now part of the new Native American Voices exhibit.

And members of the T’akdeintaan clan are still fighting for what they believe is theirs.

A history of controversy

When the woman from the Penn Museum visited the T’akdeintaan clan in 1995, she went to show the natives items that the Museum had in their collection from the area.

Her trip followed a new federal law called the National American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, which required museums to make natives aware of what items they have from their communities.“I was there, and it was such a significant moment,” said Rosita Worl, a member of the Thunderbird clan. “I think there were actually clan members weeping to see what they call their at.oowu” - sacred clan possessions that are used, among other things, in celebration and death rituals to evoke the spirits of their ancestors.

Until that moment, the T’akdeintaan clan, which only remembered these items in stories passed down family lines, thought these sacred objects would never return to their community.

“It’s a very different belief that native people have about spirituality. We believe that our spirits are associated with those objects,” Worl said.

“We worry about those spirits. The spirits cannot rest until they come home,” said Marlene Johnson, a T’akdeintaan clan member. “They belong to us, and they will guide us.”

Part of Penn’s presentation that day involved teaching natives about NAGPRA, which allows Native Americans to file repatriation cases. This means native communities can legally request the return of important cultural items to them.

Using this new knowledge, clan members filed a case with the NAGPRA Review Committee - a panel empowered to hear repatriation cases and make non-binding recommendations - against the Penn Museum in order to repatriate their cultural items.

The final claim was an unprecedented 65 pages long, detailing the known history and significance of all the objects in question.

Reviewing the case

In November 2010 , the NAGPRA review committee came to a consensus, in a 6-0 vote, and found that all of the requested objects “are both sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony” and that “the [Penn Museum] does not have a right of possession to any of the requested cultural items.” While the committee is composed of seven members, Worl, who also sits on the review committee, abstained from the vote due to a conflict of interest.

However, the committee did not recommend that Penn return the items to the clan, as it has done in other cases.

Ultimately, the University chose only to return eight items, all of which it had offered to repatriate before the decision was made.

“We do not think that NAGPRA’s definitions provide a helpful framework in which we can address the concerns that we both have,” Penn Senior Vice President and General Counsel Wendy White wrote in a letter to the tribe following the committee’s decision.

Since then, Penn has offered to enter into a partnership with the clan in which they would co-own the objects. This would allow Penn to use them for its exhibits and the natives to use them in their ceremonies.

However, members of the clan disagreed with that proposal.

“That is not satisfactory to clan members or clan leaders - any of us,” Johnson said.

“We consider the objects to be ours and [Penn’s] possession of them not keeping with federal law,” said Robert Starbard, a member of the T’akdeintaan clan who has been communicating with Penn about the claim. “They are holding them without our permission,” he added.

Penn stands by its proposal, though.

“We thought we had reached agreement on a wonderful collaboration and were disappointed when the clan, in the end, rejected the plan,” White said in an email to The Daily Pennsylvanian. “We continue to hope we can reach an agreement and have reached out to clan leadership to continue the dialogue.”

The tribe proposed a counteroffer in 2012, which kept similar guidelines but emphasized the clan’s full ownership of the objects. No natives contacted for this article were aware of any Penn response to the proposal.

The clan members are still working to get back all of their objects from the Penn Museum. As a last resort, the Hoonah Indian Association - a federally recognized tribe that contains the T’akdeintaan clan as members - is collecting money to take the case to federal court in upcoming years.

“When those objects come home, then the spirits of those ancestors are able to come home as well,” Worl said. “How would you feel if you mother or grandmother couldn’t come home?”

Getting behind the glass

A large part of the claim made by the T’akdeintaan clan is that the University improperly obtained these items in the first place.

In 1924, the Snail House was the chief household of the T’akdeintaan Clan of Native Americans in Hoonah, Alaska. The head of the Snail House and leader of the clan at the time was Archie White, who also was the keeper of the objects that disappeared.

Some oral legends of the T’akd eintaan clan tell stories of White’s wife selling the objects to support her family, without her husband’s consent.

In a notice to return eight cultural items to the T’akdeintaan clan, Penn years later outlined their account: “In 1924, Louis Shotridge, a Tlingit Curator employed by the University of Pennsylvania Museum, purchased the eight objects as part of a collection of 49 objects ... referred to as the ‘Snail House Collection,’ for $500.00 from a Tlingit individual, Archie White.”

Shotridge, who lived near the Snail House, is the only Native American who has been a Penn Museum associate curator. From 1912 to 1932, he gathered nearly 600 items from his home communities that are still part of the robust Native American artifacts collection at the Museum.

Living members of the clan say that sacred objects - both then and now - are the property of the whole clan and that no single individual owns them. For the same reason, nobody has the right to sell them or give them away without the permission of the clan members.

A summary of the 2006 claim filed with NAGPRA by the Hoonah Indian Association said that “Louis Shotridge is known to have acquired items unethically,” noting that he had committed similar actions in the past against other clans.

In a journal entry that can be found in the Penn Museum archives, Shotridge explains how he took a shark helmet from his own clan, the “only one of its kind.”

“I took it in t he presence of aged women, the only survivors in the house where the old object was kept,” he wrote in his journal, “and they could do nothing more than weep when the once highly esteemed object was being taken away to its last resting place.”

Preservation and Education

Following the ribbon cutting of Saturday’s exhibition opening, the crowd funneled into a large room and sat in a giant circle.

They watched members of the Native Nations Dance Theater, the only Native American dance company in Philadelphia, demonstrate dances used in different native celebrations and rituals. Kids and parents joined in, smiling and laughing as they held hands with Native Americans and imitated their moves.

Over 250 Native American objects - ranging from 11,000-year-old weaponry to contemporary art and representing more than 100 tribes - will rotate through the exhibition over the next five years.

Near both entrances to the exhibition, two “tower screens” reach the ceilings. Guests can scroll up and down the tower touch screens, clicking on dozens of videos and audio files that share stories of Native American lifestyles, beliefs, objects and history.

“The mix of the old and the contemporary bring the exhibit to life for people who want to learn more,” said Lucy Williams, the curator of the exhibition.

For over seven years, she traveled North America, meeting and building relationships with Native Americans in order to record their beliefs, art and heritage to share at the Penn Museum. Many of the natives are very grateful, a notion that can be found in the of dozens of “thank yous” in the opening ceremony and in the recordings on the exhibit screens.

In light of all that the Museum is doing to preserve and share Native American culture, the perspective of the repatriation case becomes more complicated.

In 1944, Hoonah burned to the ground as a massive fire spread through native lands. A vast majority of native cultural objects turned to ash, but those that were unknowingly kept at Penn were preserved.

“Without Penn, we would not have access to those ancestors,” Starbard said. “We want to recognize that in telling the future stories. Penn made it possible for us to have those objects.”

Following the NAGPRA committee decision, Penn has used the fire to support the Museum’s decision to hold on to the collection.

“We have been working hard and long to create a respectful and sensitive collaboration with the clan ... while recognizing Penn’s ownership interests and long preservation of the objects - objects that would not have survived without the University,” White said in an email.

Part of Penn’s proposal following the outcome said that the co-owned objects could return to Hoonah “as soon as appropriate arrangements can be made for their safe transport and continuing care,” but Starbard says that they “lost every right” to make those determinations when Penn was told they were not rightful owners.

However, Teri Rofkar - a T’akdeintaan clan member who is also a research associate at the Penn Museum - understands the benefits of having these objects at the Penn Museum.

“One of the things that’s happening is that these objects are now accessible to artists like myself,” Rofkar said. “By looking at them at the museum, I can create more objects like them in that quality and that level of artistic interpretation.”

Rofkar has donated two pieces of her work to Penn’s collection. She just completed a robe made out of mountain goat wool, the first in over 200 years.

While Rofkar understands the perspective of her clan, she said that with access to the items at museums, “We can create new pieces, so we don’t have to keep fighting over the old ones.”

Since the Hoonah Indian Association repatriated items from the Smithsonian Museum in a different case, the tribe and museum have worked together to take CT scans of the objects and duplicate them in a 3D printer. Tribal members will soon paint them to look like the original objects.

Starbard hopes that Penn and Hoonah could work together on similar efforts in the future.

Plans are currently underway for the creation of a new Huna Culture Heritage Center that could preserve cultural objects in heat and light sensitive environments while still keeping them close to home, if and when the items return to them, Starbard said.

Rofkar is now working on a superman series of robes - one made of mountain goat, one put together from Kevlar bulletproof regalia and the third created with nanotechnology and fiber optics at Penn.

“At some point you have to use the old designs to create something new, or how are the young people going to embrace these traditions as their own?” she said. “It’s like singing the same song over and over again. At some point you gotta write your own music.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Rosita Worl is a member of the T'akeintaan clan. Worl is a member of the Thunderbird clan.

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