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News > Culture

Indigenous Alaskan Artifacts Heading Home After 200 Years

  • Among the looted artifacts returned to Alaska is this wooden figure, meant to ward off danger and death.

    Among the looted artifacts returned to Alaska is this wooden figure, meant to ward off danger and death. | Photo: Ethnological Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Published 17 May 2018

As many as 200 artifacts were looted from caves on Chenega Island in Sanradna by a Norwegian explorer in the 1800s.

Nine Alaskan Indigenous artifacts have been returned home by Berlin's Ethnological Museum almost 250 years after they disappeared from an ancient burial ground.


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Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, said: "The objects were taken from graves without permission of the native people, and thus unlawfully. Therefore, they don't belong in our museums."

The artifacts were returned during a ceremony on Wednesday to a representative of the Chugach Alaska Corporation and the Chugach community, John F.C. Johnson.

Several masks, wooden figures and a baby basket dating back at least 1,000 years were among the items taken in the late 1880s by Norwegian explorer and amateur ethnographer, Johan Adrian Jacobson, on behalf of the museum. Jacobson stole as many as 200 artifacts from caves on Chenega Island, Sanradna.

Johnson told reporters he had traveled to Berlin in 2015 in search of the missing artifacts after stumbling on the explorer's journal: "Our people are traders; they would never trade burial objects," he said.

Made from spruce and hemlock and dyed red with a traditional concoction of seal oil, human blood and stone particles, the masks were a symbol of the deceased's journey into the spirit world.

On at least one mask, only one eye was carved; the other left closed. Johnson explained: "They're a connection between the dead and the living, the future and the past. If you look – one eye open, one eye shut – it's like traveling between two worlds."

The return of the artifacts is the result of three years of negotiations by Johnson and a team of representatives from the community. During World War II, many of the original 200 burial items were lost, stolen or transferred to various museums across Europe. Some have been traded or purchased by the Indigenous delegation.

"They say a picture's worth 1,000 words, but when you have the object it could be a million. You learn so much when you see them up close," Johnson said, noting that some of the items will now be displayed for the community in Alaska.

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