MUSEUMS returning artifacts to southeast Alaska clans more than 100 years after expedition

Saturday, July 21st 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

SEATTLE (AP) _ More than a century ago, railroad magnate Edward H. Harriman led a survey of Alaska's coast, steaming home with totem poles, an entire chief's house and other treasures from a Tlingit village in southeast Alaska.

Now five leading museums are returning the take.

A party was planned Monday near Ketchikan, Alaska, to celebrate the return of the artifacts, said Diane Palmer of Cape Fox Corp., which represents the village's three Tlingit clans.

The Cape Fox village of Gaash was empty in June 1899 when the S.S. George Elder anchored there with 126 scientists, artists and Harriman family members on board.

``It was evident that the village had not been occupied in seven or eight years,'' wrote nature writer John Burroughs, who was with the group. ``Why not, therefore, secure some of these totem poles for the museums of the various colleges?''

Irene Dundas, repatriation director for Cape Fox Corp., said the village clans are pleased to be getting the articles back and appreciative of the museums' respect for their arts.

``A long time ago when they'd taken the things, we might have been upset,'' she said. ``But if they weren't taken, they wouldn't be here with us today.''

The totem poles all feature the stylized painted symbols that distinguish the art of the Tlingit people and other Pacific Northwest and Alaska coastal tribes. The largest is coming from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian: a 45-foot totem pole depicting three bears and a loon.

Dundas said most of the totem poles are mortuary poles with clan crests, like eagles, beavers or halibut. Others tell stories or were carved as memorials.

Being Tlingit (pronounced KLINK'-it) and knowing the symbols of the different clans, ``I could look at a pole and know whose clan that pole belongs to,'' she said.

Members of the Harriman Expedition, including photographer Edward Curtis and naturalist John Muir, believed they were seeing an untouched world on the brink of cataclysmic change.

In fact, Alaska natives had already had 125 years of contact with white explorers and fur traders, and Gaash had been decimated by smallpox.

The disease left 177 of about 1,000 people alive in the Cape Fox village, Dundas said. Survivors moved to Saxman, just outside modern-day Ketchikan, where missionaries had built a church and school.

The treasures taken by the Harriman Expedition wound up in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Field Museum in Chicago, the University of Washington's Burke Museum, and Harvard and Cornell universities.

They are being returned under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act at the request of Cape Fox Corp.

Monday's ceremony is being billed as ''100 years of healing,'' to mark the ongoing effort to recover songs, dances, arts, even Tlingit names, after the chaotic past century, Dundas said.

``All the artifacts tell stories of their clans' beginnings,'' she said.

Cape Fox has offered cedar trees to the museums in return. The Peabody, the Burke and the Smithsonian have accepted, and Nathan Jackson, a master carver in southeast Alaska, has begun work on a pole for the Peabody, Palmer said.

The Harriman Expedition was credited with documenting previously unknown species and fossils and mapping the coastal region. It left Seattle on May 31, 1899, followed the Inside Passage, and traced the Alaska Peninsula to the Aleutians and to the Bering Strait before returning to Seattle.