ANCHORAGE, ALASKA – A major American foundation that anonymously purchased sacred objects during a fiercely contested auction in Paris last year has returned one of the pieces to Southeast Alaska Natives.
The Annenberg Foundation is donating a Native panel to Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) that appears to be part of an old Tlingit bentwood box with a painted Chilkat design. Such a box would have held a clan’s sacred objects or possibly the paraphernalia of a shaman.
The news that the piece was coming home stunned staff at SHI who were familiar with the controversial auction and tried to stop it, said SHI President Rosita Worl.
“We couldn’t believe it. We were astonished when we heard the Annenberg Foundation purchased the panel to send it home. This has never happened before, and it is wonderful news,” said Worl, noting the panel was donated to SHI because clan affiliation could not be determined.
SHI Chief Operating Officer Lee Kadinger and SHI President Rosita Worl examining the panel
The sale of Native American and Alaska Native sacred objects by the Marie-Francois Robert auction house last year caused an uproar among Native peoples who said the pieces had spiritual dimensions and belonged with the tribes. The sale included objects belonging to the Hopi and the San Carlos Apache tribes in addition to the Tlingit panel.
SHI in December wrote letters to the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs asking the department to intervene and to the head of the auction house asking for a delay in the sale. Ultimately, the U.S. could not legally stop the sale, and the auction house went ahead with the event despite pleas from tribal groups. The Annenberg Foundation was aware of the controversy and secretly purchased the items at the auction with the intention of returning them to the tribes.
Sacred objects or at.óow, such as the Tlingit panel, are owned by clans. However, the panel has not been conclusively linked to a specific clan, so SHI will care for the piece. The institute will reach out to Native people in the region to see if it can be tied to a certain clan. If an association can be made, it will be repatriated to the clan.