For members of the Chugach tribe in Alaska, ancient artifacts are all they have left. The invaluable remnants are testament to their rich history, their sense of belonging, their culture.
But hundreds of years of explorers ripping through their lands and stealing their history has left these items scattered across the world.
Thankfully, this is beginning to change.
Nine sacred artifacts that an explorer plundered from the tribe in the 1800s, including burial masks and a cradle, are finally returning home after being stored at a museum in Germany.
“It’s so important to keep our culture alive and vibrant,” John Johnson from the Chugach Alaska Corporation told CNN. The corporation owns part of the tribe’s assets and works to maintain financial independence for Alaskan natives. “So many of our artifacts are scattered around the world.”
But getting items like this back doesn’t just happen overnight.
The artifacts have spiritual meanings
The Chugach tribe has occupied the area around Prince William Sound in Alaska for thousands of years. The tribe currently has more than 4,000 people, including original members and descendants. Stories of the tribe’s origins have been passed down from generation to generation.
Tribe members say the name Chugach originally came from native hunters exploring the area around the sound. To them, it looked like mountains were coming out of the glacial ice covering the sound. The hunters headed that way, crying out “Chu-ga, chu-ga,” meaning “hurry, hurry.” When they settled in the area, they named the tribe Chugach.
Stories like these can be passed down through words. But artifacts, which also show tribal ancestors’ ways of life, can’t.
“A lot of these things have a real strong religious and spiritual meaning … and this will help to teach the younger generation and help keep our culture alive and intact,” Johnson said.
The tribe’s elders are very particular about how sacred objects are treated. And when the tribe doesn’t have control over the artifacts, they aren’t being treated with the respect the tribe believes they deserve, he said.
Among the items that were just returned are a cradle that once held a mummified baby and traditional burial masks. An explorer stole them from the Chugach tribe’s lands in the 1880s. They had been at the Ethnographic Museum in Berlin.
Museums that returned them benefit as well
In the US, there are laws to protect Native American artifacts. There are no such laws in Europe.
Museums often hate to give up parts of their collections. So Johnson, from the Chugach Alaska Corporation, says he’s excited that Berlin did.
Johnson believes museums gain “100 percent more knowledge” by returning these artifacts and engaging with the tribes than they would if they left the items sitting in a box.
“If museums go out of their way to be honorable and work with the tribes … they have such unbelievable cultural exchange opportunities that can happen.”
Once the objects arrive in the US, the corporation will work with local Native American villages to decide what to do with them. He believes villages will develop cultural centers to display them — and other objects they hope to get back from other areas of the world soon.