It's been four years since Seattle's Burke Museum respectfully returned two grizzly-bear house posts to their Tlingit owners in Alaska, where they were stolen more than a century ago during a swashbuckling expedition led by a famed railroad tycoon.
Today, Tlingit carvers will proudly help dedicate two new house posts to the Burke, one of them carved from a single massive cedar log given to the museum as a gesture of gratitude for its decision to return the pirated booty.
The two new posts, 11 feet tall, nearly 3 feet wide and weighing hundreds of pounds, will stand on permanent exhibition at the museum. Shipped from Ketchikan, they were created by master Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson and his son Stephen. They were commissioned two years ago, in part with a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
"I'm very grateful for the opportunity to have something of mine that will be in a museum, that will be there for a long time," Nathan Jackson said.
The original poles were stolen by the Harriman Expedition, sponsored by railroad tycoon E.H. Harriman. The scientific expedition left Seattle in May 1899 with 126 passengers and crew, including scientists, artists and Harriman's friends.
Luminaries including photographer Edward S. Curtis; John Muir, a father of the conservation movement; and best-selling nature writer John Burroughs were along as Harriman's steamer explored almost 9,000 miles of pristine coastline of Alaska and British Columbia.
Along the way, they visited the Tlingit village of Gaash at Cape Fox on the southern tip of Alaska's coast, and, believing the village to be abandoned, went to work, cutting down totem poles.
They hauled away eight poles and a painted house front — stealing them from the people of the village, who had moved to Saxman, near Ketchikan, but had no plans to abandon their previous home.
Two grizzly-bear house posts ended up at the Burke Museum, the only full-sized poles in its collections, and were displayed for more than 50 years. Other precious works, including grave markers and totem poles, wound up at Chicago's Field Museum, Harvard University's Peabody Museum, the Smithsonian and Cornell University, all of which have since returned them.
In 1999, Cape Fox Corp., an Alaska Native corporation representing the original Tlingit clans that lived in Gaash, wrote the Burke Museum, requesting return of the house posts. The Burke opted to return the house posts voluntarily, as stolen property.
Even before the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, the museum was sensitive to the history of the house posts, said Robin Wright, the Burke's curator of Native American art. The act provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items, including human remains, and sacred objects.
"We viewed this as a very clear case of theft," Wright said.
The poles were taken off display, and work was begun "to do the right thing," Wright said. "Things that have been stolen are not appropriate to exhibit without the permission of the true owners and should be returned."
Irene Dundas, whose great-great-grandmother owned the house from which the posts were taken, said this week that it felt only right to give a log to the museum for the new posts.
Dundas manages repatriation for the Cape Fox Corp., which gifted the ancient cedar log. "They gave up something that was in their collection for roughly 100 years," she said of the Burke. "It was a part of their history too.
"In a way it was like a full circle for us to donate the logs to them. It was, 'You have repatriated the poles, and we want to give something back to you, to say thank you.' It was like a closing."
The returned house posts are now in storage in Saxman in metal shipping containers. The village needs to raise money to build a community hall to display them, along with the house front and other posts returned by colleges and other museums.
The posts' return means the recovery of more than artwork, Dundas said. They embody family history, songs and stories.
Young people are learning their lineage to know how they are connected to the Teikweidi clan that carved the posts, and better understand their culture. Getting the posts back is a mending of their family because the posts are considered ancestors, Dundas said.
"With these things coming back, it just ties us together," Dundas said. "It's just one more piece that can make our people whole and strong."
The two new posts are not replicas of the ones that the Burke returned, but they are based on the same story, owned by the Teikweidi clan. It is the story of Kaats, a grizzly-bear hunter who marries a she-bear, only to be killed by his bear children.
Nathan Jackson's carving is traditional in style, and includes faces tucked into the ears of the grizzly wife, indicating her awareness of the human wife that Kaats still visits against her wishes. The she-bear's arms, with deadly claws, rest on the figure of Kaats, who is virtually engulfed by her massive body.
Stephen, Jackson's son, carved a contemporary pole that captures the moment when Kaats is torn limb from limb by his grizzly children.
The return of the house posts, and creation of new ones, mark a new era and a healing for both the Tlingit people and the museum, said Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute. The institute administers the cultural and educational programs of the regional Native corporation that includes Cape Fox.
Once seen by many Native people as the enemy, today museums are increasingly looked to as partners in educating the public about Native cultures, Worl said.
"I always say I have a love-hate relationship with museums. Museums in the past portrayed Native people as dying, vanishing and extinct.
"But Native people have pressed on museums and the world, saying we have survived. And for museums to be able to educate non-Natives about our cultural survival is important."
Lynda V. Mapes: 206-464-2736 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture is hosting a celebration of Alaska Native arts from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today. Participants are invited to see the new posts, make Northwest Coast-style Native American masks, and watch a weaving demonstration by Alaskan weaver Dorica Jackson. There also will be a guided tour of the museum's new exhibit of wildlife art by Native Arctic artists. The tours are at noon and 2, and guided by Inuit art collector John Price.
For more information: 206-543-5590, or visit www.burkemuseum.org.