JUNEAU, AK (July 1, 2021) – Sitting in the Birmingham Museum of Art is a beautiful finial belonging to the Kayáashkéedítaan clan. After more than 50 years of bouncing between different museums, this object of cultural patrimony is finally making its way back home.
In 2017, Tlingit & Haida conducted a consultation visit with the art museum in Alabama. The visit resulted in the repatriation of several objects in 2019 – a small wooden “Aleut style” dance hat with a pattern called Tsaa Yaa Ayáanasnakh Kéet (Killerwhale-Chasing-A-Seal) carved on it, a cane which was taken from a grave, and a finial known as Kéet Koowaal (Killerwhale With a Hole In Its Fin) belonging to the Kayáashkéedítaan clan of the Shx’at Khwaan, the “Wrangell People".
The Kéet Koowaal was made in the mid-1800s and is said by clan oral history to have replaced at least one older fin. The locks of human hair pegged in along the edge of the fin represent the manumission of one slave each. The fin was sold without the permission of the clan in the 1970s and eventually made its way to England and then to a gallery in New York City where it was purchased by the Birmingham Museum of Art.
“Our clan is very grateful for this return,” said William Willard (Shéeshgaaw), who was named after William Tamaree and is a Kayáashkéedítaan clan member. “We can rest assured the Kéet Koowaal was returned where it’s supposed to be.” The history of the finial shows it to be an esteemed object of the clan no different than a house screen which was displayed at certain times in the peak of the roof of the clan house. As such, it was claimed as an object of the cultural patrimony which means it is owned by a group and not an individual and has a need for use in ongoing cultural ceremonies. The other two objects, the hat and cane, will be handled the same way.
The Kéet Koowaal will not be on exhibit but will be displayed at a proper cultural ceremony “to bring it back out in public” at a date yet to be determined by the Kayáashkéedítaan clan. The clan will release more pictures at their discretion.
“Not only are we bringing home this object, but we are also bringing home our ancestors,” said Luella Knapp (Aanshaawasnook) of the Naanya.aayí clan. “For all of us, it means a lot to have it back for future ceremonies.”
Tlingit & Haida’s Cultural Resources program repatriates objects of cultural patrimony, sacred objects, funerary objects and human remains in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Act of 1989. Services include submitting claims to museums for the return of cultural objects, assisting tribes and individuals in identifying cultural objects, family trees, memorial parties and clan identification.