German museum returns stolen artifacts to Native American tribe

Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, exchanges an artifact with John Johnson, vice president the Chugach Alaska Corporation. Photo courtesy of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundatio

June 11 (UPI) — A museum in Berlin has agreed to return nine cultural artifacts stolen from a Native American tribe in Alaska in the 19th century, German officials said.

The objects include a wooden mask, a wooden idol, and a basket for carrying a baby from the Chugach tribe. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin’s Ethnographic Museum where the items were housed, said it determined Johan Adrian Jacobsen, who traveled along the northwest U.S. coast in the 1880s as a representative of the Ethnographic Museum, plundered the items from tribal lands and grave sites.

“All the indications are that the objects were obtained through grave robbery and not by an approved archaeological excavation,” the foundation said. “In view of these facts, in December 2017 it was decided to repatriate the objects, in line with [the foundation’s] general approach to its non-European collections and the research into their provenances.”

Hermann Patziger, president of the foundation, said the organization will continue to collaborate with the Chugach Alaska Corporation, which represents some 4,000 members of the tribe, even after the handover of the objects. A representative of the Chugach tribe agreed.

“Many museums have feared that repatriation of cultural items was a loss of knowledge,” said John F.C. Johnson, vice president of the Chugach Alaska Corporation’s Cultural Resources. “However it became clear that these actions resulted in greater understanding of the objects and a better working relationship with cultures that they are trying to preserve.

“The Chugach people are very excited and honored to work with the [National Museums in Berlin] on various cultural exchanges in the future. I am proud and very grateful for all the efforts that were made to help make this dream a reality.”

Wooden masks are usually burned after use or buried in graves, meaning not many exist today. The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation said the idol is likely a shamanic figure meant to protect people from danger and death.

The Ethnographic Museum has about 200 Chugach objects in its collection.


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