Tlingit and UPenn: A Case Study

The Lituya Bay Robe, one of the objects the Tlingit are trying to get back from the Penn Museum. Click on picture to go to original Alaska Dispatch News story.

In 1995, the Tlingit Clan of Hoonah in Alaska filed a NAGPRA  repatriation claim aimed at approximately 40 items housed in the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The case is still partially ongoing today, in 2015.

I chose this specific case for two reasons. First because I feel a personal connection to this case as both of my parents work at the Penn Museum. As I dug deeper into the case however, I found that it is a perfect case study to examine because it incorporates many of the conflicts and debates that commonly arise in repatriation cases all tied into one narrative. This emphasizes the complexity of repatriation, as there are many opinions and discussions and sides all at the same time, as well as how these cases can come to be so drawn out that they can take over 20 years to complete.

The first conflict I want to focus in on is over the  “Right of Ownership” as defined by NAGPRA. In Section 2, Subsection 13, the law states that right of ownership, “means possession obtained with the voluntary consent of an individual or group that had authority of alienation” (Fine-Dare P. 199). This means that the objects in question must have been given up willingly by a member of the tribe who is allowed to give them away or sell them. The controversy becomes clear when the history of these objects is revealed. In 1924, a native Tlingit curator working for the UPenn Museum named Louis Shotridge purchased the objects from the head of the Snail House of the Tlingit clan for $500.

Louis Shotridge 1928. Click on picture to go to original story by the Pennsylvania Gazette

The Penn Museum claims that this willing transaction clearly gives the museum the right of ownership under NAGPRA. In contrast, the Tlingit believe that although the seller was the chief of the house, he still did not have the right of alienation because the objects were/are communally owned by the Tlingit. This debate over right of ownership was “Settled” in 2010 when the NAGPRA review committee voted 6-0 (with one recusal) in favor of the Tlingit, stating that the Penn Museum does not have any right of ownership to such objects. Despite this victory, the review committee did not say that the objects must be returned, nor would they be capable of enforcing such a decision.

Tied in with the question of ownership comes controversy over definitions and categories of objects. In the original claim by the Tlingit, the tribe argues that all 38 objects are both sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony, as defined under Section 2 of NAGPRA. In a 2009 response, the Penn Museum said it had determined that 8 of the objects under question had some level of sacredness or patrimony. The museum then returned these 8 objects, even though it still claimed right of ownership. The rest of the objects are still being fought over, and many have been included in a new exhibit opened in 2014 about Native American cultures. This discussion about sacredness and patrimony raises of questions of who gets to determine such categories.

In closing, I want to acknowledge that I have only scratched the surface of this case. There are so many more layers to pull back. Really I want you, the reader, to take this specific case and think about all of the questions that can and have come from it. Then apply those questions to nearly every other NAGPRA case and you will begin to see why repatriation can be a long, complicated process.

Further Readings:



2 thoughts on “Tlingit and UPenn: A Case Study”

  1. I’m a direct descendent of medicine man who went to russia and traded for Bronze Hat with two rings and cape,which are sacred to Tak’deintaan, clan and house leader and blood relative!!

  2. Being that this object belonged to my great uncle the medicine man, that it and cape etc are sacred to our house and Tak’deintaan

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *