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Whatcom Museum returns sacred blanket to tribes of Alaska

George Samuel and Laverne Wise roll a Tlingit Chilkat blanket in preparation for its return to the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. The blanket, which had been in the Whatcom Museum collection for 40 years, was returned to the tribes in a closed ceremony Feb. 19, 2016, in the Rotunda Room of Old City Hall in Bellingham.
George Samuel and Laverne Wise roll a Tlingit Chilkat blanket in preparation for its return to the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. The blanket, which had been in the Whatcom Museum collection for 40 years, was returned to the tribes in a closed ceremony Feb. 19, 2016, in the Rotunda Room of Old City Hall in Bellingham. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The Whatcom Museum has returned a Tlingit Chilkat blanket it bought 40 years ago to two tribes in Alaska who said it was sacred to them.

The Brown Bear Chilkat blanket was given back to the Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska after they made a formal request under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Adopted in 1990, the federal law helps tribes reacquire culturally significant artifacts.

The blanket — yellow, greenish-blue and white in color with tan fringes — was one of just five in that bear pattern known to exist still. It was returned Feb. 19 after a closed ceremony in the Rotunda Room of Old City Hall. The tribes asked that the ceremony be private.

Representatives from the Tlingit and Haida tribes were at the ceremony as well as dancers from the Haida Laas and Haandei I Jin groups from the Seattle area.

Richard Peterson, president of the Central Council, said it was exciting to see “the return of our sacred items like this blanket.”

“I think our people have suffered for many times, for a long time because our objects, our language, our very culture was being pulled from us, but you can’t pull it completely away, and when we’re able to return these items, we reawaken and get to know who we are again,” Peterson said in a news release.

He couldn’t be reached for additional comment.

It’s believed the blanket was made in the early 1900s by weaver Akhlłé, who also was known as Mary Willard.

The Whatcom Museum wants to work with tribal groups to best care for their objects, and to represent their history with accuracy and respect. Sometimes that includes the return of an item.

Rebecca Hutchins, curator of collections, Whatcom Museum

Whatcom Museum bought the blanket from the Michael R. Johnson Gallery in Seattle in 1975, according to information on the Federal Register. Before that, a private collector out of Tacoma had acquired it in Yakutat, Alaska, in 1974.

In Whatcom County, it was most recently displayed in Whatcom Museum’s Syre Education Center as part of the Pacific Coast exhibit, where schoolchildren studying Northwest native history learned about the blanket during school tours.

The blanket is expected to be used in ceremonies now that it’s been returned to the tribes in Juneau, Alaska.

Chilkat blankets were generally used by male and female tribal leaders in dances or feasts, and were worn over their shoulders or wrapped around their bodies.

Such blankets, which can take a year or more to make, require weaving knowledge passed down from generation to generation. They are known for their stylized motifs, with each blanket incorporating the clan symbols of the wearer and other natural forms.

The Brown Bear Chilkat blanket isn’t the first artifact returned by the museum.

“Whatcom Museum has repatriated a number of items through the years — both prior to the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and after,” said Rebecca Hutchins, its curator of collections.

The Central Council made a formal request for the blanket in early 2015. The museum decided the council’s claim was appropriate after reviewing documentation and doing additional research.

“Repatriation can help to build a bridge and heal relationships between our institution and cultural groups who have long held the view that many museums have misappropriated important aspects of their culture,” Hutchins said.

“The Whatcom Museum wants to work with tribal groups to best care for their objects, and to represent their history with accuracy and respect,” she added. “Sometimes that includes the return of an item.”

The museum plans to include information about the repatriation process into the Pacific Coast exhibit, including a video of the ceremony.

Kie Relyea: 360-715-2234, @kierelyea

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