Visitors to the Denver Art Museum look at “Drum (Gaaw),” a cultural item from the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, on display in the Northwest Coast and Alaska Native Art Galleries on March 27. The tribes, from Southeast Alaska, have been trying to reclaim their cultural items from the Denver Art Museum for more than 30 years. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Visitors to the Denver Art Museum look at “Drum (Gaaw),” a cultural item from the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, on display in the Northwest Coast and Alaska Native Art Galleries on March 27. The tribes, from Southeast Alaska, have been trying to reclaim their cultural items from the Denver Art Museum for more than 30 years. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Tlingit and Haida delegation came to Denver to reclaim their cultural heritage. They left empty-handed.

Tribal representatives say city museum has historic objects that should be returned under 1990 law.

DENVER — In 2017, a delegation from the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska flew to the Mile High City to meet with officials from the Denver Art Museum.

The dozen tribal members came to discuss the return of a 170-year-old wooden house partition, painted by a master Indigenous artist. The panels — 67 inches tall, 168 inches wide — illustrate the story of how a raven taught the Tlingits to fish.

The delegation told the museum that this screen never should have left Southeast Alaska and belonged home with its people under a 1990 federal law designed to repatriate objects of cultural significance to Native Americans.

But at the end of three days of meetings, the tribes left Denver without a promise of any repatriations.

“It felt like they were trying to hang onto those objects at all costs,” said Father Simeon Johnson, vice chancellor for the Russian Orthodox Diocese of Sitka & Alaska, who accompanied the delegation that day in Denver. “Their attitude was: ‘These are ours. They’re here and they’re going to stay here.’”

Tribal representatives say they’re still trying to reclaim their heritage from the Denver Art Museum, 34 years after the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act came into effect. Museum officials have been intransigent, condescending and insensitive in consultations, they allege.

To this day, a host of prized Tlingit cultural objects remain in the museum’s much-celebrated Indigenous Arts collection, despite three formal repatriation claims and numerous delegation visits to Denver’s premier art museum.

“They are probably the worst museum” we have ever dealt with, said Harold Jacobs, the Tlingit and Haida’s cultural resource specialist, who attended the 2017 meetings in Denver.

John Lukavic, the museum’s curator of Native arts who also attended those meetings, said in an interview that it was surprising and disappointing to hear the tribes’ reaction to their Denver visit. He disputed their characterization of museum officials’ behavior.

The Tlingit representatives never submitted a formal claim under the federal repatriation act for the raven screen, he said. The museum follows the same rubric in all dealings to comply with the law, he added, and even offered to help the tribe complete the necessary paperwork to request repatriation.

“We’re not in the business of just giving away our collections,” Lukavic said. “Nobody is.”

How Tlingit objects dispersed around the globe

At least five pieces in the Denver Art Museum’s Tlingit collection come from the collection of Walter Waters, a former proprietor of Native American wares in Wrangell, Alaska — roughly 200 miles south of Juneau.

How Waters acquired those objects, however, is a matter of great pain for the Tlingit.

A number of objects in the collection came from Chief Shakes VI, a hereditary clan leader. Before he died in 1916, the chief was ordered by a Presbyterian minister to will his property to his widow and not his maternal nephew — contrary to Tlingit inheritance laws, Jacobs said.

All of his property ended up outside the clan. Waters got many of the objects, as did Axel Rasmussen, a local collector.

The Tlingit tribe adheres to different property customs than U.S. law. Ownership of property resides within the clan as a whole, rather than within individual members. But American expansion into Alaska during the 19th and 20th centuries imposed U.S. customs on tribes, including the Tlingit, in efforts designed to strip Indigenous people of their culture.

“An individual clan member has the authority to ‘use’ clan property, but he/she cannot independently transfer or alienate this right,” the tribe wrote in a repatriation request to a Maine museum last year.

The Chief Shakes pieces collected by Rasmussen and Waters ended up at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum, the Portland Art Museum and the Denver Art Museum, former Denver Museum of Nature and Science curator Chip Colwell wrote in his 2017 book “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits.”

The bear screen once seen in the clan house’s interior was still on display in Denver at the time of the book’s publishing, though it’s not anymore. It remains in the museum’s collection.

Inside the Denver Art Museum’s Tlingit collection

The Tlingit pieces at the Denver Art Museum are part of 18,000 objects by artists from more than 250 Indigenous nations, the museum states on its website, an assemblage it boasts as “one of the strongest and most comprehensive collections of Indigenous arts from North America in the world.”

The museum acknowledges that institutions like theirs have “benefited from the displacement of Indigenous people and the removal and historical misrepresentation of their arts, often resulting in deep harm to originating communities.”

“While we cannot change the past,” museum officials wrote, “we can change how we move forward.”

But the museum has rejected Tlingit tribal representatives’ overtures multiple times over the course of 20 years.

When the law that became known as NAGPRA passed in 1990, museums were required to send inventories to tribes of their entire Native American collections that might be subject to the new legislation.

The law was designed to force federal institutions and those that receive federal dollars to return any human remains, funerary objects, sacred pieces and objects of cultural patrimony to tribes. The hope, advocates believed, was that this law could help unwind the centuries of subjugation and genocide of Indigenous people on the land that became the United States.

The Denver Art Museum and the Alaskan tribes, however, started off on the wrong foot.

Soon after the new law took effect, the Denver museum told the Tlingit tribes in a letter that the institution held five objects of theirs subject to NAGRPA, said Jacobs, the cultural resource officer. But the law states museums need to send tribes full inventories — not just a selection of items a particular tribe may want.

“That’s our determination to make,” Jacobs said his predecessor told the museum. “Not yours.”

However, museum records show Denver officials included an inventory list of 325 works identified as Tlingit for the tribe’s review, said Andy Sinclair, a museum spokesperson. The museum would handle this situation differently today, she added, saying it accommodates all Indigenous community requests to see artworks in the museum’s collection.

Tlingit leaders asked Johnson to accompany the delegation to the three-day sitdown in 2017, since several of the visitors were members of the church.

The priest recalled one moment particularly vividly: The Denver museum officials, as they were discussing the raven screen, cited Hopi law for why they could keep the Tlingit object. (The Hopi tribe lived in what’s now northeastern Arizona.)

“I was surprised by how rude and culturally insensitive the museum was towards the repatriation of some of these objects,” Johnson said. “The general impression was, ‘You’re Indians; you’re all the same.’ Hopi customs and traditions are apples and oranges from Tlingit customs.”

Lukavic, the Native arts curator, said his predecessor, Nancy Blomberg, was using the Hopi as an example of what a tribe needs to do in order to fulfill certain NAGPRA requirements.

“Nothing we shared or said was intended as demeaning or insulting,” he said.

Those meetings were largely positive, Lukavic remembers. Museum officials learned from the Tlingit delegation about their culture and traditions. But as soon as the museum described everything the tribe needed to do to have the item considered for repatriation, the tone shifted.

“They saw the process as a hurdle to getting something back,” Lukavic said. “We can hear verbally what people are saying, but it’s not a claim.”

At other points over the years, the Tlingit and Denver Art Museum engaged in extensive talks about a house partition with a Shakes family crest, a significant piece from 1840 made of wood, paint and human hair.

Denver officials offered to have a copy made of the partition — which would go to the tribe, Jacobs said. The Tlingit representative said the museum should be the one with the copy, while the original should be returned.

“A copy would mean nothing to us,” Jacobs said the museum responded.

Sinclair, the museum spokesperson, called the conversation “a misunderstanding of terms on both our parts.” Tlingit representatives sought to remake the bear screen in the 2010s, during which time they asked the museum for assistance, she said.

“It was in the spirit of this collaboration and remaking of a screen that the ‘copy’ discussion was intended,” Sinclar said in an email.

In September, the tribe used a replica of the piece during a traditional ceremony. The original remains in the Denver Art Museum’s collection, though it’s not on display. Visitors to the museum’s gift shop can purchase postcards with the bear screen’s image.

One of the Waters pieces held by the Denver Art Museum, a wooden drum with an image of a raven from 1880, remains on view in the Northwest Coast and Alaska Native Art Galleries.

Kevin Callahan is a descendant of Chief Shakes and the current leader and house master of the Naanya.aayí clan. The house partition with the Shakes crest — known as “many faces” to tribal members — is supposed to stand in front of his clan’s longhouse.

“To us, these are our uncles, our fathers,” Callahan said. “These are living beings for us.”

When they sit in storage of American museums, he said, “it’s like taking them and locking them up. They’re unable to speak, to communicate.”

These objects are crucial to helping keep the tribal language going, relearning family trees and for use in native ceremonies, Jacobs said.

“We can write about it, talk about it, discuss it,” he said he told museum officials, “but until you see these objects in motion in our ceremonies, in our context, for which they were created, you will not understand why we need these objects back.”

Lukavic said the tribe never submitted a formal claim for the Shakes family crest. Jacobs countered that museum officials were adamant they weren’t returning the bear screen even with a claim.

As the 2017 meeting concluded, Johnson left the building feeling the outcome was clear: “The museum was not going to return the screens.”

The Tlingit and Haida tribes filed official NAGPRA claims for three objects in the Denver Art Museum’s collection between 2002 and 2007, museum records show, including a beaver clan hat, a bear shirt and a tunic. None have been repatriated.

Museum officials denied two of the claims and said the third couldn’t be properly assessed due to a lack of sufficient evidence.

For the beaver hat, the museum agreed that the claim met two of three guidelines under the law for repatriation. But the evidence for the “right of possession” condition was “not conclusive,” Sinclair said. The item will not be displayed, she said, remaining in a secure location.

The museum denied the bear shirt claim due to a lack of information on how the shirt satisfies “ongoing central importance and constitutes communal rather than individual property.”

Sometimes tribes can make a valid claim, Lukavic said, “and sometimes they can’t.”

“You could walk through our galleries right now and I bet there’s not a single tribe that wouldn’t want what we have back,” he said. “But that case can be made for anything in the entire museum.”

In June 2023, Johnson sent a letter to the museum, saying he was shocked that no progress had been made.

“It is time for the Denver Art Museum to help heal these wounds by returning the raven screen to the Tlingit people,” he wrote.

“It’s the federal law”

The Denver Art Museum’s dealings with the Tlingit tribe stand in sharp contrast to other museums with holdings from the same collections.

In 2020, the Burke Museum in Washington state told the federal government that it intended to repatriate seven objects to the Southeast Alaskan tribes. Several of these pieces, museum officials noted, are visible in historic photos of Chief Shakes V and his successor. Information from the tribes, meanwhile, indicated that the relics were communally owned by the clan — meaning no one person could decide to dispose or sell them.

Burke Museum officials determined that the seven cultural items have “ongoing historical, traditional or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself.” There is a relationship of shared group identity that can reasonably be traced between the sacred objects and the tribes, the museum noted.

“(The Tlingit) know what they are doing when it comes to taking care of their sacred cultural heritage,” Sven Haakanson Jr., the museum’s curator of North American anthropology, told The Post. “Returning the Tlingit pieces and seeing them used in ceremonies again — what more can we ask for in doing the right thing for the community? They were reawakened in a beautiful way and now are back in their rightful place.”

The Portland Art Museum in 2022 repatriated nine Tlingit objects, including some from Chief Shakes’ collection. Museum officials called the repatriation ceremony a “landmark occasion, too long in the making.”

“Receiving them back, one by one, brings back the spirit of the person who wore them,” Luella Knapp, a member of the Naanya.aayí clan, said in a statement at the time.

Other museums have developed creative ways to return Tlingit cultural property to the tribes while maintaining educational opportunities.

The University of Maine’s Hudson Museum in May will formally repatriate seven objects following requests from the Alaskan tribes. The museum, though, still wanted to showcase one particular item, a Tlingit frog clan helmet. So university engineers created a replica using a 3D printer.

“The end product allows the museum to continue educating learners of all ages about the cultural traditions of the Northwest coast, while allowing the original object to be reintegrated into traditions, ceremonies and cultural practices of the community from which it came,” museum officials wrote on their website.

Why did the museum feel it important to return the Tlingit pieces?

“It’s the federal law,” said Gretchen Faulkner, the Hudson Museum’s director, in an interview.

Lukavic said every item is different and that there’s no precedent provision in NAGPRA — meaning actions by one museum do not compel another institution to take the same action. The Waters collection, he said, included a variety of different objects.

Colwell, the former Denver Museum of Nature and Science curator, told The Post that it’s no secret among the museum community that the Denver Art Museum has not been as proactive in its NAGPRA work as other institutions.

“It’s never quite made sense to me why they struggled so much to seemingly hold effective consultations and complete repatriations,” he said, adding that tribes may not bother with a formal claim if they feel the museum has dismissed their overtures.

Lukavic’s message about not being in the business of giving away collections simply doesn’t jibe with being a 21st-century museum, Colwell said.

“Museums are in the business of returning things,” he said. “It’s this retentionist mentality that led to the predicament we’re in and to NAGPRA itself.”

Sinclair, the museum spokesperson, called Colwell’s comments “both surprising and inaccurate.” She cited the museum annually conducting proactive outreach with tribal nations by sending letters notifying them of various artworks and objects.

“The Denver Art Museum’s Native Arts department has a proven track record of NAGPRA alignment and compliance going back 30 years and has been recognized as a model to follow in the museum community,” she said.

Other Tlingit pieces from the Waters collection remain in prominent museums, including New York’s famed Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum in London. Cultural objects — like a painted Tlingit raven rattle — also have appeared on auction blocks for as high as $50,000.

After decades of inaction on NAGRPA from some of the country’s largest institutions, there has been a recent groundswell of movement.

Increased media attention has played a significant role, including a ProPublica investigation that allows anyone to search collections at their hometown museums and universities for ancestral remains and funerary objects.

The Biden administration this year also rolled out new federal regulations governing the 1990 law, which gave tribes more power when dealing with obstinate institutions.

These regulations forced museums around the country to reassess their exhibits and holdings. The Denver Art Museum in January removed a case of Native American ceramics from public view in response to the new rules, which require museums to obtain permission from tribes before exhibiting cultural objects.

Denver’s premier art institution has also grappled with a flurry of repatriation requests in recent years amid a global reckoning over colonialism and increased attention from law enforcement and the press.

Jacobs, the Tlingit and Haida’s cultural resource specialist, said the new NAGPRA regulations will, hopefully, “make it easier to go after this large collection that was forcibly willed outside of our customs.”

• ©2024 MediaNews Group, Inc. Visit at denverpost.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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