Alutiiq ancestral objects return home to Kodiak after nearly 150 years

An employee of the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak displays a beaded dance belt and cuffs, part of the Pinart Collection on loan from the Museum Bologne-Sur-Mer on Monday, July 9, 2018. (Photo by Daysha Eaton/KMXT)

Ancestral artifacts collected in the Kodiak Archipelago nearly 150 years ago have arrived back home.

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A French museum, Musee Boulogne-Sur-Mer, will loan the items to the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak where they will remain for five years.

A welcoming ceremony for the objects was held at the Kodiak museum on July 9.

In 1871 and 1872, then-19-year-old French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart, a linguist who visited Kodiak collected the objects.

Musee Boulogne-Sur-Mer director Elikya Kandot works for the museum that has been caring for the items all these years.

Kandot escorted the crate to Kodiak. She told the crowd the exchange between the museums is a model for how cultural institutions can work together.

“The importance of inheriting this heritage is truly very strong here for future generations,” Kandot said in French. “Thank you for providing this example. Thank you for really, for giving it your all, to these pieces that have been protected for years, for centuries, and that will be transmitted to future generations as well.”

Kandot’s museum is part of an international movement for partnerships between European collecting institutions and indigenous peoples so that both can learn more about cultural items.

They pried open the shipping crate after a ceremony where a traditional Alutiiq oil lamp was lit.

The pieces inside are part of the Pinart Collection, which includes Kodiak Alutiiq objects that Europeans collected here in the late 19th century.

The collection includes many rare pieces of Alutiiq ceremonial gear, like masks, drums, headdresses and a feast bowl, which provide a rich record of traditional arts, ritual practices, spiritual beliefs and the Alutiiq language.

Pinart also documented vocabulary, songs and legends along with the objects.

Inside the large crate are several smaller wooden boxes which are removed one-by-one and staged on nearly tables.

While the crowd waits for the screws to be taken out of the inner boxes, the Alutiiq Dancers sing a traditional call and response song.

A line forms for onlookers to file by the tables where the objects sit.

As the packing paper is removed, Alutiiq descendants get their first glimpse of their ancestors’ work.

At last the cultural treasures come into view: two carved wooden masks and a women’s beaded headdress set, which includes two bracelets and a dance belt.

One elder greets the items in Alutiiq, “Camai!”

Alutiiq elder Florence Matfay Pestrikoff, whose family was originally from Ahkiok, admires the headdress beads of white, green and blue.

“I’m thankful that these people preserved them for us,” Pestrikoff said.

Pestrikoff said she has never had a traditional headdress of her own and hopes to make one like it for herself.

Alutiiq Museum intern Dehrich Chya, 22,has been to France to see some of the objects. But he is still awed to have them here.

Today, Chya helped light the ceremonial lamp and pry the lid of the crate. He takes a closer look at the ancestral objects.

“I’m really particular to the mask. Just because there is so little that is written about them and it was an art that was lost on Kodiak for a long time,” Chya said.

One mask is narrow and small with black paint and red ochre paint and little white circles.

Chya’s elders have taught him that the white circles were made by dipping a stalk of a plant into paint and using it like a stamp.

“I could tell you, I could not sleep last night because I was so excited,” elder Margaret Roberts, Alutiiq Heritage Foundation chair, said. She has worked to reawaken Alutiiq heritage since the 1980s.

“This has been a dream that has come true today,” Robertson said.

The objects replace two ceremonial masks, also from the Pinart Collection, scheduled to return to France.

In September, the new items will be incorporated into displays on Alutiiq spirituality.

In addition, the museum plans to assemble a group of beaders to study and recreate the regalia to share as replicas when the historic set returns to France.

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Daysha Eaton is a contributor with the Alaska Public Radio Network. Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage. Daysha's work has appeared on NPR's "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered", PRI's "The World" and "National Native News". She's happy to take assignments, and to get news tips, which are best sent via email. Daysha became a journalist because she believes in the power of storytelling. Stories connect us and they help us make sense of our world. They shed light on injustice and they comfort us in troubled times. She got into public broadcasting because it seems to fulfill the intention of the 4th Estate and to most effectively apply the freedom of the press granted to us through the Constitution. She feels that public radio has a special way of moving people emotionally through sound, taking them to remote places, introducing them to people they would not otherwise meet and compelling them to think about issues they might ordinarily overlook.