Appraiser Ted Trotta described two Tlingit masks depicting a wolf and a human face featured on Public Television’s Antique Roadshow earlier this month as “among the most rare objects in North America.”
Trotta, of Trotta-Bono Ltd appraised the two masks, which appear to date from the 1700s at a collective value of about $250,000.00.
The owner of the masks appeared stunned and pleasantly surprised by the dollar amount of the appraisal on the episode of the show that was filmed in Bismarck, North Dakota.
He stated that he inherited the masks from his great grandfather, who worked as a missionary in Haines, Alaska in the 1890s.
Residents of Southeast Alaska, especially those of the Tlingit Nation, however have mixed emotions and serious concerns about the potential private sale of items that they deem sacred.
According to Native peoples in the Haines area, the masks are from the Tlingit village of Klukwan, about 20 miles north of Haines in the Chilkat river valley.
Although Trotta describes the masks as a wolf and a face mask that are shamanic in nature, he incorrectly notes that the wolf has raven figures carved into its ears. Local Natives and art experts maintain that the wolf actually contains eagle figures.
“I was so excited to see the masks on the show. I am from the Wolf clan (Kaagwaataan) which is under the Eagle moiety therefore the masks have special significance for my family and ancestors,” said Lani Hotch of the Tlingit tribe.
Hotch is director of the Jilkaat Kwaan Cultural Center in Klukwan and works with the tribe’s traditional knowledge camp. Descended from a long line of weavers, she is a well-known artisan of the traditional Chilkat and Ravenstail Tlingit weaving styles. She has lived in Klukwan for most of her life.
Hotch recognized the style of masks at once. “Our ancestors had the practice of putting these items on the graves of those who had passed. In the old days, a person’s regalia was also placed on their grave,” she reported.
Hotch thinks that the masks were taken from a grave. “They appear weather worn. Normally they would have been kept wrapped up in cloth and put away in a box,” she said.
Alten and Hotch told ICTMN that they have learned the name and contact information for the owner and plan to call him soon.
According to a story on KHNS Radio of Haines, PBS does not identify guests on the show.
The article, however, notes that the owner provided an important clue about his name.
“From our research and our records, if his great-grandfather was here as a missionary in the 1890s for a decade the only person that could be is Pastor William Walter Warne and his wife Viola Bigford,” Helen Alten, director of the Sheldon Museum in Haines told the station.
“Haines is a small place and everybody knows each others family histories,” Alten said during an interview with ICTMN.
The KHNS story notes correctly that since the masks are privately owned they are not subject to the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) which requires such items held by federally funded organizations to be repatriated.
Alten, Hotch and others, however, hope that the owner might agree to donate the masks to either the Sheldon Museum in Haines or the Cultural Center in Klukwan.
“My understanding is that he may be entitled to a significant tax benefit if he donates the masks to a non profit organization such as the Sheldon Museum or Cultural Center in Klukwan,” Alten notes. She plans to research the issue of tax benefit further.
“Our hope is that he might at least be willing to loan the masks to the community so that they can be honored and celebrated here,” Alten said.
“It would be gratifying and heartwarming to have the masks come home to the Chilkat Valley even for a short time,” Hotch said.
“Our people have suffered so much loss for so many years. Our land, our language, our culture was taken away from us,” she noted.
“The missionaries taught us that our heritage, our regalia was an abomination, Hotch recalled.
“It seems hypocritical for them to collect our artifacts if they are such abominations,” she observed.
Hotch believes that Christianity and Tlingit ways are not mutually exclusive. She and her husband, Jones Hotch who is also tribal chairman, are pastors in the local Assembly of God church.
“I believe God created the Tlingit people and that we have a place in the world, my heritage doesn’t conflict with my Christian beliefs,” she said.
“The story behind how such items were removed from local communities is never good. Unfortunately the invisible story of how Native culture has been reduced to monetary value is seldom told in today’s world,” said Bambi Kraus, president of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers in Washington D.C. Kraus is a member of the Tlingit tribe.
“Seeing the masks in that context was like a hole in the heart,” she said.
Alten opined that it is difficult to determine if the masks were gifted to the missionary or collected. “Part of the conversion process for the Native peoples at that time was giving up old beliefs and all that represented that way of life,” Alten noted.
In a separate interview on the Antiques Roadshow segment, learning of their metaphysical significance visibly moved the masks owner. He said he was not interested in selling them since they meant so much to his family. “They’ve traveled a lot of miles; I want to take special care of them,” he said.