ALASKA - Nearly a century had passed since the Coho clan (L'ooknax adi) welcomed the Raven of the Roof Hat (Gaanka Yeili S'aaxw) to their ceremonies. When it arrived in November, it was greeted by 40 of the people who carried the killer whale dagger that represented the eagle side of the clan. There was balance again.
On loan from the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, the hat last appeared in the clan in a 1904 photograph, the last time it was together with the clan's other hats.
The L'ooknax adi clan now owns only one Raven of the Roof Hat. The University of Pennsylvania Museum has all the rest.
"We asked the university museum to loan it back to us so they could see that it is still important to us and still very much a part of our culture," said Harold Jacobs, Central Council of Tlingit and Indian Tribes of Alaska and Haida cultural resources specialist.
Last August, the L'ooknax.?di Coho Salmon Clan requested the Raven of the Roof Hat be loaned for use at a memorial party in honor of Sarah [Davis] James, the sister of their current leader. The memorial was held in Sitka on Nov. 15.
The hat was carved by Kux'laa of the Chookaneidi clan, from red cedar as early as the mid-1700s.
"We don't know if it was driftwood or if he went south for the wood," said Jacobs. "Red cedar is miles and miles away from here."
Clan members carried the hat from Dry Bay to Sitka. According to museum records, Louis Shotridge collected the Tlingit hat for the museum in 1925. Born in 1886 in Kluckwan, near Haines, Alaska, Shotridge (Stoowukaa, meaning Astute One) was of the Eagle moity of the Kaagwaantaan clan and grandson of Chief Tschartritsch.
Shotridge was hired by the museum in 1912 to collect objects and purchased the hat along with several other objects for $640. Jacobs said he purchased the hat from a widow of the L'ooknax adi Clan Whale House, an act by a wife that went against tradition.
The ceremonial hat has a base carved of wood and painted in the likeness of a Raven's head. Copper depicts its eyebrows and beaks and roots of the spruce tree are woven into its top. A white ermine skin is attached to the top of the hat and human hair is attached at the back. It is said to represent the seven ceremonies when the hat is brought out before the public.
Jacobs said the Raven of the Roof Hat tells the story of the 30-year struggle of the Gaanaxteidi Clan of Chilkat with their former kin, the L'ooknax.?di Clan of Sitka. The dispute between the two Tlingit clans centered on which of the two held the right of custodianship of the emblem of their moiety, the Raven.
Jacobs said the dispute ended when a man and woman from the two different clans fell in love and married. According to Shotridge, the Gaanaxteidi are said to have shown greater proof of being the original holders and the Raven appears among the L'ooknax.?di possessions as a symbol of alliance.
"I don't agree with what he did," said Jacobs. "But Shotridge did keep very good notes on what hat belonged to what family."
Many villages have tried to deal with museums without success, Jacobs said, while other museums have been cooperative in the return of Tlingit objects.
The Raven of the Roof Hat is one of about 20 hats from Sitka that the University of Pennsylvania Museum owns. Curator Robert Preucel said because of Shotridge's attention to detail, the museum is regarded as the most well-documented collection of Tlingit artifacts in the country.
"To see this hat dance and to hear the eloquence of their words was an incredible experience," said Preucel. "What I appreciated about their invitation was that it educated me to how important this item still is in their culture. We saw that they are a thriving culture."
Preucel and Lucy Williams, the museum's American Section keeper of collections, accompanied the hat on its 10-hour trip to the one-week visit to Sitka.
"The people were incredibly generous, very kind and many thanked us for coming," said Williams. "For us, it was an entirely positive trip."
Preucel and Williams, who sit on a board that oversees repatriation requests to the museum, said Shotridge tried to educate the local school children and conducted many tours in the museum during his years as curator, often wearing his traditional clothing.
"He used the stereotype to teach the kids," said Preucel. "His intention was to raise up his people."
Shotridge worked for the museum until 1932 when he was laid off during the Depression. He died in his homeland of Alaska in 1936.
"Some of these objects would never have survived if Shotridge had not brought them here," said Preucel. "While his hope was for the group to come together as a whole, he saw that they were fought over and wanted them to serve new purpose and be seen nationally with other cultures."
In February, Jacobs and other members of the Tlingit will come to Pennsylvania for a week to visit the museum and see their ancestors' objects.