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Zachariah Hughes
Anchorage Daily News

Not a lot is known about the jacket. But here are some basics.

It is made of tanned moose hide for an Athabascan chief. The metal zipper bisecting its front suggests a mid-20th century origin. A recent consultation with residents in Gulkana about its possible provenance turned up guidance that the beaded flowers running up the lapels denote it likely came from around Tanacross.

The jacket was recently moved into a display case at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. It’s one of 1,744 Indigenous works of art and material culture that are part of a transfer so massive, it doubled the organization’s collection.

“These objects coming home, people will be able to identify where they came from. They might even be able to tell us who made them,” said Angela Demma, the Heritage Center’s collections curator.

The transfer came because another museum closed. In the fall of 2020, with many cultural institutions still shut to visitors, Wells Fargo announced it would permanently shutter 11 of the 12 museums it operated across the country. That included its Alaska Heritage Museum in Midtown Anchorage, a collection of thousands of objects and artworks started in 1968 by Elmer Rasmuson while he headed the National Bank of Alaska, which Wells Fargo took over as part of its purchase of the local bank branch in 2000.

Curator Angie Demma stands among items at the Alaska Native Heritage Center on Friday, April 22, 2022. Demma was the curator at the Wells Fargo museum before it closed, and she came to work at the Alaska Native Heritage Center along with 1,744 items that Wells Fargo donated to the center. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Rasmuson’s intention was to keep fine art and pieces of Alaska’s heritage in-state, rather than have art buyers, tourists and institutions from elsewhere remove them forever. The museum in Anchorage was unique in Wells Fargo’s portfolio, most of which was dedicated to regional banking and gold mining histories. After its decision to close the Alaska Heritage Museum, the bank made plans to re-home its collection of 14,000 items at 35 different organizations, almost all of them in Alaska.

“Things that were culturally sensitive, related to religion or cultural patrimony, were returned as close as they could to the centers of that population,” Demma said.

That includes tribally affiliated nonprofits across the state, like Sealaska Heritage in Juneau, the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and the Iñupiat Heritage Center in Utqiagvik, among others.

A seal skin suitcase from St. Lawrence Island. (Loren Holmes/Anchorage Daily News)

The Heritage Center in Anchorage primarily took in material culture that has artistic elements — that is, objects made for survival and social well-being that have some degree of decoration.

“If it has art on it, then it’s coming to the center,” Demma said.

It’s a broad category. Next to the moose hide chief’s jacket is a birch bark baby carrier, beaded boots and fur-lined mitts. Adjacent display cases hold curved ladles carved from mountain goat horn, a suitcase covered in sealskin, black baskets of woven bowhead baleen, and an intricate formline box sculpted from argillite, a rare stone, by Haida master artist Charles Edenshaw.

Some of those works would have been prohibitively expensive for an organization the size of the Heritage Center, which has a limited budget for new acquisitions. For example, the sudden inclusion of an uncommon walrus tusk carved in the three-dimensional Nunivak Island style would have otherwise been unlikely, according to Demma.

A Cup'ig walrus ivory carving from Nunivak Island, displayed at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

As significant as the transfer is, there is a lot of work for curators and institutions to do to responsibly intake all the items. Demma is not Indigenous, and takes direction from the Heritage Center’s cultural advisory committee in determining criteria for which pieces will stay and which will be returned to organizations closer to the communities that produced them.

Before all that can happen, curators need to figure out more precisely what they now possess, details that were not always gathered by initial collectors.

“There’s a lot of un-provenanced objects,” Demma said. “Because they were taking it in as bankers, and thinking about what beautiful objects they were.”

The Heritage Center is launching a $10 million capital campaign to add resources to catalog, store and curate its suddenly expanded collection. It’s a constraint that has been growing more urgent in recent years, as the organization has seen an influx of institutions and individuals seeking to give Indigenous objects back, beyond the Wells Fargo acquisition.

“We’re getting requests every day,” said Nikki Aga-Askaa Graham, the Heritage Center’s director of operations. “We want to be able to take on as much as makes sense.”

An inland Tlingit ceremonial bib, displayed at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The gestures are part of a broader change, as a constellation of ideas like decolonization, repatriation and Indigenization have become mainstream enough to change how the public treats Alaska Native and Native American material works.

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, passed in 1990, requires any public institutions receiving federal money to return Indigenous human remains and cultural items to tribes or descendants wherever possible. In the decades since, many institutions have adopted policies that go beyond just following the literal letter of the law and now aim to fulfill its broader intent.

“It’s amazing to see these individuals, organizations, private donors reach out and say, ‘Hey we want to return this to its home community,’ ” Graham said.

The flip side of that trend is museums and heritage centers navigating their roles as influential and resourced institutions, keen to not repeat past mistakes and poor treatment of Indigenous communities.

“Some museums, and ours included, have been restricting what we take in of material culture of Indigenous communities,” said Monica Shah, deputy director of conservation and collections at the Anchorage Museum. “If you look at our new acquisitions over time, there’s very little material culture being added.”

Under a preexisting agreement, the Anchorage Museum was offered the entirety of the Wells Fargo collection. But, Shah said, absorbing thousands of diverse items into its permanent collection is no longer aligned with the institution’s goals of building greater equity between itself and Alaskans. Like the Heritage Center, in recent years the Anchorage Museum has seen a greater number of people reaching out to give back Indigenous and historical items they inherited or have simply reconsidered. The Wells Fargo donation, according to Shah, is notable for its size and caliber, but part of the same sea change in sentiment.

“If this had been 30 or 40 years ago, the entire collection would have come here,” she said. “We are rethinking how ownership and control are viewed.”

[Alaska Native fashion designers and models take the spotlight in Anchorage Museum show]

Instead, the museum opted to take just 700 items from the full collection, primarily paintings, drawings and prints. They also agreed to accept additional archival materials and books.

“With this particular donation, we’ve done what we could to help not just acquire more and more and more, but help material culture return to communities,” Shah said.

A Unangax̂ Mayday grass basket, displayed at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

The Heritage Center is not a museum, and one of its key assets is the relationships it cultivates with Alaskans and local organizations. Items are not necessarily relegated to display cases, but can reconnect with the artists, elders and knowledge-bearers who might better explain their histories and nuance.

“I think it’s also healing,” Graham said. “There has been a lot of historical trauma that has happened to Alaska Native people, and this is just one step in stepping back and healing from the things that happened in the past.”

She gave the example of a Chilkat robe from the Juneau area woven in the early 1900s that is now at the Heritage Center. It’s remarkable object, but damaged by time and too fragile to be much handled. So the center is partnering with the Alaska Native Sciences and Engineering Program to create a detailed 3-D scan for contemporary weavers and researchers to examine the techniques used more than a century ago.

Instead of preserving the piece as an artifact, the aim is to let it live on as a “teaching robe.”

“It’s a new life for these things,” Demma said. “This is where they belong.”

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