Healing Wounds from the Past
Since its origins in 1970, Chugach Alaska Corporation has been working for 50 years to recover the heritage of the Chugach natives. A treasure expatriated by European settlers and explorers. Chugach Alaska Corporation’s goal is to open their own museum in Anchorage, with recuperated objects that should never have left Alaska.
John F. C. Johnson is vice president of Cultural Resources for Chugach Alaska Corporation. He has worked for Chugach for 40 years and has documented numerous Native historic and prehistoric sites and locations in Prince William Sound and lower Cook Inlet. “My grandmother was from Nuchek village on Hinchinbrook Island in Prince William Sound”, he says.
The village was abandoned in 1928, upon the death of the last Nuchek chief, Peter Chimovitski. His brother, Makarii, was the main Native informant for American archaeologist and anthropologist Frederica de Laguna, highly regarded for her work in Paleoindian, Native art and archaeology.
“At Nuchek”, Johnson continues, “there was a Russian fortress from the late 1790s. I would go to other archaeological sites, study them, and discover that they had been pillaged. That’s how I got involved in heritage repatriations”.
Researching and locating
John Johnson has found indigenous artifacts and human remains around the world, “which should never have been disturbed and should be treated with dignity, honor and respect. With a lot of effort, we were able to determine who pillaged them. We have worked to have them returned to us. Some remains were taken by the Smithsonian Institution, the universities of Washington and Pennsylvania and five or six other institutions in the U.S. I have traveled around Europe and found pieces in their museums. Some also have the human remains of our ancestors”.
Johnson has located artifacts in St. Petersburg, Madrid, London, Copenhagen, Berlin and Paris. “Not all European institutions give us back our history, but many share images and photographs of what they have”.
“A large percentage of our heritage was plundered, but not all of it”, says Johnson. “Many objects were sold or traded by the Natives. When Captain Cook came to Prince William Sound, near Nuchek, the Natives traded with his crew. The British traded things from the European environment. It was a barter.”
The plundered objects from various museums were mostly “human remains and funerary objects. However, when returned, only the human remains came back to us from the museum in Copenhagen, funerary objects, and dugout canoes...did not make it back to us,” he said.
Collaboration from Berlin
Johnson highlights the collaboration of the Berlin Museum. “It’s a precedent in Europe. Germany feels obliged to return any plundered objects or remains to our people. I hope Europe will learn”.
There are some 235 tribal governments in Alaska. Most are working to do the same as the Chugach Corporation. “I like to think of repatriation as a way to heal wounds from the past and develop a good relationship with museums”, Johnson says. “We can share knowledge because the natives have a lot of information. By working together, everyone gets more historical and cultural knowledge”.
“The Berlin Museum is still working with us after some repatriations, years ago.” Johnson alludes to the nine sacred objects returned by Berlin in 2018: several burial masks and a cradle, testimony to the rich Chugach history, culture, and sense of belonging. “We will try to get all the objects digitally, so that people in small communities can see them in 3D, even if these objects don’t return to Alaska. Everyone needs to understand the history, and the more they understand it, the more they begin to understand what happened, what’s happening, and what we’re doing now”.
Museum in Anchorage
“The important thing is to reclaim our traditional land so that future generations can enjoy and live off the land where their ancestors lived. You lose your history and your culture when you leave your traditional lands. But if you remain, understand, and learn your history, it will be much more rewarding, and you will have a richer life”.
The Chugach Alaska Corporation’s goal is to build a museum in Anchorage, “where returned artifacts and archival material can be studied by our people and we can show them to non-natives, so they can learn about and appreciate our culture”.