Ancient Chugach burial caves, hidden in outcroppings all along the rugged coastline of Prince William Sound in Alaska, are accessible only by small boats such as kayaks. For more than a century, these sites have been looted for their artifacts, masks and skeletal remains. The increase of kayakers, who can nose into areas difficult to access any other way, is a worry to tribes working to preserve what little evidence of their material culture remains.
In October last year, the Anchorage Daily News reported the return of seven large masks from the Smithsonian Institution’s Virginia warehouse to the Chugach natives. They are the only masks to be returned to the Chugach, who have pitifully little of their material culture left after more than two centuries of colonial rule, first by the Russians and English, then by Americans. These resource-extraction-driven settlements changed the trajectory of native culture forever.
John Johnson, cultural resource manager for the Chugach Alaska Corporation, works, through the 1990 federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, to secure the return of artifacts and human remains taken from burial caves. He is one of dozens of cultural resource managers working for tribes along western U.S. and Canadian coastlines-from Barrow, Alaska, and along the Bering Sea, in the Aleutian and Kodiak archipelago, through the Inside Passage, and down the Pacific coast to Southern California.
The seven recently returned masks and an undisclosed number of “mummies” were sold to the Alaska Commercial Company in 1875 for $12. No one knows what happened to the human remains after they were sold. Pothunters still search for artifacts in shell middens (large refuse piles of shell and bone) and old village sites along the coastline, even though federal law prohibits the possession of cultural remains; but the problem for tribes lies deeper than that.