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Alaskan clan says it may sue University of Pennsylvania to get items back

A federal advisory committee has recommended that the University of Pennsylvania return a trove of native artifacts it acquired nearly 90 years ago from a clan of Tlingit people in southeast Alaska.

PHILADELPHIA - A federal advisory committee has recommended that the University of Pennsylvania return a trove of native artifacts it acquired nearly 90 years ago from a clan of Tlingit people in southeast Alaska.

The recommendation last month regarding the collection of more than 40 items, among them headdresses, carved masks, and ceremonial horns, is not binding on Penn's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The museum has offered instead to turn over eight of the objects, allowing the clan to serve as cocurator of the rest.

Clan members say if that is the museum's best offer, they will take the matter to court.

"We have the right of possession," said Marlene Johnson, a member of the T'akdeintaan clan and chair of the nonprofit Huna Heritage Foundation, which worked on the clan's claim.

University spokeswoman Lori Doyle said the school was "very disappointed" with the committee recommendation and was "still hoping to be able to work out a resolution with the claimaints."

Such disputes are becoming more common since passage of a 1990 federal law requiring museums to return certain native American artifacts and human remains. But this case has a curious wrinkle that evokes a painful era, when the Tlingit and other tribes were pressured to abandon the old ways: Penn's collection was bought from the Tlingit people by one of their own.

He was born Stoowukáa, "Astute One," in the Alaskan town of Klukwan, learning the native ways as he grew up in the late 1800s. He also was called Louis Shotridge and studied at a Presbyterian school near his village. After a chance meeting with a Penn anthropologist in 1905, he eventually was invited to work for the university's museum, nearly 4,000 miles away.

Shotridge first came to Philadelphia in 1912 for a temporary job, building models, documenting artifacts, and speaking to museumgoers. He and his wife, Florence, captivated audiences in their native garments, and he also studied at Penn's Wharton School. By 1915, Shotridge was named an assistant curator of the anthropology museum, and he was sent back to Alaska on a collecting expedition financed by department-store titan John Wanamaker.

He bought most of the items involved in the current dispute during a subsequent trip, in 1924, apparently from a Tlingit leader named Archie White, though there is no direct evidence White was the seller.

Shotridge's present-day Tlingit counterparts regard his activities with dismay. They see the artifacts as communal property that no individual clan member had a right to sell, arguing that Shotridge's actions were a form of betrayal.

"I think he was a better anthropologist than he was a Tlingit," said Johnson, the foundation chair.

Some historians have taken a more nuanced view. Maureen E. Milburn, who wrote her doctoral thesis on Shotridge at the University of British Columbia, said Shotridge wanted to preserve a culture that he feared was disappearing. The old ways - languages, traditions, religions - were suppressed amid the influx of missionaries and other European American settlers.

"He really very strongly believed that he wanted the Tlingit people to be represented for the sake of history," Milburn said.

Whether the clan gets the items back is governed by the 1990 law. Museums are directed to return objects that are sacred, meaning they are needed by present-day religious leaders to conduct ceremonies. Institutions also must give back items that constitute cultural patrimony - "having ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the Native American group or culture itself."

There is no question that today's clan considers the objects sacred or culturally vital; the legal question concerns how they were viewed in 1924, according to the 1990 law. Penn says most of the items do not meet these definitions; the clan says they do.

Penn officials declined to comment on the specifics of the dispute, citing the clan's possible litigation. But in a letter to the federal review committee, whose members are appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, Penn laid out numerous arguments.

Among them: The university said there was no evidence of a backlash against Archie White, and that other Tlingits sold similar artifacts at the time without needing clan approval.

Sonya Atalay, a committee member and assistant professor of anthropology at Indiana University, said the university's evidence was insufficient.

Shotridge kept meticulous records of all his purchases on various collecting trips, but in the case of the 40-odd disputed items, he neglected to record the seller's name, Atalay noted.

"For me, there was a reason there was no name put there," Atalay said. "Whoever it was who sold this, they weren't supposed to be doing it. They wanted it to be a secret."

Furthermore, Atalay said, because many native peoples at the time were struggling to survive, sales of artifacts were less than voluntary.

Still, she praised the university for the thoroughness of its research, and for a proposal to help train Tlingit people as curators.

Various other tribes - from the Comanche of Oklahoma to the Oneida of New York - have submitted such repatriation claims to Penn since the law was passed; the university has returned more than 1,000 native items to date.

Johnson, the Tlingit clan member, hopes that someday soon she will get to see the disputed objects back in Alaska. For now, she still has fresh memories of seeing them during a 2005 visit to Philadelphia.

Johnson was joined at the museum by clan elders, some of whom were moved to tears when the objects were placed before them, she said.

They included a shaman's owl mask, a wooden box drum, and a caribou-skin robe that depicts a long-ago tidal wave.

Afterward, the elders conducted a ceremony outside the museum, placing food for the spirits into a bowl and setting it aflame.