January 07, 2009

Museum cultural object returned for celebration

Guest Writer: Rebecca Andrews, Collections Manager, Ethnology

Last month, I was honored to be a witness at an historic celebration in Wrangell, Alaska, and to be the courier for a cultural object lent to the event by the Burke Museum. Dr. Robin Wright and I travelled to Alaska to attend the koo.eex’ ceremony held by the Naanya.aayi Clan to celebrate the return of the Chief Shakes Killer Whale Flotilla Chilkat Robe, repatriated from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Because the Burke Museum is committed to making the collections held at the museum available to Native Americans, when we received the request to have the Keet S’aaxw (Killerwhale Hat, catalogue # 1-1436) attend the celebration, we determined that we would do our best to make this request become a reality.

There were a number of tasks I had to take care of before we could step onto the plane with the crest hat, so I got busy! The crest hat was on display in the Burke Museum’s ‘Treasures Case’ in the lobby, so it needed to be removed from exhibit by our exhibit staff.

Then, since we knew the hat would be handled, we needed to test it for contaminants (arsenic, mercury or lead), and make sure it could safely be handled. I had to check the stability and condition of the hat, and make sure that it was not too fragile to travel. Since the crest hat needed some protection from the elements, and the shock of travel, I created a travelling box to keep it safe.

Our staff Registrar Hollye, made sure that the box would fit in the plane seat, and confirmed that we could take it into the cabin with us. Since it would go into the cabin with us, Dr. Wright had to make extra travel arrangements for Mr. Art Work, who had ‘his’ own ticket. The three of us, Dr. Wright, Mr. Art Work, and I, set out for the airport on Saturday, November 8th. Our first hurdle was passing through the security gates at Sea-Tac: not an easy task!

As we entered the cabin, we were told we would need to check the box for the cargo hold, until we produced the ticket! With an extra seat belt, Mr. Art Work was safely fastened into the window seat, and we headed off to Alaska.

The koo.eex’ (meaning “invitation to a feast”) celebration started at 11 am on Sunday, and lasted until 2 am early Sunday morning. The kick off was a dance performance by a troupe of young dancers from Kake, Alaska at the Chief Shakes house, and then we all headed toward the new Nolan Museum and Cultural Center, right on the water, where killer whales had been seen swimming the week before.

The celebration lasted 13 hours, and witnessed the display of Eagle and Raven moiety clan treasures (at.oow), including the crest hat, the unveiling of the Chief Shakes Killer Whale Flotilla Chilkat Robe, speeches, dancing, food, laughter, and the distribution of gifts, money, and fruit. There were wonderful moments, when the crest hat was carried around the room, as if it were a killer whale, swimming around its family, and held over the head of a member of the Naanya.aayi Clan while he danced underneath. The crest hat held the money collected during the celebration, while it was ceremonially ‘killed’ and then distributed to the guests who witnessed the event.

This was the first koo.eex’ to be held in nearly 68 years, and we were honored to be in attendance, and to provide the crest hat for the celebration. As I buckled Mr. Art Work back into its seat on the plane, I realized that, as a caretaker of the ethnographic collections at the Burke Museum, these are the best moments of my job, when the circle comes to fullness.

I will be honored to travel with Mr. Art Work or other cultural objects again, whenever and wherever needed.

Photos: (top right) Keet S’aaxw killerwhale hat; (top left) Rebecca Andrews shows off the hats' traveling box; (bottom right) the crest hat being carried around the room during the koo.eex’ celebration.