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Detail of Plateau Bag (NMNH catalog no. E204234)
Executive Summary

Inventory and Assessment of Funerary Objects from St. Lawrence Island and the Punuk Islands of Alaska in the Collections of the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution

Region: Alaska
Associated Cultures: Native Village of Gambell , Native Village of Savoonga

2011
Documentation of funerary objects potentially affiliated with the Native villages of Gambell and Savoonga, St. Lawrence Island, was initiated in response to two independent requests from Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) Tribal Council presidents Mr. Gerald Soonagrook, Sr., of Gambell and Mr. Kenneth Kingeekuk of Savoonga for the repatriation of culturally affiliated funerary objects from St. Lawrence Island. Examination of the relevant museum records indicated that the NMNH houses 72 funerary objects dating to the eighteenth or nineteenth century. Three unassociated funerary objects were acquired from undocumented locations on St. Lawrence Island through surface collections made by Dr. Riley D. Moore of the U.S. National Museum (later NMNH). Archaeologist Henry B. Collins of the U.S. National Museum collected eight associated funerary objects and one unassociated funerary object in 1928 at historic sites on the Punuk Islands, a chain of small islets located approximately five miles off Cape Apavawook on the northeastern side of St. Lawrence Island. Collins collected an additional 47 associated and 13 unassociated funerary objects in 1929 at historic sites at Cape Kialegak (Kiyalighaq) on the southeastern end of St. Lawrence Island. The Punuk Islands and Cape Kialegak were depopulated after the 1878-1880 famine or epidemic and the remaining survivors settled in the village of Gambell.


Collins also excavated nine associated funerary objects dating to the prehistoric Old Bering Sea (OBS) II/III culture at Miyowagh (Mayughaaq) near the village of Gambell in 1930. Two associated funerary objects from prehistoric contexts representative of the OBS II/III culture at the Kukulik (Kukulek) site near Savoonga were incorporated into the collections of the U.S. National Museum through a 1936 gift from the University of Alaska.


The preponderance of evidence does not support that the 11 funerary objects in three catalog numbers dating to the prehistoric period of the OBS II/III culture are culturally affiliated with the contemporary residents of Gambell and Savoonga. Current scholarship and oral traditions are inconclusive regarding OBS II/III cultural affiliation to the current inhabitants of St. Lawrence Island.


Several lines of evidence support the cultural affiliation of the historic period funerary objects to the Native villages of Gambell and Savoonga. These include the historic record of local St. Lawrence Island Yupik settlement and land use on the island and the Punuk Islands, the historic record of St. Lawrence Island Yupik mortuary customs, the proximity of burial sites to documented historic villages, and the historic record of the great famine or epidemic that ravaged St. Lawrence Island and the Punuk Islands in the late nineteenth century. Taken together, this information constitutes a preponderance of evidence in support of the conclusion that the funerary objects dating to the historic period are culturally affiliated with the Native villages of Gambell and Savoonga. Therefore, it is recommended that 72 funerary objects in 25 catalog numbers be made available for repatriation to the Native villages of Gambell and Savoonga.

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Smithsonian Institute - National Mueseum of Natural History