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Detail of Plateau Bag (NMNH catalog no. E204234)

Executive Summary

Assessment of Request for the Repatriation of Seven Wooden Masks from Prince William Sound by the Chugach Alaska Corporation

Region: Alaska
Associated Cultures: Chugach, Alutiiq, Chugach Regional Corporation

This report is an evaluation of seven wooden masks from the Prince William Sound region of Alaska in the collections of the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) to determine if they are eligible for repatriation under the National Museum of the American Indian Act (P.L. 101-185). The report provides an analysis of all documentation of the items in NMNH records, in conjunction with additional archival and published sources that might provide further information relevant to the assessment of their cultural affiliation and status as funerary objects under the law. The masks are not associated with human remains in the possession of the NMNH, and consequently they are evaluated as 'unassociated funerary objects' as defined in the repatriation law.

The assessment was initiated after a request was received from Chugach Alaska Corporation (CAC) in 1997 for "funerary and sacred masks" in the collection that were first identified during preparation of the inventory of human remains from the Chugach region in 1993. Through an agreement with Mr. John Johnson, Cultural Resources Manager and a member of the Board of Directors for CAC, final disposition of the masks was postponed until the after return of human remains was carried out. Consultations about the masks took place with Mr. Johnson in early 1998, after which he submitted information in support of the request. The masks are here evaluated as funerary objects; their assessment as sacred objects is postponed pending further consultations.

The seven masks were purchased by a trader of the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) stationed at Nuchek in Prince William Sound in 1875 and sent to the NMNH in 1876. A mummy (Archaeology Cat. No. 020270) was acquired at the same time and sent with the masks to the NMNH, but the mummy is no longer in the collection and no record exists of its disposition. The masks and the mummy were documented in two articles published by W.H. Dall several years after their receipt at the museum, and although provenience information was unavailable he concluded that the masks were funerary.

The masks were received at NMNH with no information identifying the specific site or the context from which they were acquired. The location suggested by Mr. John Johnson (Palutat Cave) is possible, but uncertain given the available information. The assessment completed by the Repatriation Office does not establish the specific location of the site from which the masks were acquired. However, the records suggest the masks were more likely than not associated with the mummy, since the items were originally purchased together and they are consistently mentioned together in subsequent accession and catalog records. Furthermore, the ACC supported and even encouraged the collection of mummies from caves, as occurred in the Aleutian region, and an ACC agent was known to have removed a mummy from Palutat Cave (the locality claimed by Mr. Johnson) within three years of this acquisition.

Consideration of additional archeological and ethnographic information about the burial practices of the Chugach Eskimo, and of their neighbors in Cook Inlet, Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Islands, and observations of the appearance and condition of the masks themselves, indicate that these masks had been stored in caves and were probably placed in association with burials, as is claimed by the CAC. There are ethnographic reports about masks placed on the faces of the dead found in caves in Prince William Sound, and there are additional reports by a German collector for masks found associated with cave burials in 1883 (shortly after these masks were collected). The suggestion that the use of funerary masks among the Chugach is part of a burial complex that survived from an earlier prehistoric culture (Palugvik) that is closely related to the Kachemak tradition of Cook Inlet and Kodiak Island, first put forward by Birket-Smith in 1953, is consistent with the results of subsequent archeological investigations.

Based on the general provenience of the requested masks which were acquired from Nuchek in the Prince William Sound region, and the fact that the neighboring Athapaskan, Eyak and Tlingit peoples did not place masks in caves, it was found that these masks are culturally-affiliated with the Chugach Eskimo. In the absence of specific provenience information for the masks, the preponderance of the available evidence indicates that the masks were, more likely than not, unassociated funerary objects. The Repatriation Office recommended that the seven masks be offered to the Chugach Alaska Corporation and the Chugach region village corporations and governments for repatriation.

Repatriation Update
These masks were deaccessioned for repatriation on November 18, 1999.

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