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Berlin museum returns looted artifacts to Alaska

May 16, 2018

The Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation has returned pieces of its collection to members of the Alaskan Chugach tribe. The exhibits had been acquired through looting.

Deutschland Rückgabe von Objekten aus dem Ethnologischen Museum in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

The Foundation for Prussian Cultural Heritage is returning indigenous artifacts taken from graves in south-west Alaska, it announced Wednesday. 

Nine objects from Berlin's Ethnological Museum's collection had come into their possession in the 1880s via Norwegian explorer Johan Adrian Jacobsen. Jacobsen traveled along the American northwest coast and Alaska on behalf of the Royal Museum of Ethnology, as it was then called.

The excavated items, including two broken masks, a cradle and a wooden idol, had been brought by Jacobsen from Chenega Island and Sanradna (Soonroodna) in Kachemak Bay in southwest Alaska. As they were determined to have likely come into Jacobsen's possession as the result of looting and not through an archaeological dig with approval, the foundation decided to return the objects to representatives from the Chugach Alaska Corporation.

Read more: Skulls and bones: A dark secret of German colonialism

Wooden artifacts from the Ethnologischen Museum in Berlin include masks
The nine items included a mask, a cradle and a wooden idolImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

"The objects were taken without the consent of Native People and thus unlawfully acquired; therefore, they do not belong in our museums," said Foundation President Hermann Parzinger on Wednesday when the objects exchanged hands in a ceremony in Berlin where the vice-president of the Chugach Alaska Corporation, John Johnson, was in attendance.

Two men holding a wooden mask
The items will be the subject of an inter-generational exchange within the Chugach communityImage: picture-alliance/dpa/R. Hirschberger

A more intensive exchange of knowledge

"I am particularly pleased that this return does not mark the ending but rather the beginning of an intensified collaborative exchange with the Chugach Alaska Corporation," said Parzinger. The returned objects will serve as part of a cooperative exchange of knowledge among generations within the Chugach community.

For several thousand years, people who identify as Sugpiaq or Alutiiq – also formerly called Pacific Eskimos – lived in the Chugach region. Today, the Chugach live in seven communities around Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet. The community has been in contact with Europeans since at least the time of Tsar Peter the Great.

Read more: 'Berlin's Treasure Trove' revealed in DW documentary

ct/eg (dpa, kna)