“We are so happy and honored to be here with you,” said Jonathan Rowan, a master carver and cultural educator from Klawock, Alaska, last Thursday at the Honolulu Museum of Art. He is a Tlingit, an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest Coast of North America, and was here for a ceremony to mark the passing of a kooteeyaa, or totem pole, from museum hands to its original owners, the Tlingit tribe of Klawock, Alaska after 84 years of being in faraway lands.
In 1931, actor and sometime yachtsman John Barrymore had his crew remove a totem pole (after sawing it into three pieces) from an abandoned village he spotted while cruising the Alaska coast. The totem pole, an object of cultural patrimony, wound up a garden accouterment at Barrymore’s Hollywood home. Upon his death the totem pole was purchased by Vincent Price, who also used it as a garden centerpiece. Price and his wife, Mary, donated the totem pole to the Honolulu Museum of Art in 1981. One segment of the totem pole was displayed in the museum’s Kinau Courtyard in the mid-1980s. The New Yorker magazine chronicled the saga of this totem pole in its April 2015 article The Tallest Trophy by Paige Williams.
The research and subsequent determined quest of Steve Langdon, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alaska, led to the repatriation of the totem pole to Klawock. Kooteeyaa depict emblematic crests, among the most important possessions of Tlingit clans because of their association with clan identity and origin stories. After being contacted by Prof. Langdon, the museum determined that the totem pole is an object of cultural patrimony, and proposed that it be repatriated to the Tlingit people in Klawock, Alaska.
This project was made possible by a grant from the National Park Service, under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), with support from Matson, Alaska Marine Lines, and Alaska Airlines.
Accompanying Jonathan Rowan were his daughter Eva Rowan, a council member of the Klawock Cooperative Association; and Klawock tribal administrator Lawrence Armour. The group was also joined by Armour’s children Bryan and Alissa Armour who live in Makakilo, and experienced their first Tlingit ceremony at the museum.
Last week’s intimate ceremony was held outside the museum’s loading bay where the three custom-made crates holding the totem pole stood. Kumu hula Vicky Takamine Holt performed an oli, as Okalani Tallett did a hula, to cleanse the air in preparation for the totem pole to return home untethered and free to start its new life. Then Jonathan said, “We too are an ocean people, and live on an island. Thank you for having us on your land for this ceremony. In our land, we go to our opposites to take care of things, so I go to my daughter to ask her to take care of this ceremony.” At that, Eva held three eagle feathers and lightly brushed them over the three sections of the kooteeyaa.
The day before, Jonathan, Eva and Lawrence had visited the museum to see the totem pole for the first time. They had seen archival images of the pole, but, after seeing it in person, the only way Jonathan could describe the experience was to cup his hands in front of his chest, symbolizing a heart full beyond words.
At the ceremony, Jonathan and Eva sang two of the Tlingit’s most sacred songs, compositions that they call “cry songs,” that echoed Jonathan’s cupped hands. Jonathan sang a slow, reverent eagle song as he marked a slow beat on a handheld elk-skin drum. Then Eva sang in a clear, uplifting alto a raven song.
Then Jonathan shared a story about his people.
“Before my grandfather’s time, there were young nephews who went hunting and they saw a strange bird on the horizon. When the story was told by our ancestors, they titled it ‘First White Man.’ But we titled it differently. Uncle asked, ‘What did you see nephews?’ And they said ‘We saw a great white bird and water beetles started coming toward us. We were taught to fear nothing, so they waited. They come to find that the water beetles were boats transporting sailors, who took the nephews back to their ship. On board were dark-skinned people, and the ship’s captain asked them to come over, and they said, ‘kanaka, kanaka.’ It took me a long time to figure out what that was. It was your people. We have a longstanding tie.”
It was a moving oral history that illustrated an historical connection between Alaska and Hawai‘i, and made it seem not so unlikely that a Tlingit totem pole somehow wound up in a museum basement in Honolulu.
Jonathan went on to say that the nephews recounted their experience aboard the European ship. “They tried to make us eat this stuff that looked like maggots. It was rice, and it is now one of our staples.”
Jonathan and Lawrence then approached a shrouded object that was sitting on a table, and pulled off its black cloth to reveal a stunning carved cedar box handpainted with Tlingit symbols such as salmon, a raven, and an eagle. Inside was a Tlingit bounty—smoked salmon and traditional necklaces—that they distributed to everyone. The box’s cedar was so fragrant, you could smell it from 30 feet away.
“So it is with heart overflowing that we will be able to take this back home and be with family members again,” said Jonathan, who explained that totem poles were containers that held Tlingit ancestors’ remains. “We will have large dinners, and speeches, to welcome back the totem pole. Again, in our culture, we have to have balance, so again I call on my daughter to respond.”
Eva balanced her father’s words with her own: “Precious children of this land, thank you. Being here to support my father has been an honor. It gives my heart great peace to know my ancestors are returning home.”
Respecting the importance of native cultures in Hawai‘i and Alaska, Matson has donated the shipment of the totem pole from Honolulu to Seattle; it departs on the morning of Oct. 26 aboard the vessel Manoa. From Seattle, it will travel under the generous care of Alaska Marine Lines to its ultimate destination—Craig, Alaska—arriving on Nov. 7.
In Klawock, Jonathan will carve a replica of the totem pole to be placed in the town’s new totem pole park. The original pole, which is estimated to have been carved in the late 1800s, will be placed in a climate controlled environment.
“When Professor Steve Langdon contacted us, it became clear from his research that the totem pole was a sacred object of cultural patrimony and we immediately decided the totem pole should be returned home,” said Honolulu Museum of Art director Stephan Jost. “There is no gray area in this case. It is the right thing to do, and the legal thing to do. The ceremony by Jonathan Rowan and his daughter Eva Rowan was so moving and connected two cultures that share many aspects. It has been an honor to have preserved the totem pole for the last 34 years and an even bigger honor to send it home where it belongs.”
Congratulations to the Honolulu Museum for recognizing that possession and ownership are not the same thing. This repatriation makes me proud to have the Honolulu MoA as my home institution, and serving as an ethical example to museums around the world.
I am impressed with this move on the museum’s part. Although it’s a beautiful and authentic piece that is usually what museums are after, the history and story says it was ill gotten and should be returned to the rightful owners. Way to go Honolulu Museum of Art!
I’m so proud of being part of an organization that does the right thing…blessings all around!
Thanks for doing the right thing!
What a beautiful object. I am happy that it will be returned to the Tlingit people and that they gain much power from receiving it.