Ancestral artifacts collected in the Kodiak Archipelago nearly 150 years ago have arrived back home.
They are on loan from a museum in France and will remain at the Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository in Kodiak for five years.
The objects were collected by a 19-year-old French anthropologist Alphonse Pinart, a linguist who visited Kodiak in 1871 and 72.
A welcoming ceremony for the objects was held at the museum on July 9.
Elikya Kandot works for the museum that has been caring for the items all these years. She’s the director of the Musée Boulogne-sur-Mer, in the north of France, and she escorted the crate to Kodiak. She told the crowd the exchange between the museums is a model for how cultural
institutions can work together.
“I think it is an example for, not only for Kodiak, not only for America, not only for France, but this example of the, I’ll say it in French, said Kondot.
“l’importance du patrimoine de cet héritage pour les générations futures est vraiment très forte ici. Merci de donner cet exemple. Merci d’en faire vraiment, de donner toute leur force, voilà, à ces œuvres qu’on protège depuis des années, depuis des siècles, et qu’on transmettra aussi aux futures générations. Voilà c’est tout,” said Kandot.
English Translation: “The importance of inheriting this heritage is truly very strong here for future generations. Thank you for providing this example. Thank you for really, for giving it your all, to these pieces that have been protected for years, for centuries, and that will be transmitted to future generations as well. That’s all,” said Kandot.
Kandot’s museum is a leader in the international movement for partnerships between European collecting institutions and indigenous peoples so that both can learn more about cultural items.
After a ceremony where a traditional Alutiiq oil lamp was lit, they pried open the shipping crate.
The pieces inside are part of the Pinart Collection, which includes Kodiak Alutiiq objects that Europeans collected here in the late 19th century.
The collection includes many rare pieces of Alutiiq ceremonial gear, like masks, drums, headdresses, and a feast bowl which provide a rich record of traditional arts, ritual practices, spiritual beliefs, and the Alutiiq language. Pinart also documented vocabulary, songs, and legends along with the objects.
Inside the large crate are several smaller wooden boxes which are removed one-by-one and staged on nearly tables.
While the crowd waits for the screws to be taken out of the inner boxes, the Kodiak Alutiiq Dancers sing a traditional call and response song.
A line forms for onlookers to file by the tables where the objects sit. As the packing paper is removed, Alutiiq descendants get their first glimpse of their ancestors’ work.
At last the cultural treasures come into view: two carved wooden masks and a women’s beaded headdress set, which includes two bracelets and a dance belt. One elder greets the items in Alutiiq, “Camai!”
Alutiiq elder Florence Matfay Pestrikoff, whose family was originally from Ahkiok, admires the headdress beads of white, green, and blue.
“I’m thankful that these people preserved them for us,” said Pestrikoff.
She said she has never had a traditional headdress of her own and hopes to make one like it for herself.
Twenty-two-year-old, Dehrich Chya, an intern at the Alutiiq Museum, has been to France to see some of the objects. But he says he is still awed to have them here. Today, he helped light the ceremonial lamp and pry the lid off the crate. He takes a closer look at the ancestral objects.
“I’m really particular to the masks, I think. Just because there is so little that is written about them and it was an art that was lost on Kodiak for a long time,” said Chya.
One mask is narrow and small with black paint and red ochre paint and little white circles. Chya says that his elders have taught him that the white circles were made by dipping a stalk of a plant into paint and using it like a stamp.
“I could tell you, I could not sleep last night because I was so excited,” said elder Margaret Roberts from Kodiak. She’s chair of the Alutiiq Heritage Foundation and has worked to reawaken Alutiiq heritage since the 1980s.
“This has been a dream that has come true today,” said Robertson.
The objects replace two ceremonial masks, also from the Pinart Collection, scheduled to return to France.
In September, the new items will be incorporated into displays on Alutiiq spirituality. In addition, the museum plans to assemble a group of beaders to study and recreate the regalia to share as replicas when the historic set returns to France.
Editor’s note: translation assistance courtesy of Julia Fine.