German museum returns art to indigenous Alaskans
BERLIN » A Berlin museum has returned ancient wooden masks, an idol and other spiritually significant artifacts plundered from graves by an explorer to indigenous Alaskans, ending an odyssey in which many of the items were thought forever lost.
The masks, carved from spruce or hemlock, are daubed with red pigment — a traditional tincture made of seal oil, human blood and powder from a stone that indicate they were used in burial ceremonies by tribes in the Chugach area of Alaska.
One mask comes to a sharp point at the top, symbolizing the deceased’s transition to the spirit world. Another shows a face with one eye open and the other closed.
Their exact age hasn’t been determined, but they’re thought to be up to 1,000 years old. They were taken from graves in caves on Chenega Island in Alaska’s Prince William Sound and a place known as Sanradna, whose exact location is no longer known, said John Johnson, a representative of the Chugach Alaska Corporation. The group today represents the region’s indigenous people.
“They’re a connection between the dead and the living, the future and the past,” he said Wednesday. “If you look, one eye open, one eye shut, it’s like traveling between two worlds.”
The nine artifacts were among some 200 Chugach items collected for Germany’s Royal Museum of Ethnology by Norwegian adventurer Johan Adrian Jacobsen between 1882 and 1884.
Several were thought lost at the end of World War II after being looted from the museum by Soviet Red Army troops, but they resurfaced in St. Petersburg, Russia. They were then given to a museum in Leipzig in communist East Germany in the 1970s.
Berlin’s Ethnological Museum only learned in the 1980s that they had survived and eventually secured their return.
Johnson learned of their existence from Jacobsen’s journals, where the