The Taku River Tlingit are celebrating the return of an important piece of their forebears’ artwork, but the reunion didn’t come free of charge.
Last week, the Taku River Tlingit First Nation (TRTFN), based in Atlin, British Columbia, was able to buy back a woven blanket dating back to the 1880s that was up for auction through a Canadian art house. The blanket, the TRTFN states, had been in a private collection since it was carried away from a Tlingit community on the Taku River 140 years ago.
The Chilkat blanket, painstakingly hand woven from mountain goat hair spun over cedar bark string, is the type worn as regalia during dances and ceremonies.
According to a Dec. 6 press release from TRTFN, after becoming aware that the blanket was up for sale, Tlingit elder and master carver Wayne Carlick and heritage archaeologist Ben Louter started raising money to try to purchase it.
They kicked off a GoFundMe campaign aiming to raise the $15,000 to $20,000 the auction house estimated the blanket would go for. The campaign fell short of its goal but an Atlin local, Peter Wright, offered a loan with the necessary funding. Wright was able to win the auction but spirited bidding drove the final price up to $38,000.
“It is a happy day for our community knowing that this piece of our history is coming back home. However, it is sad that our First Nation community and our friends have to put up this kind of cash to buy back what already belongs to us,” the statement written by TRTFN spokesperson Charmaine Thom reads.
Along with identifying the blanket as Chilkat style and from the Taku River area, TRTFN believes they even know who wove it. The press release says a signature woven into the blanket matches the weaving of Mary Hunt exactly. Hunt was a member of Yanwulihashi Hit (Drifted Ashore Clan), a group within T’aaku Kwáan (Geese Flood Upriver Tribe). T’aaku Kwáan members live in both Canada and Southeast Alaska.
The repatriation of Tlingit art currently in museums and private collections is a project TRTFN plans to continue to work on.
“Currently, hundreds of pieces of Tlingit art are kept in distant museums and private art collections. Most community members rarely have opportunities to engage with the art forms that their ancestors perfected, except as photos on the internet. Many of these pieces were collected by European fur traders and gold seekers after epidemic diseases had decimated Tlingit communities living on the Taku,” Thom’s statement reads.
Stories from TRTFN elders tell of manipulative and predatory trade practices that sometimes involved the barter of alcohol for priceless regalia.
“It’s safe to say that colonial collection practices in the 19th and early 20th centuries were nefarious at the best of times. Artifact collectors would often sell collections in batches to collectors or museums and would remove or obscure provenance and any info on how artifacts were obtained,” the TRTFN statement reads.
”Taku River Tlingit should not be forced to pay art collector prices for something that was almost certainly ‘collected’ with a heavy colonial trade advantage.”
For now, “art collector prices” remain the going rate for Tlingit art produced by bygone generations. A private collection being auctioned off by Sotheby’s contains a Chilkat blanket similar to the one retrieved by TRTFN that is expected to fetch between US$50,000 and US$70,000. That collection also has an ornately carved Tlingit paintbrush (estimated price US$5,000 to US$7,000), a Tlingit-carved wooden bowl (US$20,000 to US$30,000), and a wooden spoon also identified as Tlingit-made (US$2,500 to US$3,500).
Contact Jim Elliot at firstname.lastname@example.org