Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Returns Headdress to Native Tribe

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts returned a Kingfisher Fort Headdress (late 19th- early 20th century) to the Lúkaaxh.ádi clan of the Tlingit tribe of Alaska in March. This was the first repatriation of a Native American object by VMFA in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990.

Kingfisher Fort HeaddressTlingit (Alaska) (late 19th-early 20th century, wood, swan down, walrus whiskers, flicker feathers). Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

The repatriation ceremony took place at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, Md. During the ceremony, members of the clan shared stories about the headdress and its importance to the Tlingit tribe.

“As a museum, we are merely caretakers of art,” VMFA Director Alex Nyerges said, “and now we are honored to be able to return this headdress to the Tlingit tribe.”

Raymond Dennis, Lúkaaxh.ádi clan leader and housemaster of Raven House, speaks to the group. Courtesy Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Lee Anne Chesterfield, PhD., VMFA’s assistant curator of ancient American art, said she thought the repatriation process was a positive experience. “We will continue to work with the Tlingit tribe to investigate the other objects in the museum’s collection.”

NAGPRA, now 20 years old, provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items to lineal descendants, as well as culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. Those items include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. It applies to all public and private museums that receive federal funding. Harold Jacobs, a cultural resource specialist for the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA), reclaimed the Kingfisher Fort headdress because it is viewed as an object of “cultural patrimony,” which means it belongs to the entire tribe, rather than one person, and therefore it cannot be sold or transferred from one person to another.When the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA) issued the claim, VMFA staff reviewed it and Dr. Chesterfield recommended to the Board of Trustees that it be deaccessioned for eventual repatriation to the Tlingit tribe. In May 2010, the VMFA Board of Trustees voted to deaccession the headdress. VMFA acquired the headdress with 24 other Tlingit and Haida objects in 1955 from the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.


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