Pamplin Media Group – Bringing Native American Art Back to the Tribes


The Portland Museum of Art is always considering requests to return sacred artifacts.

In May, the Portland Art Museum returned nine objects to the Southeast Alaska Tlingit community where they came from in the 1930s.

Items including a killer whale hat and robes, a mud shark hat and three mud shark shirts were repatriated to the Naanya.aayí clan in and around Wrangell, Alaska, where they originated. The museum had purchased the objects from a collector almost 100 years ago.

The request was filed in 2002 under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and was approved by the museum in 2019. At the time, Luella Knapp, a member of the Naanya.aayí clan, said, “Receiving them, one by one, brings back the spirit of the wearer. We are so happy to have returned them to Naanya.aayí from Wrangell.

Kathleen Ash-Milby, PAM curator of Native American art, said recently that the museum has about 20 objects still under claim from different groups under NAGPRA.

“We share our collection inventories with federally recognized tribes. If they want to come in to do research or look at objects, we welcome those delegations. And then they can make a claim,” Ash- said recently. Milby at Pamplin Media Group.

She said the museum had repatriated, before her arrival in 2019, some medicine packages that had been returned to the Crow.

art versus religion

Tribes tend to want ceremonial and sacred items returned, not arts and crafts.

“Fortunately, this is an art museum, not a natural history museum. There are certainly sacred and ceremonial objects, which are part of the collection and which should be repatriated, and they will certainly never be displayed” , said Ash-Milby. “They have been separated from the rest of the collection for further research. We do not actively collect this type of material.”

Ash-Milby explained that cultural material is really about cultural practice. “We received several large donations where they just took the whole thing. And when they went through it, it was like, ‘Whoa, there’s absolutely no purpose for a medicine packet in an art museum.’ In fact, no museum has a purpose. I can’t talk about what other people have done in the past. But, to me, I feel like it’s a finished problem. We’re going to push through whatever claims we eventually have.”


She added that the Portland Art Museum is trying to build relationships with minorities it has traditionally overlooked.

“When you look at NAGPRA, as legislation, they are the letter of the law. But the spirit of the legislation is really about making those connections and relationships that should be there to begin with. The spirit of NAGPRA was really like, ‘Hey, we’re going to help you talk to the natives, and that’s only a good thing.'”

She added, “The other project we have on file is to relocate the permanent collections galleries (in the Native American wing), which are primarily our historical collections. A complete reboot.”

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