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Harvard Peabody Museum Transfers Ownership of Ancestral Kayak to Alutiiq Museum as Part of Ongoing Repatriation Efforts

Harvard's Peabody Museum has transferred ownership of an ancestral Alutiiq, or Sugpiaq, kayak to the Alutiiq Museum, a cultural museum and tribal repository in Kodiak, Alaska.
Harvard's Peabody Museum has transferred ownership of an ancestral Alutiiq, or Sugpiaq, kayak to the Alutiiq Museum, a cultural museum and tribal repository in Kodiak, Alaska. By Courtesy of the Alutiiq Museum
By Jasmine Palma and Tess C. Wayland, Crimson Staff Writers

Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology recently transferred ownership of an ancestral Alutiiq, or Sugpiaq, kayak to the Alutiiq Museum, a cultural museum and tribal repository in Kodiak, Alaska, according to a Jan. 24 press release from the Alaskan museum.

The relocation of the kayak — which spans 14.5 feet in length — is part of the Peabody’s ongoing efforts to repatriate cultural artifacts of Native American origin. The announcement comes nearly two years after Harvard was accused of being in violation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act by the Association on American Indian Affairs.

The Alutiiq Museum requested the ownership transfer in the fall of 2022, citing spiritual reasons. Due to its seams embellished by human hair, the kayak was likely used for “talismanic purposes.” Complete with a wooden frame covered in oiled seal skin, the boat is a “rare example of a complete ancestral kayak,” according to the press release.

April G. Laktonen Counceller, the executive director of the Alutiiq Museum, said in the press statement that Alutiiq tradition places strong cultural significance on artifacts containing hair, which are said to serve as a spiritual conduit between the original ancestor and whoever is in current possession of the object.

“Our ancestors incorporated hair into garments, tools, and ceremonial items like dolls to forge spiritual connections,” she said in the release. “It appears that the symbolic and spiritual qualities of another person bolstered the person who paddled this boat. For the Alutiiq/Sugpiaq people, the boat is a spiritually powerful object and best cared for by our community.”

The boat has been displayed at the Alutiiq Museum since 2016, where it has been displayed on loan as a part of an exhibit on maritime technology. It originally entered the Peabody’s collection in 1869, as a gift from U.S. Army Officer Edward Fast, where it was kept in storage until conservation efforts in 2011.

Peabody Director Jane Pickering called maintaining relationships with tribal groups “fundamental” to the museum’s curatorial work.

“We are pleased, as the University considers the return of cultural items in its collections, that the kayak will remain at the Alutiiq Museum, at the heart of the community,” Pickering said in the press release.

The Alutiiq Museum is now undergoing renovations to its facilities and hopes to have the kayak as one of its central gallery pieces.

“The kayak is one of our visitor’s favorite objects, and we plan to install it on a display about spring hunting,” Counceller said in the press release. “Preserved in its wooden frame, lashings, and skin cover are construction techniques used by a skilled ancestral boat builder that can help us continue to learn while we honor the ancestors whose skill and essence are preserved in the vessel.”

—Staff writer Jasmine Palma can be reached at jasmine.palma@thecrimson.com.

—Staff writer Tess C. Wayland can be reached at tess.wayland@thecrimson.com.

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