The people of Kake may see the return of human remains and burial objects, removed from a remote cave in Southeast Alaska over 50 years ago. The Organized Village of Kake is using a federal law to secure the return of culturally significant items from museums and private collections.

Kake is a community of about 600 people in central Southeast Alaska. And the tribal government, known as the Organized Village of Kake, is leveraging the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, to bring back artifacts and burial items that were taken decades ago.

“Any items we can get back to the community we’re welcoming back, whether it be human remains or artifacts,” said Frank Hughes, NAGPRA coordinator for OVK. “We always look forward to bringing them back.”

The items he’s working to return were taken by unidentified people in separate incidents in 1961, all from a cave on Entrance Island near Hobart Bay, about 70 miles south of Juneau. Those include a mummified infant 6-9 months in age, buried inside a painted bentwood box. The remains have been at the Alaska State Museum since 1961 and while the museum doesn’t know their age, they could date back to first contact with people from outside the area.

And that’s not all. Another four burial items from Entrance Island resurfaced just last year, when an unnamed individual from California approached the U.S. Forest Service in 2017 with the intent on returning them. Hughes said the tribe’s intention is to bury these items, just as they were.

“That’s again where the healing begins is when we could actually re-inter the body to where it came from and then put closure to it,” Hughes said. “Ceremonies would be done, songs would sang and again we’d walk away like we did any other time as proud people.”

While Hughes thinks it best to return the infant body to its original burial site, he said that will ultimately depend on the recommendation of Kake’s repatriation committee in consultation with the involved clan. He notes that Tlingit protocol is even stricter than federal law on who is allowed to handle remains and artifacts.

This is not the first time OVK has repatriated human remains and culturally sensitive artifacts and it’s a process that can take time. NAGPRA requires publishing a notice in the federal register of the intent to return the items. If no one else comes forward to object, the remains and burial items can be repatriated. The law also provides funding to identify items and return them to Alaska Native tribes and other indigenous peoples.

Theresa Thibault is the heritage program manager for the U.S. Forest Service. She’s involved because the Entrance Island site is located on what is now national forest land.

“The Forest Service actually got notified that there were objects that a person had collected who now lived in California that he wanted to send back to Alaska,” Thibault said. “You know you get guilty after a while so I think he was having some guilt pain. So he wanted it to end up back in Alaska and he contacted the museum. And then the museum of course recognized that it probably came from forest land so they they contact the Forest Service. And then we initiate the whole tribal consultation process.”

When repatriations take place, the Forest Service also determines which tribes had traditional claim to the territory. While the Entrance Island site is a long way from the current day location of Kake, it’s within the traditional territory of the Kake people. Thibault explains this kind removal of items from burial sites was pretty common before NAGPRA.

“You know there was a time when, I mean it wasn’t OK to collect human remains but it sort of was,” she explained. “And so people did it. And they get to a point where I don’t know they have a change of heart, or they’re getting old and they realize that was really dumb and they send ‘em back. Museums get that kinda thing all the time too.”

“They came into the museum long before I was around but there’s no record of them ever being on display,” said Steve Henrikson, the curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum. “They were taken in and put into storage,” he added.

Henrikson said it was common for people to give collected artifacts to the museum.

“Yeah I think that the museum has been around for over a hundred years, long before many of the federal agencies had developed capacity for law enforcement or archeology and so there wasn’t a clear process for people who found artifacts or remains out in the field and wanted to do something with them,” he explained. “Of course the approach that we should take now is not to disturb anything like that but to report it to the agency that owns the land.”

Henrikson explains the tribe is in the driver’s seat now, in terms of when and how the items are returned. “We’re really happy that this is taking place and we’re awaiting instructions from the tribe on how to finalize this.”

And the Organized Village of Kake is working to recover other items too, including a shaman’s jawbone taken sometime before 1910 and now at a museum in St. Joseph, Missouri. Other artifacts have been found in Portland, Oregon and at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon. OVK’s Hughes said non-burial artifacts could eventually be put on display in Kake, if they are successfully returned.