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Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center unveils Frog House artifacts in Klukwan

Jul 17, 2019

The Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center. (Photo by Claire Stremple/KHNS)

Frog House poles returned to Klukwan after 43 years in limbo. The Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center unveiled the treasured artifacts at an emotional ceremony.

Dozens of Klukwan residents and their guests filed through the exhibition rooms at Klukwan’s Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center to the beat of drums. They came to see the carved wooden poles that once held up the Frog House and a replica of the raven screen that adorned it.

The Frog House is a traditional lineage group of the Tlingit people of Klukwan and one of dozens of physical houses that used to stand on the banks of the Chilkat River. Only a few of the original clan houses are left.

The poles have been outside of Klukwan since the 1970s. For a younger generation, their presence is a link to their heritage.

“I feel overwhelmed with joy,” said Shauna Hotch, who is named for the sister of the last caretaker of the Frog House. “My gram, it was her last dying wish to have the frog house stuff come back.”

Her grandmother didn’t get to see the pieces return. She died last fall. But Hotch’s 6-month-old son gets to grow up with them.

“I was crying tears of joy I was so glad that it’s here for him to have. Because growing up my gram talked about how she wanted it here and to see it actually come to life and come back and now to actually see it it’s nice because he’ll have it here his whole life.

There were tears of joy and sorrow. Not all frog house member agreed that the pieces should come to the Jilkaat Kwaan Center.

“It’s ugly. The ugliness of the whole thing,” Sally Burattin said. When asked to speak at the ceremony, she said the tribe put her belongings on display without her permission. Display of clan treasures is a departure from centuries of cultural practice.

“I can’t wear a smile on my face. I can’t wear a smile on my heart. How can my heart be happy? How can my family be happy?”

But display of cultural items in the heritage center is modern compromise that keeps culture at home. The reason for that compromise takes us back several decades.

Disputes over ownership of clan treasures, or at.oow as they are called in Tlingit, have a long history. A Canadian art dealer bought the frog house poles and a raven screen in the late 70s. But Klukwan’s tribal Ordinance of 1976 prohibits the removal of “artifacts, clan crests, or other Indian art works” from Klukwan without tribal council approval. It’s a law that sets Klukwan apart from other villages, and the reason so many of the village’s artifacts are in the heritage center.

Klukwan was involved in litigation for years and finally settled the case: the dealer would return the four posts and provide a replica of the raven screen. The artifacts would remain in Alaska. That’s on the condition that the pieces would be held in the Alaska State Museum in Juneau until the tribe in Klukwan could find a safe place to house them. The tribe had plans for a cultural center in the works.

“It actually became over 30 year before the center was built,” said Steve Henrikson, a collections curator at the Juneau State Museum. He says the four house posts are a couple hundred years old and in mostly original condition. They were on display until the museum moved in 2016.

“They’re very significant as far as their age and artistic merit. They’re considered masterpieces. Since so many Northwest coast and Tlingit artifacts and masterpieces have left Alaska it’s really rare to see something of that age that’s still in Alaska, let alone still owned by the original clan,” he said.

Smith or “Smitty” Katzeek is a tribal elder. When he got word that the pieces would come back to Klukwan, he traveled to Juneau to accompany them home.

“For myself it’s an honor to be part of what’s happening here,” he said. He sat in the Heritage Center wearing rainbow suspenders and watched community members file through the exhibit with a smile.

“I hope our young people go from here and rebuild what our ancestors left behind.”

Centuries after the unknown artist first carved them, the frog house poles are supporting community in Klukwan again.