In 1981 the case of State of Alaska vs. George Jim Sr., et al. began, a case that raised important questions about the nature and rights of cultural properties held by Native American Indians, namely the Tlingit Indians of Southeast Alaska, prior to the Native American Graves & Repatriation Act of 1991. The case, numbered 1JU-81-1785 Civ., which was held in Alaska’s Superior Court, First Judicial District at Juneau, was eventually ruled on and closed by Superior Court Judge Walter L. Carpeneti on July 8, 1986. The ruling favored the George Jim Sr., Albert Wallace Sr., and the estate of John B. Fawcett, as well as the State of Alaska, notwithstanding the objections of the Tlingit people. Since that time the ruling has been contested by the Tlingit people (including the Sealaska Heritage Institute), primarily on behalf of the Tlingit Wooshkeetan Clan.
The case’s roots surround the loan and eventual proposed sale of the Wooshkeetan Clan’s carved house screen to the Alaska State Museum by Tlingit individuals, primarily George Jim Sr., Albert Wallace Sr., and John B. Fawcett. In 1974 the house screen was removed by these individuals, and loaned to the Alaska State Museum. In 1981 these individuals attempted to sell the screen to the State Museum, but concerns were raised by the Tlingit people about the ownership of the screen, and the issue went to trail to determine if the three defendants George Jim Sr., Albert Wallace Sr., and John B. Fawcett could legally sell the item to the State Museum.
The primary concern of the Tlingit people over the screen revolved around the notion that certain Tlingit cultural art objects are cultural property, and this screen was collectively owned by the Wooshkeetan Clan, and could not be owned or sold by individuals of the clan. This principle is comparable in Euro-American society also, as an example, in that some art pieces may be owned by a business, university, museum, etc., and an employee of that organization cannot legally sell that entity’s art.
As such, in 1981 State of Alaska vs. George Jim Sr., et al. began, and eventually took six years to conclude. During that period strong protest from the Tlingit community occurred, arguing that the Wooshkeetan Clan screen was clan property, and the sale of such an item was illegal. During the case, primarily in 1984 and 1985, Tlingit witnesses were called and spoke about the nature of Tlingit property law and worked to demonstrate that the screen was clan property and could not be sold.
In the end, on 8 July 1986 Superior Court Judge Walter L. Carpeneti made a final ruling, but he stated he did so “with great reluctance.” The final ruling found that George Jim Sr., Albert Wallace Sr., and the estate of John B. Fawcett could sell the item to the State Museum if they chose, which occurred shortly thereafter. This finding was based on laws in the American justice system, which did not account for the rules of Tlingit law or acknowledge the notion of communal property, and Judge Carpeneti stated he was displeased with the ruling he had to make.
Sources: Rosita Worl, “Tlingit At.oow: Tangible and Intangible Property,” PhD Dissertation, Harvard University, 1998.