This is a collection of photocopies that document the legal and historical background of a landmark case concerning ownership of Tlingit cultural objects that were removed from the Village of Klukwan, Alaska in 1984, Chilkat Indian Village, IRA, v. Johnson. The disposition of this case heralded a fundamental change in how Native Alaskan peoples would be able to determine or reclaim their cultural property via the Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act of 1990. It also set a precedent whereby a United States court stated that it was unable to dispense justice in cases concerning tribal laws and ownership and justice would be best served by allowing the Native Alaskan peoples the right to settle according their already established laws. Also, this collection is important as it provides insight into the basic Tlingit belief of balance in all things and the dangers inherent in its loss of balance due to tensions created when disagreements cannot be resolved. In this case the disagreement exists between the clan, the Gaanaxteidí, multiple clan individuals who claim the role of the sacred caretaker status in the Whale House, a division of the Gaanaxteidí clan, and Michael Johnson, an art dealer from Santa Fe, New Mexico. The issue at hand has to do with who has the right to remove or sell the clan’s cultural property and how will the issue of legal redress be satisfied.
Folder one contains copies of court documents and summaries ranging in date from 1978 to 1993. These photocopies reveal the sequence of legal events that culminated in Judge Bowen’s ruling in favor of the clan and have the disputed Whale House cultural objects, in returned to the clan site in Klukwan, Alaska.
Folder two contains a five-part series published in the Alaska Daily News written by Marilee Enge that chronicles the history of the Whale House from circa 1750 to 1993. The story follows the Gaanaxteidí clan and Whale House members as they attempt to determine, once and for all, the ownership of Whale House objects. This series highlights the complexity of the problem both legally, socially and culturally. Although Tlingit law is absolute about At.óow and clan ownership, House Caretakers also feel a vested interest as these objects are passed along for safekeeping through the matrilineal lines. Time and again, clan members attempted to determine the issue of ownership by use of the United State legal system, however the situation would not show any forward movement until Judge von der Heydt ordered the case to the tribal courts for a ruling. Von der Heydt stated that the village of Klukwan was a federally recognized tribe and had the power to pass laws. This was the first time in Alaskan history that a case would be referred from federal court to a tribal court.
Rachael Grad, “Indigenous Rights and Intellectual Property Law: A Comparison of the United States and Australia,” Duke Journal of Comparative & International Law 13, no. 203 (Winter 2003): 203-31.
Vanessa Magnanini, ""Constructing Tribal Sovereignty for the 21st Century: The Story of Law,” Digital Commons @ Boston College Law School | Boston College Law School Research. Accessed July 26, 2011. http://lawdigitalcommons.bc.edu/twlj/vol18/iss1/3.
Rosita F. Worl, "Tlingit At.óow: Tangible and Intangible Property," PhD Diss., Harvard University, 1998.