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Getting Our Stories Back

The project “Getting Our Stories Back” arose from the joint wish of Indigenous communities representatives’ of the Chugach region in Alaska and the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum) in Berlin to continue their collaboration after the museum returned nine burial objects to the Chugach Alaska Corporation in 2018. These were part of numerous cultural belongings from Alaska that Johan Adrian Jacobsen had brought to Berlin at the end of the 19th century on behalf of the “Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde” (today: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz (National Museums in Berlin – Prussian Cultural Heritage)).

Project Goals

  • Increasing digital and physical access to the Alaskan collection housed in the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin for Indigenous communities from the Chugach region

  • Developing models for collaborative research on cultural belongings: placing the voices of the Chugach Elders at the center of interpretation

  • Continue building long-term relationships between the Chugach Communities and the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin

At the center of the project is the wish of Indigenous partners of the Chugach region (Sugpiaq, Dena’ina, Eyak, Ahtna, and Yakutat Tlingit Elders and cultural leaders) to engage more intensively with the cultural belongings housed in the collection in Berlin which are from the Chugach region and to make them more accessible to their communities. To this end, nearly 500 cultural belongings from this collection were digitally integrated into the database of Chugachmiut Heritage Preservation in Alaska. Work has been done as well concerning the database of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, to align the collection’s data infrastructure with the principles of Indigenous data governance. In a collaborative research process since the beginning of 2021, Elders from the seven regional tribal councils, language teachers, educators, curators, and community organisers worked with the conservators and researchers of the museum and research staff of Freie Universität Berlin with metaLAB (at) FU Berlin to share and document knowledge and stories about these cultural objects.

Research approaches

The research methodology/design contains digital workshops as well as personal visits by Chugach Elders to the collections in the museum in Berlin. The perspectives of the Indigenous partners and their understanding of the cultural assets as living actors are central to this process. The results and documentation of this process (audio recordings, texts, films, photos) are being linked to the specific objects now hosted in the Chugachmiut database, made accessible to local communities, and serve as a basis for Indigenous education projects.

Freie Universität Berlin with metaLAB (at) FU Berlin acts as a research and digital-design partner conducting historical and archival research, and developing and testing digital formats and tools for this collaborative research process. The Ethnologisches Museum and Freie Universität Berlin with metaLAB (at) FU Berlin define their role primarily in supporting the Indigenous partners in regaining and revitalizing knowledge and stories around and with these cultural belongings (and determining the scope of this exchange according to their own Indigenous protocols).

The project is titled “Getting Our Stories Back” in response to the loss of cultural knowledge and belongings imposed by settler-colonialism, missionization and forced assimilation, , declaring it “primitive” Indigenous knowledge not only in Alaska. Mostly white actors collected the Indigenous material cultural belongings and took many of them away from their original communities. Many of these cultural belongings ended up in private collections or in public museums. During these times, research of Indigenous cultural belongings in museums was often problematically informed by racial and cultural evolutionary theories. The “ethnologization” of Indigenous material cultural belongings, structured and categorized by criteria of “Western sciences” since the end of the nineteenth century, participated in the erasure of Indigenous knowledges.

All three project partners, Chugachmiut, the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, and Freie Universität Berlin with metaLAB (at) FU Berlin, would like to counter this history of epistemic violence in dealing with Indigenous cultural belongings by working with a different model.

Knowledge keepers as researchers

In “Getting Our Stories Back”, the Elders of the Chugach communities are at the center as researchers and knowledge bearers, their voices are decisive for descriptions and interpretations of objects, for recommendations on preservation and care, and last but not least for ethical dimensions of the collection concerning issues of ownership, accessibility, presentation, and restitution.

This approach is embedded in Indigenous research paradigms. Indigenous researchers have emancipated themselves in recent decades from the hegemonic Western academic model, which mostly made Indigenous cultures the “objects of research”. They developed their own differentiated approaches to research, articulating knowledge as fundamentally relational, emphasizing the role of Indigenous languages, the responsibilities of researchers, and the role of communities. Researcher-participants of European research institutions, such as the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin and the Freie Universität Berlin with metaLAB (at) FU Berlin, are thus challenged to critically examine their research cultures and the question as to who benefits from research and its results.

Project results

“Getting Our Stories Back” further addresses the question who gains from projects of this nature by supporting local institutions and structures in the Chugach region. With the integration of the data concerning the cultural belongings from the collection housed in Berlin into the database of the Indigenous organization Chugachmiut, the sovereignty of interpretation and data will pass into the hands of Chugachmiut.
At the end of the project, annotated indigenous protocols will be published by all project partners. The aim is to present implemented forms of cooperation and the approaches used in dealing with the cultural heritage.This document can serve as a guideline also for other Indigenous groups in their collaborations with museum institutions and contribute to the reconnection of collections and knowledge cultures.

Between 1881 and 1883, the Norwegian sailor Johan Adrian Jacobsen traveled the Pacific coast of Canada as well as Alaska on behalf of the Königliches Museum für Völkerkunde (today’s Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin) with the goal of building a collection from the region for the museum. During these travels, Jacobsen acquired, among many other artefacts, nearly 500 cultural objects from the Chugach region, primarily from Sugpiaq, Dena’ina, Eyak, Ahtna and Yakutat Tlingit communities. Jacobsen’s extensive travelogue allows to trace his itinerary as well as the means by which he acquired cultural properties. In his records he meticulously noted the prices he paid for the objects which were very low in relation to the cost of travel and transportation logistics. Some of Jacobsen’s methods gathering objects were criminal, such as looting of burial sites.

Adolf Bastian, the founding director of today’s Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin, who commissioned Jacobsen's journey to the Northwest Coast, was a proponent of the so-called idea of a “salvage anthropology”. European anthropologists in the late 19th century assumed that Indigenous cultures would either adapt to settler cultures or even die out. Therefore, they wanted to create material culture archives of the different Peoples in museums. Motivations – such as gaining academic prestige in the establishment of the then young discipline of “anthropology” and the idea of the superiority of European civilization – also played a crucial role. Last but not least, the competition between museums triggered the efforts of collectors to gather as many objects as possible.

Beginning of the joint exchange

In recent decades, historic collections have formed a focal point of interest to some Indigenous groups in their efforts to strengthen and revive their cultural heritage. One example being the Chugach Alaska Corporation, which organized the visit of a delegation of Elders to the Ethnologisches Museum in 2015. Amongst them was John Johnson, Vice-President of the Corporation and NAGPRA representative, who has worked for the Chugach since 1975, researching cultural belongings and ancestors distributed throughout various museums worldwide.

During that first visit, the delegation identified grave goods in the collection that Jacobsen had unlawfully removed from burial sites. As a result, these nine cultural belongings were returned to the community in 2018. The restitution marked the beginning of an ongoing relationship between the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin, Chugachmiut and the Chugach Alaska Corporation that led amongst others to the current project, “Getting our Stories Back”.

Project Partners and Participants (in alphabetical order):
Overarching partner coordination:
Hauke Zießler / Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Chugachmiut / Anchorage, Alaska (Regional Tribal Consortium): Andrea Floersheimer (Archivist), Mark Hiratsuka (Director of Chugachmiut Heritage Preservation), Dawn Randazzo (Assistant Archivist)
Chugach Alaska Corporation / Anchorage, Alaska (ANCSA Corporation): John Johnson (Vice President of Cultural Resources), Tatianna Turner (Cultural Coordinator)
Chugach-Elder Researchers: Eric Raymond Clock (Qutekcak/Seward), Vince Evans (Nanwalek), Deborah Mcmullen (Paluwik/Port Graham), Brandon Moonin (Taatiillaq/Tatitlek), Pamela Jean Smith (iiyaaG/Cordova), William Smith (Valdez)
Native Village of Eyak / Cordova, Alaska: Brooke Mallory (CRRC Special Projects Lead), Danaya Hoover (Cultural Director), Teal Hansen (Ilanka Cultural Center Coordinator)
Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz: Julian Bendel (Research Assistant in Training), Tina Brüderlin (Head of Ethnologisches Museums), Mira Dallige-Smith (Certified Conservator), Sebastian Kolberg (Certified Conservator), Ute Marxreiter (Curator of Education), Jens Matuschek (Curator of the North American Collections, between February and September 2023), Mirko Nikolai (Repository Administrator), Costanza Parigi (Filmmaker), Alexis von Poser (Deputy Director of the Ethnologisches Museums and the Museum für Asiatische Kunst), Monika Zessnik (Curator of the North American Collections), Hauke Zießler (Project Coordinator for Transcultural Cooperation)
Freie Universität Berlin / metaLAB (at) FU Berlin: Kim Albrecht (Principal Researcher in the Project until May 2023), Olivia Al-Slaiman (Research Assistant), Lindsey Drury (Postdoctoral Researcher), Annette Jael Lehmann (Professor of Visual Culture and Theatre), Charlotte Hannah Peters (Research Assistant)
Project Funding: Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin – Preußischer Kulturbesitz
Project Duration: September 2020 bis 31. Dezember 2023 (voraussichtlich)