Virginia Museum of Fine Arts Returns Headdress to Native Tribe

A Kingfisher Fort Headdress is reunited with members of Alaska’s Tlingit tribe

The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts returned a Kingfisher Fort Headdress (late 19th – early 20th century) to the Lúkaaxh.ádi clan of the Tlingit tribe of Alaska in March.  This was the first repatriation of a Native American object by VMFA in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990.

The repatriation ceremony took place at the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resource Center in Suitland, Md.  During the ceremony, members of the clan shared stories about the headdress and its importance to the Tlingit tribe.

“As a museum, we are merely caretakers of art,” VMFA Director Alex Nyerges said, “and now we are honored to be able to return this headdress to the Tlingit tribe.”

Lee Anne Chesterfield, PhD., VMFA’s assistant curator of ancient American art, said she thought the repatriation process was a positive experience.  “We will continue to work with the Tlingit tribe to investigate the other objects in the museum’s collection.”

NAGPRA, now 20 years old, provides a process for museums and Federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items to lineal descendants, as well as culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations.  Those items include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony.  It applies to all public and private museums that receive federal funding.  Harold Jacobs, a cultural resource specialist for the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA), reclaimed the Kingfisher Fort headdress because it is viewed as an object of “cultural patrimony,” which means it belongs to the entire tribe, rather than one person, and therefore it cannot be sold or transferred from one person to another.

When the Central Council Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska (CCTHITA) issued the claim, VMFA staff reviewed it and Dr. Chesterfield recommended to the Board of Trustees that it be deaccessioned for eventual repatriation to the Tlingit tribe.  In May 2010, the VMFA Board of Trustees voted to deaccession the headdress. VMFA acquired the headdress with 24 other Tlingit and Haida objects in 1955 from the Portland Art Museum in Oregon.

About the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts
With a collection of art that spans the globe and more than 5,000 years, plus a wide array of special exhibitions, the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) is recognized as one of the top comprehensive art museums in the United States. The museum’s permanent collection encompasses more than 22,000 works of art, including the largest public collection of Fabergé outside Russia and one of the nation’s finest collections of American art. VMFA is home to acclaimed collections of English Silver and Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, British Sporting and Contemporary art, as well as renowned South Asian, Himalayan and African art. In May 2010, VMFA opened its doors to the public after a transformative expansion, the largest in its 75-year history. Programs include educational activities and studio classes for all ages, plus fun after-hours events. VMFA’s Statewide Partnership program includes traveling exhibitions, artist and teacher workshops, and lectures across the Commonwealth. General admission is always free. For additional information, telephone 804-340-1400 or visit www.vmfa.museum.