Smithsonian Institution has returned a trove of precious artifacts
to the Yurok Indians in California in what is one of the largest
repatriations of Native American ceremonial artifacts in U.S. history.
Yurok, who have lived for centuries along California's Klamath River,
received 217 sacred items that had been stored on museum shelves
for nearly 100 years. The necklaces, headdresses, arrows, hides
and other regalia from the Smithsonian's National Museum of the
American Indian are believed to be hundreds, if not thousands, of
awesome. It's a big thing with our people," said Thomas O'Rourke,
chairman of the Yurok, a tribe that lived next to the Klamath River
in far Northern California for 10,000 years before Europeans arrived.
"These are our prayer items. They are not only symbols, but
their spirit stays with them. They are alive. Bringing them home
is like bringing home prisoners of war."
celebrate the return of the items, the Yurok will hold a Kwom-Shlen-ik,
or "Object Coming Back," ceremony today in the town of
returned artifacts were sold to the museum in the 1920s by Grace
Nicholson, a renowned collector of Indian art, who owned a curio
shop in Pasadena in the early 20th century. Ceremonial Indian regalia
was in vogue among wealthy Americans at the time.
sacred cache is part of an ongoing effort around the country to
return Native American burial artifacts, ceremonial items and remains
taken by white settlers from Indian villages and indigenous sites.
1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act transferred stewardship
of more than 800,000 Indian artifacts to the Smithsonian and required
the institute to consider repatriating them to federally recognized
the items claimed by the Yurok were finely woven baskets, wolf headdresses,
eagle and California condor feathers, head rolls made from pileated
woodpecker scalps, white deer skins, obsidian blades and flint,
all of which have been used for centuries in sacred rituals and
we were to study or use scientific methods for testing we could
probably come up with some rough dates, but generally they are made
of materials that aren't readily available anymore," said Buffy
McQuillen, the repatriation coordinator for the Yurok.
of the items, for instance, are woven together using fibers from
iris, a local plant that is now rare in the area. Also difficult,
if not impossible, to find today are woodpecker scalps, condor feathers
and white deer skin, apparently from rare albino-type deer, McQuillen
are definitely old," she said. "They were acquired in
the early 1900s, but they were in use and practice many years before
said the items will be used beginning Aug. 27 in the tribe's White
Deerskin Dance, a ceremony designed to give thanks for what nature
has provided to the people. They will also be used starting Sept.
24 in the Jump Dance, another traditional ceremony that asks the
creator for balance and renewal. The dancers perform nine abreast
in full regalia for 10 days, primarily inside a traditional redwood
are getting (the returned items) ready to dance. They are going
to work," O'Rourke said. "It's been a long time since
they've heard their native voices and native songs."
Yurok is the largest tribe in California, with 5,600 members. O'Rourke
said most of the tribe members live within 50 miles of the reservation,
which encompasses 57,000 acres, including 44 miles of the Klamath.
one time there were more than 50 villages in the tribe's ancestral
territory, which covered about 500,000 acres and 50 miles of coastline.
The Yurok, who called themselves Oohl, or Indian people, were renowned
for fishing, canoe making, basket weaving, story telling and dancing.
Yurok were first visited by the Spanish in the 1500s and later by
American fur traders and trappers, including Jedediah Smith, who
raved about the abundant wildlife in the area. In 1850, gold miners
moved in, bringing with them disease and violence. The Yurok population
declined by 75 percent, and the remaining Indians were forcibly
relocated to a reservation in 1855.
Kinney, a tribal leader who was one of four Yurok selected to go
to Washington, D.C., to pick up the ceremonial regalia, said the
returned items signify a new beginning.
responsibilities are to preserve our culture, our language and our
religious beliefs not only for us, but for our children and their
children," Kinney said. "This signifies a new day for
the Yurok. We're not a people of the past that are only in history
returned items make up 30 percent of the National Museum's Yurok