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Igiugig requests repatriation of remains

May 29th, 2015 | Tim Troll Print this article   Email this article  

Between 1926 and 1938, Al? Hrdlička visited Alaska on numerous occasions. A renowned physical anthropologist and head of Physical Anthropology at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Hrdlička made most of his trips in order to gather evidence to support his idea that Native Americans came from Asia across the Bering Strait. To prove his theory, he observed, photographed and measured Alaska Natives, and exhumed bodies from burial sites and transported the remains back to the museum in Washington, D.C.

This practice of digging up graves, though not uncommon among anthropologists of his day, makes Hrdlička something of a controversial figure. Hrdlička undertook much of his work without consulting with Native communities and, in some cases, over their objections. As a result, he is often a bogeyman in Alaskan lore and referred to as "Hard Liquor," "The Skull Doctor," or "Dead Man's Daddy" - unfortunate labels that obscure the fact that during his travels he also provided valuable medical service to the living Natives he encountered.

Among the sites where Hrdlička collected remains were several old village sites around Bristol Bay.

Excursions like Hrdlička's would be unthinkable today. Now the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History has a process in place to correct the past and return human remains to their Native communities of origin.

The traditional council of Igiugig, with help from the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust, recently initiated a request for the return of remains unearthed by Hrdlička, which he attributed to the abandoned village of Kaskanak on the Kvichak River. Specifically, the council has requested the skeletal remains of 24 individuals be returned for reburial; this request is now under consideration. A return of the remains is expected to take some time because the request initiates an extensive process involving an examination of the remains as well as research to establish cultural affiliation.

Though the request of Igiguig traditional council is in the early stages of processing by the Smithsonian, the director of the museum, Dr. Kirk Johnson, made time on a recent trip to Alaska to visit Igiugig. He accepted an invitation from the traditional council to visit the village as well as take a boat trip on the Kvichak River to visit some of the old sites Hrdlička visited nearly a century ago.

Dr. Johnson flew out to the village in the company of Tim Troll, executive director of the Bristol Bay Heritage Land Trust and Jerry Liboff, business manager for Igiugig Village Corporation. To his surprise, Dr. Johnson found himself the featured speaker at the awards ceremony for the school, an event attended by nearly everyone in Igiugig.

In addition to being in charge of one of the largest natural history collections in the world, Johnson is a paleontologist specializing in fossil plants. He captivated his audience with stories about dinosaurs, woolly mammoths, his childhood fascination with fossils, what fossil plants tell us about global warming, and the unusual stuff found in the National museum, including Yup'ik artifacts painted with strange creatures that could be the Lake Iliamna monster.

Johnson also learned some interesting facts from the village; he was particularly surprised to learn about the rare freshwater seal population of Lake Iliamna. After the awards ceremony, Johnson also learned about Yup'ik steam baths - first hand.

The next day, AlexAnna Salmon, the village corporation president and an anthropology graduate of Dartmouth College, led Johnson and community members on an excursion to four old village sites within a few miles of Igiugig that were likely visited by Hrdlička, including one that showed signs of recent illegal digging.

It seems the somewhat dubious reputation of Hrdlička in Alaska cast no shadow on Dr. Johnson or the Smithsonian Museum. Igiugig was delighted to host him and is clearly looking forward to doing right by their ancestors and learning more about them through the Smithsonian's repatriation process.


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