For nearly 150 years, sacred ceremonial objects once used by the ancestors of the Yurok Tribe were held in private collections and museums, preventing the fulfillment of their intended purpose: to be danced in at Yurok ceremonies.
On Saturday, the Yurok Tribe celebrated the return of 128 ceremonial objects from the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian, the culmination of a nine-year process and one of the largest repatriations of American Indian artifacts in United States history.
"This is our backbone right here. This is our culture and who we are," said Rosie Clayburn, the tribe's Cultural Resource Manager, who in May accompanied the items as they traveled from Suitland, Md., to San Francisco, where a tribal delegation and traditional dance leaders met to transport the objects to Yurok Tribal ancestral territory.
The items were presented for display Saturday in a "Kwom-hle'-chey-ehl" celebration, which translates as "they have come back" in the Yurok language.
"For 150 years or so, these things have been in our absence, but tonight they are going to dance," said Walt Lara Sr., a member of the tribe's Repatriation Committee, during the Saturday afternoon event.
Lara said that the dance participants' main purpose is to be a vehicle for the regalia to dance "so the spirits that are within those things can once again participate in the ceremony."
By Saturday night and through the dawn of Sunday morning, the regalia, some dating back at least 220 years, reclaimed its purpose, being worn and danced in by tribal members in a Brush Dance ceremony held at Sumeg Village at Patrick's Point State Park.
Tribal member Pergish Carlson said that participating in the dance ceremonies prevented him from getting caught up in a life of drugs and alcohol, which was all too prevalent when he was growing up in Klamath.
"If I didn't have this regalia or these dances in my life, I wouldn't be here. This is what actually saved me from the depths," Carlson said, standing over the tables of repatriated items that he and other dancers would be wearing that night. "Who knows where they danced last and who knows who had them on, but some of our relations did, and some of our relations made these."
The items received by the tribe included dance quivers decorated with woodpecker scalps, jump sticks decorated with woodpecker heads, female basket hats, feathered hats for men, brush dance dresses decorated with abalone shells and even dresses decorated with thimbles, obviously made after the arrival of Europeans. One apron returned to the tribe was collected from a village in Trinidad Bay in 1793 by the Vancouver Expedition.
"It feels good to have them back home," said Jim McQuillen, who also accompanied the artifacts from San Francisco to Yurok country.
The regalia returned this year was the second batch of a repatriation claim filed by the Yurok Tribe in 2005. In 2010, the tribe received 217 items used for the White Deerskin and Jump Dance ceremonies. The Smithsonian is still withholding 15 caps, saying they are not sacred and do not qualify for repatriation, but the tribe said they will continue to work toward getting them back.
"They each have their own spirit, and they each need to dance," said Yurok vice-chairperson Susan Masten. "They're not whole until they come home."
'Going to bring you home'
It's difficult to determine how each artifact left Yurok custody, but the tribe knows that 90 percent of the items left Yurok territory by way of Grace Nicholson, an avid collector of American Indian objects. Nicholson sold her collection to George Gustav Heye, who over a period of 45 years accumulated the largest collection of American Indian objects in the world.
In 1989, Congress passed the National Museum of the American Indian Act, which transferred Heye's 800,000-piece collection to the Smithsonian Institution and also required the Smithsonian to implement a repatriation policy regarding Native American human remains and certain cultural materials.
When the Yurok Tribe's claim for repatriation was making its way through the bureaucracy of the act in 2007, Clayburn was working at the museum in Washington, D.C., through an internship.
Clayburn taught museum staff "traditional Yurok care" - protocol for handling the artifacts in an accordance with Yurok belief. For example, male dance items should only be handled by males; pepperwood leaves should be used as a preferred pest repellent.
Clayburn finished her internship before the regalia was ready to be repatriated, but she promised to return.
"My parting words to this stuff was, 'I'm going to come back for you and I'm going to bring you home,'" Clayburn recalled.
Yurok Cultural Center
Through conversations with Yurok tribal elders, Clayburn would consistently hear the pain that her people felt at the fact that important cultural items were sitting in museums and not being used.
"'It's crying to dance! It's crying to come home,'" Clayburn remembers elders telling her. "'Everything has a spirit and everything has to dance.'"
Now that the tribe has successfully received more than 300 repatriated items, there is going to be a push to build a Yurok Cultural Center, which was a desire of tribal elders, Clayburn said.
A design and master plan for the building has already been created, and the tribe plans to start a fund for a museum that will house the items and be open to the public, Clayburn said.
The return of the items restores a balance needed for the health of the Yurok people, and now that the regalia are back where they belong, the feeling is almost palpable, Clayburn says.
"You can feel it. It's happy."
Reach Adam Spencer firstname.lastname@example.org.