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Germany Returns Cultural Artifacts to Indigenous People of Alaska

Germany has returned nine artifacts to indigenous communities in Alaska. The publicly funded Berlin State Museums, which are overseen by the Prussian Cultural Foundation, determined that several masks, a baby basket, and a wooden idol had been unlawfully taken from a burial site nearly four decades earlier.

The foundation’s president, Hermann Parzinger, said that because these icons were not gifted to the museum, they did not belong there. He presented part of a wooden mask to John F.C. Johnson, a representative of Alaska’s Chugach people, on Wednesday, May 16.

“Our people are traders, but they would never trade burial objects,” said Johnson in an interview with the New York Times. He had been aware of the missing objects for quite some time, and in 2015, he traveled to Berlin to search for them.

Johnson learned that Johan Adrian Jacobsen, a Norwegian amateur ethnographer, took the cultural objects at some point between 1882 and 1884, on behalf of Berlin’s Ethnographic Museum. The artifacts, which have never been publicly displayed, will now be exhibited at local museums and community centers.

The returns come at a time when European countries are being urged to confront their colonial histories. Since most of Germany’s provenance research centers around Nazi-looted works, the country has faced mounting pressure to extend its resources to colonial-era objects. Last year, art historian Bénédicte Savoy quit the advisory board of Humboldt Forum in protest of the Berlin State Museums’ lack of transparency about the items in its collection. Savoy has since been hired to advise French president Emmanuel Macron on the repatriation of African art.