Out of the Classroom, Into the World

A former art history student of Peter Robinson’s helps repatriate a Native American artifact.
During her senior year at Thacher, Sara Jacobsen CdeP 2017 enrolled in Peter Robinson’s art history course. She and the other students surveyed the history of world art, learning how to describe the formal elements of a piece and to place it in its cultural context. It was in that class, too, that she was exposed to a piece that particularly struck her: an example of a Chilkat robe, a type of blanket traditionally woven by Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian peoples of Alaska and British Columbia and used in their spiritual ceremonies.

It looked just like a piece hanging above the dining room table in her family’s Seattle home. She started to wonder why they had it in their home, since they aren’t Native American—and if there might be a more meaningful place for it somewhere.

“Before seeing the Chilkat robe in art history class, I assumed that what hung in my house was a replica or something that had been produced for the tourist trade,” said Sara. “I had no idea that the Chilkat robe had such cultural and spiritual significance to its tribe, nor did I know that it was such a revered art form.”

She and her family had a number of conversations about the robe, which her father had purchased at a Seattle art gallery in 1986, and ultimately conducted research and consulted experts at the Burke Museum. Their research confirmed that the robe was an original piece and a sacred clan object with deep meaning for certain Native tribes. The Jacobsens eventually decided to repatriate the piece by way of the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Private collectors returning artifacts to Native tribes and related cultural institutions is relatively rare, and the story was covered by the KUOW Puget Sound Public Radio station.

“If I hadn’t learned about the robe in Mr. Robinson's class,” said Sara, “it would still be in my dining room.”

“The Sealaska Heritage Institute was happily surprised that Chilkat robes were being covered in high school art history,” she added, “and Mr. Robinson kindly scanned the textbook page about them for my dad to give to our contact at the Institute.”

After everything was said and done, Sara described her feelings about the event like this:

“I’m really glad the robe is finally home: It belonged with the tribe who created it all along. I think I’m getting too much credit for returning something that wasn’t ours to begin with. But I’ve gotten some messages from tribe members who seem to be really grateful and that feels good. I’ve also been happy to hear that a few people who have read the KUOW article are now looking into returning their own Native American artifacts.”

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