• Historical items, plundered from the graves of indigenous Alaskans, displayed during a ceremony at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin on Wednesday, May 16, 2018. (AP)Source: AP
German museum the latest Western institution to return stolen items to First Nations people.
17 May 2018 - 12:47 PM  UPDATED 17 May 2018 - 12:47 PM

A Berlin museum on Wednesday formally returned ancient wooden masks, a child's cradle and other spiritually significant artifacts plundered from the graves of Indigenous Alaskans by an explorer sent by the museum's predecessor in the 19th century.

The returns close the final chapter of an odyssey in which many of the items were thought forever lost.

The masks, carved from spruce or hemlock, are daubed with red pigment, a traditional tincture made of seal oil, human blood and powder from a stone that indicate they were used in burial ceremonies by tribes in the Chugach area of Alaska, said John Johnson, a representative of the Chugach Alaska Corporation, which today represents Indigenous people of the region.

One mask comes to a sharp point at the top, symbolising the transition to the spirit world; another shows a face with one eye open and the other closed.

Their exact age is not known, but they're thought to be up to 1000 years old and were taken from graves in caves on Chenega Island and a place known as Sanradna, whose exact location is no longer known, Johnson said.

The nine artefacts were among some 200 Chugach items collected for Germany's Royal Museum of Ethnology by Norwegian adventurer Johan Adrian Jacobsen between 1882 and 1884.

Several were thought lost in the final days of World War II after being plundered by the Soviet Red Army, but resurfaced in St. Petersburg, Russia, and were then given to a museum in Leipzig in then-communist East Germany in the 1970s.

Berlin's Ethnological Museum only learned in the 1980s that they had survived, and negotiated their return.

Johnson learned of their existence from Jacobsen's own journals, where he detailed how he had found them in caves and taken them, and then tracked them to the Ethnological Museum in Berlin's Dahlem neighborhood.

He led a delegation to the German capital in 2015 and has been working since then with the museum and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees Berlin's museums, to establish their provenance and organise restitution.

Other items collected by Jacobsen were determined to have been fairly obtained through purchase or trade.

Wearing white cotton gloves to protect the fragile relic from damage, foundation president Hermann Parzinger handed one of the masks to Johnson at a ceremony in the museum, saying he hoped they could work together on future historical and cultural projects.

Among other things, work is underway on an exhibition on Jacobsen himself, who brought many thousands of items to Germany from settlements on the northwest coast of Canada and the United States.

Jacobsen's Eurocentric attitude was that he was encountering cultures that were in danger of extinction or of soon adapting to European ways, and the self-proclaimed "captain's" accounts are more adventure than anthropological.

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The exhibit aims to provide a "critical examination of the history of the collection from today's perspective."

Ideally the artefacts being returned would go back into the caves from which they were taken, but since that's impossible to do without risking their destruction, Johnson said the idea is to put them on public display, hopefully in a regional museum.

Denmark has already returned human remains that were taken from the Chugach area, and Johnson said much work remains researching the provenance of other artifacts scattered in museums around the U.S. and the world, including Britain, Russia and Finland.