Native American Art is commonly found in many homes, but there was something about this piece which troubled a Seattle teenager.
19-year-old Sara Jacobsen was used to seeing the ceremonial robe, for it had hung over her dinner table for as long as she could remember.
When, during a class in her senior year at High School, Sara saw images of a very similar robe being used as part of a sacred Native American ceremony.
Sara began to ask her father, Bruce Jacobsen, about the artwork, which led to him feeling as if he was being interrogated.
“I felt like I was on the wrong side of a protest rally, with terms like ‘cultural appropriation’ and ‘sacred ceremonial robes’ and ‘completely inappropriate,’ and terms like that,” he told local radio station KUOW.org. “I got defensive at first, of course,” he said. “I was like, ‘C’mon, Sara! This is more of the political stuff you all say these days.'”
“I just thought it was so beautiful, and it was like nothing I had seen before,” Jacobsen said of the piece, which he bought in the 1980s, when he first moved to Seattle. “It’s a completely symmetric pattern of geometric shapes, and also shapes that come from the culture, like birds,” added Jacobsen. “And then it’s just perfectly made — you can see no seams in it at all.”
“The robe was a Chilkat robe, or blanket, as it’s also known. They are woven by the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian peoples of Alaska and British Columbia and are traditionally made from mountain goat wool. The tribal or clan origin of this particular 6-foot-long piece was unclear, but it dated back to around 1900 and was beautifully preserved down to its long fringe.” (Sc. KUOW)
Jacobsen contacted a renowned Native American Heritage organization at the Burke Museum.
“I got this eloquent email back that said, ‘We’re not gonna tell you what to go do,’ but then they confirmed what Sara said: It was an important ceremonial piece, that it was usually owned by an entire clan, that it would be passed down generation to generation, and that it had a ton of cultural significance to them.”
“When Jacobsen emailed, SHI Executive Director Rosita Worl couldn’t believe the offer. “I was stunned. I was shocked. I was in awe. And I was so grateful to the Jacobsen family.”
Worl said the robe has a huge monetary value. But that’s not why it’s precious to local tribes.
“It’s what we call ‘atoow’: a sacred clan object,” she said. “Our beliefs are that it is imbued with the spirit of not only the craft itself, but also of our ancestors. We use [Chilkat robes] in our ceremonies when we are paying respect to our elders. And also it unites us as a people.”
Since the Jacobsens returned the robe to the institute, Worl said, master weavers have been examining it and marveling at the handiwork. Chilkat robes can take a year to make – and hardly anyone still weaves them.
“Our master artist, Delores Churchill, said it was absolutely a spectacular robe. The circles were absolutely perfect. So it does have that importance to us that it could also be used by our younger weavers to study the art form itself.”
Worl said private collectors hardly ever return anything to her organization. The federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act requires museums and other institutions that receive federal funding to repatriate significant cultural relics to Native tribes. But no such law exists for private collectors.”
While it may not be hanging over his dinner table anymore, Jacobsen is delighted that the robe has been returned to a place where it can be enjoyed by many, within its proper historical context.