Alaska Supreme Court affirms Klukwan as home for disputed Tlingit artifacts

The Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center. (Stremple/KHNS)

A Klukwan museum can continue to display a collection of artifacts from the Tlingit Frog House Clan. That’s despite a legal challenge that reached Alaska’s highest court. The state’s Supreme Court has apparently ended a decades-old dispute over control of the art treasures.

When Frog House clan members disputed the sale of artifacts to a Canadian collector in the 1970s, an Alaska Superior Court judge ruled that they actually belonged to all members of  Klukwan’s Frog House. The court ordered them placed under the care of clan elders living in the clan’s traditional lands on Upper Lynn Canal.

It added a condition: they could be sold only with the unanimous consent of all Frog House clan members. Until a safe place was found near Klukwan, the artifacts would sit in the state museum in Juneau. There they remained for decades, until last year when the carvings — considered masterpieces — were returned to Klukwan last year.

But that didn’t sit well with some descendants, who filed a lawsuit in 2019.  They argued that by housing the artifacts in the tribe’s heritage center, the court had given them to the whole tribe rather than the Frog House.

Petersburg attorney Fred Triem made a case in September that the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center in Klukwan kept them out of the clan’s reach.

“The Frog House Clan members, of whom there are 104, cannot use the artifacts. The artifacts are locked up in a museum that’s not under the control or even reasonably accessible to the Frog House members,” Triem said.

But the state’s supreme court justices were unmoved. In a decision released on Oct. 21, they wrote that the lower court had been correct, and only exceptional circumstances could overturn the 1978 ruling.

The decision said that “the fact that 40 years later a descendant of one of the original plaintiffs does not agree with the settlement terms is not an extraordinary circumstance” — and that it was an unreasonable delay in seeking any changes.

Four house posts and a copy of a carved screen are displayed in the Jilkaat Kwaan Heritage Center. The center is closed for the season, but group tours are available by appointment.