Repatriation, Recording, Representation

Man and woman stand smiling in front of a large wall map of northwestern Alaska.

Repatriation of human remains and cultural artifacts from Lower-48 museum archives was one of the many accomplishments that prompted local leader Vera Metcalf’s induction into the Alaska Women’s Hall of Fame.

Metcalf shared with KNOM’s listeners the daunting logistical process of transporting the remains of ancestors to their final resting place on St. Lawrence Island and elsewhere in Alaska. Very few of the remains were documented. Using the notes from their initial collection, the ancestral remains were able to be finally sent home after years of research.

An aerial view of a large island on a cloudy day
An aerial view of St. Lawrence Island, circa 2015. Photo: Laura Kraegel, KNOM.

Metcalf also talked about the process behind the identifying and cataloging of many cultural objects and pictures from her home of St. Lawrence Island. Most of the photographs from the 1920s did not include names of the subjects, only numbers. Local elders played an essential role in filling the knowledge gaps. She even discovered a photo of her father at the age of ten!

Then, Metcalf began the work of “knowledge repatriation.” The result is a source book on St. Lawrence Island history and heritage published by the Smithsonian Institution.

In addition to her repatriation work, Metcalf is also a recognized expert and advocate for Arctic issues — for small communities that often “don’t have a seat at the table” with policy makers who decide issues like tribal sovereignty, Native food security, and Arctic transportation. She travels worldwide to consult and teach about topics so important to her home.

“When I talk to the hunters and see what they go through in order to harvest an animal, they’re the ones that are doing the hard work and providing food to the community and their families. They’re my inspiration,” she says. “If they’re risking their lives to go harvest an animal… it gives me energy to keep doing what I’m doing. They’re my go-to people. When something happens, they’re the ones that I rely on. I’m not alone in this work.”

Image at top: Vera Metcalf, right, with husband Bob inside KNOM studios. Photo: KNOM file.

You can read and download the full sourcebook “Akuzilleput Igaqullghet: Our Words Put to Paper” on the website of the Smithsonian Institution.