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Art & Haa At.ow, Our Treasures

By Rosita Worl, Ph.D.

Haa At.ow refers to our most prized clan possessions or our treasures. Haa at.ow are central to the social and religious life of the Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian. They are the spiritual threads that unite the living with their ancestors and provide the bonds with future generations. They record the deeds of ancestors and represent titles to sacred sites and land. The sacred objects are appreciated for their artistic and aesthetic qualities, but the greater value lies in their sacred and social significance rather than their artistic dimensions. In the past, alienation of at.ow was impossible except in the settlement of legal disputes.

The Southeast Alaska Natives acquired their spirits and crests through encounters that occurred in the distant past between humans and a supernatural entity usually in the form of a bird, animal or fish. Their right to depict the visual representation of this encounter and to claim an exclusive relationship with the supernatural entity involved in the event was purchased with the life of an ancestor. The spirit was incorporated into the natural world through a process that began with its depiction on a ceremonial object or clothing and its ritual presentation in a ceremony in which it was transformed into an at.ow. Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer have translated at.ow as "an owned or a purchased thing" in several of their publications. They note the "thing" may be land, a heavenly body, a spirit, personal name, an artistic design or other "things." They indicate that the ownership of "thing," purchased with the life of an ancestor, is transferred to the descendants.

The at.ow is multidimensional in that it represents both natural and supernatural phenomena. It includes the crest art design and the physical object on which it is depicted. It includes the spirits of both the human and supernatural entity involved in the encounter. It also includes real property such as significant natural features that played a role in the legendary event as well as the site at which the event occurred. The intellectual property rights associated with the at.ow include the crest art design, the names of the individuals and the spirit who played a role in the acquisition of the crest, the stories and songs recounting the legendary event.

The object, with its visual representation of the supernatural beings and the ancient legendary event, is ritually presented at a ceremony. The clan claiming the at.ow, which acts as the host clan, recounts the names and stories giving rise to the crest, and the songs recalling the event are sung. The host clan then kills money (formerly slaves), which is called Daana ak gwa jaak, by distributing it to the guest clan. The ritual presentation and distribution of cash and gifts by the host clan together with a response and acknowledgement by the guest clan or clans of the opposite moiety transforms the object with its crest design and associated property into an at.ow. The citation of the names, the recounting of the stories and singing of the songs calls forth the ancestors and spirits of the at.ow during this ritual. This ceremony is also a legal transaction in which title to the at.ow is validated as the property of the host clan. The presence of the guest clan from the opposite moiety validates the host clans ownership of the at.ow in the same way that a deed of title is recorded in western or American systems. This same ritual and legal process is repeated generation after generation. The sacred significance of the at.ow is reaffirmed and the clan ownership is re-validated within each succeeding ceremony as the trusteeship transfers from uncle to maternal nephew.

Based on traditional tribal property law, all members of a clan collectively own their at.ow. They own the intellectual property represented by the crest art, the names, stories and songs in the same way that they hold their tangible property.

All members of a clan must agree to the alienation of a clan object, and theoretically if one member of a clan should object, its sale or transfer would be null and void. Thus under tribal law, a single individual acting independently of the clan does not have the authority to alienate clan objects and crests.

The SHI Board of Trustees adopted the theme, "Haa At.ow, Our Treasures," for Celebration 2002 to affirm the significance of this concept in our culture and to honor our ancestors who bequeathed us these sacred gifts.

Rosita Worl is president of Sealaska Heritage Institute. She holds a Ph.D. in Anthropology. She may be reached by e-mail at