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Alaskan museum uncovers unique art from the indigenous Tlingit tribe

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Zachary James, the registrar of the Haines Sheldon Museum in Haines, Alaska, had a little extra time on his hands during this pandemic and eight mysterious weathered bentwood boxes.

ZACHARY JAMES: If you just looked at it with the naked eye, it would be almost a completely black surface with very faint outlines.

SIMON: But it was clear to Zachary James that the boxes, part of a collection of native Tlingit objects, were worth a closer look. So he bought an old DSLR camera that captures infrared light and peered under 200 years of age and soot.

JAMES: Right when I took the picture, I could see it in the camera. And it was pretty amazing to see just how much the infrared photography was able to reveal and then how good the design was, too.

SIMON: It's an abstract pattern rendered and crisp, bowled, carefully curved strokes. Zachary James told us that he sees a raven, a face and an alien figure. He guesses the boxes would have been used for storing clan treasures or family heirlooms. He put two of them up on display earlier this month, along with photographs of the newly uncovered decorations. And he says they hold a particular significance for him and other Tlingit people.

JAMES: Tlingit people have been kind of systematically dispossessed of their culture and material heritage over the years. And the reasons are many - economic pressures to conform, pressures to assimilate. It's nice to know that there's still some exceptional pieces here in this community in the place that it was made, and the people who made these things and found significance in it can walk down the street and see it again.

SIMON: Zachary James of the Haines Sheldon Museum in Haines, Alaska.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOLDMUND'S "THE BALLAD OF BARBARA ALLEN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.