Courtesy of Brian Wallace
Nathan Jackson at the Alaska State Archives in Juneau, April 4, 2019.

Preeminent Tlingit artist Nathan Jackson described Haines Sheldon Museum director Helen Alten’s termination as “a big mistake.”

Jackson, 81, a Chilkoot Tlingit, was raised in Haines before moving to Ketchikan to be near the cedar wood he carves. The Sheldon Museum has about five of Jackson’s pieces, along with 65 Lukaax̱.ádi Raven house heirlooms stored for safekeeping on the clan’s behalf, collections coordinator Zack James said. Jackson is one of the clan leaders and has made or restored several of the items the museum is storing.

“A museum, in a way, is a bank for safekeeping valuables,” Jackson said. “We have regalia that have been passed on down for many, many years, and they are treasures in which we feel that (the museum) is a safekeeping place for us.”

Jackson said Alten is well-qualified to look after these valuables.

Alten, who served as director for the past six years, arrived at the Sheldon Museum with more than 30 years of experience working for museums and cultural organizations in Alaska, the Lower 48 and overseas.

She was terminated abruptly June 30 after the museum board eliminated her position to save money amid a tight budget. The board cited recent cuts in borough funding, as well as the economic effects of the pandemic in a July 6 statement regarding her termination. The loss of visitor revenue has been a substantial hit to the museum.

Jackson said he was upset when he learned Alten had been let go.

“We need somebody in charge and somebody who understands what takes place there. … (Alten) is valuable to me and she should be valuable to anybody else that puts their items in the museum,” Jackson said. He added that Alten is particularly resourceful when it comes to raising funds to maintain the museum.

Alten this year had raised $96,000 through six grants to help cover the loss of borough funding.

As a clan leader, Jackson said he feels responsible for protecting “our most precious objects” stored at the museum. “I don’t like the idea of being a failure,” he said. Given the museum’s uncertain future, one option for protecting heirlooms could be moving them.

“If we’re not satisfied with (the museum’s stability) and the way things have happened, then the next step would be moving them to a different place,” Jackson said.

But he said his preference would be to keep Alten in place, with changes to the museum board if necessary. “If I had to have something moved, I would move the people that were trying to undermine the person who’s in leadership,” he said.

Any big decision about the heirlooms would involve a clan-wide discussion, Jackson said, a conversation logistically complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In its statement, the museum board noted that the director’s salary and benefits is the “largest expense in the budget,” and that eliminating the cost would “help ensure the financial viability of the museum.” The remaining staff, board members and volunteers will operate the museum, the board said.