A box of Alaska Native artifacts goes from unknown to on its way home

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ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - A box of history, a couple, and a mystery: For three decades, a box left in the back of an Anchorage cab stayed hidden in a corner, its owner unknown. That is, until Ashley Christensen came into the picture.

"We have a family member who is a retired cab owner," Christensen said, "and he found this box when he was moving out of state. He gave it to my husband and I, and I've had it on my shelf for just two years, not knowing what to do with it."

The box was passed to her from that family member. Inside, she found what would turn out to be an array of Alaska Native artifacts, some of them estimated to be thousands of years old.

"We spend a lot of time reclaiming artifacts," said Christensen, who currently works for Chugach Alaska Corp., one of the 13 Alaska Native Regional Corporations. "It means a lot to be able to give somebody back what was theirs, and because I felt it wasn't mine, I reached out to the State."

And so began her mission. Luckily, one of the pieces in the treasure trove of a 1980s Nordstrom shirt box appeared to hold a key to the puzzle of whose work she'd found.

"Within the box - there's no telling whose they are - but there's this one broken ivory carving that's carved in scrimshaw by Ben in Savoonga, Alaska," Christensen said. "And it's dated 1981. I thought, 'This has been missing 30 years, it could be Ben's box.'"

She decided to chase this mystery man down, and 37 years after that inscription was carved, Christensen would indeed connect with its creator.

"I called the Native Village of Savoonga and asked if they knew a Ben, and they said 'Yeah, he's right here,'" she laughed. "I talked to Ben and said, 'I have this crazy story for you. Do you remember leaving a box in the back of a cab?'

"He remembered the day clearly," she said.

Ben Pungowiyi, a noted artist out of Savoonga, was floored when he received the call from Christensen inquiring about the box.

"I went, 'Oh my God,' you know?" he said. "And what an honest person, this person was. There's only a few honest people left in this world."

Pungowiyi said that during a trip he'd taken away from his village - located in the far western part of the state on St. Lawrence Island - in which he'd attended a rifle competition in Arkansas, he'd managed to leave the precious contents of the box behind. He'd brought the items with him for trade, he said.

"And I had taken a cab up to the Ted Stevens (Anchorage International Airport)," he said. "I was in a rush, and I realized I'd left a few artifacts and my carving."

He didn't realize what he'd apparently lost, though, until he was at his gate.

"I rushed back, but the cab was gone," he said. "I thought, 'I can't miss this flight. I have to get going.'"

Christensen said it was as if Pungowiyi "went back to the day he lost it" when she spoke with him.

"He was thrilled," she said. "He couldn't believe I took the time to track him down."

In this case, the past met the present, and a plan for the future.

"I found him. And it blew my mind," Christensen said. "It's very surreal. But the plan is to ship this in the safest way possible. I'm thinking I need an expert to help."