A California collector of Native art has donated an old spruce root hat likely made by a Haida weaver to Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI).
The hat is dated to 1900 or earlier and is believed to be of Haida origin because it has a “frog’s back” design—a recognizable Haida weaving method that was incorporated to make pieces feel bumpy, like a frog’s back. The donor, former Alaskan Monica Wyatt, first saw the hat in August at the Flury & Company gallery in Seattle.
“I was transfixed. I couldn’t stop looking at it,” Wyatt said. “But it was too fine a piece for just me to have. I’ve collected contemporary pieces that make me happy, but there’s no way I could feel good about having a cultural piece with only me here to appreciate it. So I left the gallery.”
But she didn’t get far. The hat called her back.
“The more I looked, the more I was moved by the quiet beauty of the hat and the obvious skill of the person who had woven it. And someone had worn the hat. I imagined the people living in the misty forest.”
It was at that moment Wyatt had the idea to buy it and donate it to SHI. Wyatt, who grew up in Fairbanks and lived in Anchorage for seven years, visited the institute in May and was aware of the groundbreaking for the Walter Soboleff Center in Juneau.
“It just came to me in a flash that this was where the hat belonged. I’m not an expert or a scholar, but I was fairly confident that this was a special hat, so I bought it.”
SHI President Rosita Worl said she is humbled by the generosity of Wyatt’s gift, which cost almost $5,000.
“She paid a significant amount of money to return this remarkable hat to the Native people of Southeast Alaska,” said Worl, noting it’s clear upon examining the piece that the weaver was highly skilled. “We are so grateful for this. Now our weavers will be able to learn this technique by coming to us and studying the hat.”
SHI employs a professional staff to care for collections. The Walter Soboleff Center, which broke ground in August, will have a state-of-the-art facility for ethnographic collections, archives, a library and research.
Sealaska Heritage Institute was founded in 1980 to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars. Its mission is to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska.