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Hidden in plain sight: A guide to finding the Alaska art treasures in the museum's Captain Cook exhibit

  • Author: Mike Dunham
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published August 6, 2015

Suppose visitors from outer space made a brief stop at your house this afternoon. What thing would you give them as a token of what Alaskans are all about? For that matter, suppose you are the alien visitor. What items from Anchorage would you take back with you?

This is not entirely an idle game. It connects to a theater piece that will be presented at the Anchorage Museum on Friday, Aug. 7. A group of Alaska Native artists led by performance artist Allison Warden and museum curator Aaron Leggett will enact how people would "negotiate today if alien explorers chose to land in Anchorage." The performance is a response to the museum's "Arctic Ambitions" exhibition, a look at the Alaska voyage of James Cook in 1778, when the first contact between Europeans and several Alaska Native groups occurred.

The question also speaks to selections those Alaskans and Europeans made when they encountered each other. It's answered, in some ways, by a small number of precious items included in the exhibit, pieces of Alaska that have not been seen here for more than 200 years.

"These really are remarkable treasures," Canadian historian Robin Inglis, the research curator of the exhibit, told the Alaska Dispatch News. "Not only are they rare and the earliest examples we have, they come from the actual moment of contact.

"Once they leave, they won't be back for a very long time. Probably ever."

Crossing a border

The treasures are easy to miss, however, tucked into a sprawling exhibit that takes up several galleries and contains large, bright illustrations, photos, maps, interactive displays and artifacts from Cook's ships. This reporter, for instance, walked through the show several times before noticing the hard-hat-size "Seal Decoy" from Prince William Sound. Seen through glass in a corner of a dim case, to prevent light damage, it looks like a lump of wood.

On closer examination, one sees a superbly life-like, life-size replica of a seal head carved into a helmet. Such items were once common among the Sugpiaq/Alutiiq people of Prince William Sound and Kodiak, but this may be the first ever displayed in Anchorage.

"They're quite rare," said Aron Crowell, Alaska director of the Smithsonian Institution's Arctic Studies Center, housed at the museum. "There are only seven in museums anywhere in the world."

How were they used? "Hunters would set inflated seal skins on a beach and hide among them. They'd strap this cap on and move around, poking it over the skins, an animated decoy, almost like duck hunting. You know how curious seals are. Something like that was almost irresistible to them and they'd come in close enough to be hit with a spear or a dart."

The decoy helmets were noted by Russians, who arrived in Prince William Sound after Cook. Like other items in the display, they appear to have been exclusive to the Sugpiaq.

Another specifically Sugpiaq item is a feast bowl in the form of a seal. The oil is still oozing out from feasts served more than 200 years ago, Crowell said. Inglis notes that it shows "considerable signs of use."

The Sugpiaq source is revealed by its edge, rimmed with shell or bone inlays. Cook saw that the Prince William Sound people had beads, probably from Russia or China and acquired through trade with other tribes, "but these are shell beads," Crowell said. "The Tlingit ornamented their bowls differently, but they never did this."

Sugpiaq items are often misidentified as Tlingit, said Crowell. The most southern of the Eskimoan language speakers, they kept many of the skills and crafts of their Inuit relatives to the west and north, but also incorporated some of the skills of the Northwest coast Indian culture that stretched from Cordova to Washington.

"Cook wouldn't have known it, but in entering Prince William Sound he had crossed a major cultural border," said Crowell. He saw tools and artwork similar to those he'd encountered in Nootka Sound in present-day British Columbia. But he also noticed the similarity with boats and clothing used in Greenland. This excited him greatly, Crowell said, because it hinted -- falsely as it turned out -- that the Northwest Passage between the Pacific and Atlantic, the purpose of his expedition, was within reach.

Arms race

The closest of the major Northwest Coast Indian tribes to the Sugpiaq were the Tlingit, their enemies "from time immemorial," said Crowell. "The oral tradition on both sides is filled with battles between the two."

Around 1,000 years ago there was an arms race in Alaska as bow-and-arrow technology migrated across the Bering Strait and into southern Alaska. The development was recent enough that Tlingit lore still retains a story about "The First War in the World," Crowell said. "This is when people began building forts and palisades, using refuge rocks and armor."

Cook and his men "were fascinated by indigenous armor," said Inglis, "and many pieces exist in museum collections." But the slat body armor from Prince William Sound is unusual.

The style of the armor on display is of Siberian origin, Crowell said. "But I don't know of another piece that's so decorated." A Sugpiaq mask form is carved into the center of the breast resembling Alutiiq masks. A belt of identical faces encircles the entire piece.

The slats are painted with ovoid shapes, somewhat similar to Tlingit formline art, but easily distinguished once the differences have been pointed out. "There was a translation of the style from one culture to the other, but the Sugpiaq did not do crests or clan designs," said Crowell. "They retained the Inuit tradition of representing animal spirits. They copied the style, but changed its meaning."

Chugach ‘flash’

The artistic connection implies that there was probably a good deal of commerce as well as warfare. But fighting was more memorable and more likely to be recalled in saga and song. There's a reason why the Homeric epics are not about successful business trips. Cook was unaware of the intertribal hostility; he had steered clear of Tlingit territory due to weather and knew nothing about them. But he did note that the Sugpiaq usually showed up with weapons and armor, if making friendly gestures, prepared to either fight or trade depending on the situation.

Two hats show the Sugpiaq-Tlingit connection with particular clarity. One is a chief's hat topped with several potlatch rings, indicated the number of feasts the wearer had hosted. It has a simplified spirit face on it and is dominated by a stunning blue-green color produced by copper oxide. There were some copper deposits available in Prince William Sound, Crowell said, and it was also obtained through trade with the Ahtna people of the Copper River.

"There are two remarkable things about that hat," said Inglis. "One is that the British Museum loaned it at all. When I first talked to them about the Alaska material for the Cook exhibit I specifically mentioned the Chugach chief's hat and they were like, gee, that's awfully fragile. It would probably need conservation. I put that on the list anyway and was amazed that they let it out. The second incredible thing is that Cook was able to get hold of it. They didn't visit the villages in Alaska, except at Unalaska. They did things over the bow of the ship. It's amazing that something as important as this hat was traded."

The second hat is a broad, 18-inch-wide model adorned with trade beads identical to some found at the first Russian settlement on Kodiak, established five years after Cook's voyage.

"This is extraordinary," Crowell said of the hat. "It's beautifully made." The crown and upper parts, painted with a much more complex rendition of the same spirit animal as the chief's hat, was done using a triple-strand braid made from super-fine split spruce root. The brim is made with larger fibers in a two-strand technique that allows for different patterns, in this case a radiating spiral.

The ornamentation of hats was another hallmark of Sugpiaq craftsmanship. "The Tlingit preferred a more straight-forward, practical style," said Crowell. "But this one has lots of beads, which would have been extremely valuable at this stage of the game. It was definitely an emblem of status and leadership. Some real Chugach 'flash.' "

Beautiful things

From the other side of the Kenai Peninsula, Cook brought only a single item, a Dena'ina arrow quiver, a large caribou skin container looking rather like a golf club bag but decorated with porcupine quills and paint.

"There are no beads," Crowell noted. "Russian goods may not have made it this far at that time. But it's interesting that they made these beautiful things then used them, taking them through the brush and trees and weather."

The voyage of 1778 brought Cook to Norton Sound and eventually into the Chukchi Sea. The Inuit of Norton Sound met him in their kayaks. They had heard of large ships from their neighbors in Siberia, "so their appearance was less a source of fear than curiosity," Inglis said. "Local people were glad to trade skins for knives, beads and especially tobacco."

The nasty weed had preceded Cook to Western Alaska by a generation or more. "Tobacco was a very popular trade item at Russian trading forts in Siberia including Anadyrsk in Chukotka, which was established in 1648," Crowell said. It didn't take long for it to cross the Bering Strait.

But plain iron was pure gold, so to speak. "The Inuit already knew about iron," Crowell said. "They had it. They'd worked out ways to shape wrought iron using a forge. There was an iron-working tradition in Siberia and it was traded across the Bering Strait, but it was rare."

Where a modern observer would see Cook's ships as an assortment of wood, rope and canvas, the indigenous Alaskans saw a treasure trove of metal that could be shaped into hammers, chisels and knives.

At one point, a Norton Sound hunter swapped his bentwood visor, probably right off his head. The visor is now on loan to Anchorage from the National Museum of Ireland. It has a long-tusked walrus head over its bill, with an exquisitely true-to-life face featuring two blue beads for eyes.

Was the hunter thinking that his hat would someday be a physical witness to the historic meeting? Did he think that people in a far off place would look at it and learn something about life on Norton Sound? Did the officer who handed him nails or other objects in exchange imagine that Inuit on shore would gather around the newly acquired goods to discuss the impact of strangers passing through?

Probably not. "I suspect these encounters were pretty brief," Crowell said. "Cook was instructed to collect cultural specimens but his note-keeping suggest they weren't a high priority for him."

After all, he had maps to make and a ship to keep afloat and sail back around the world. There were a lot of things to do and only so many hours to do them.

Hard to find

Running out of time still bedevils efforts to document things. People interviewed for this article lamented the lack of detailed explanations for the Alaska items in the "Arctic Ambitions" exhibit.

Signs outside the displays identify the objects and the museums that have loaned them, but don't clearly state where they came from. One of the cases contains historical information regarding the Dena'ina of Cook Inlet, but only one artifact in the case is from Cook Inlet; the other pieces -- including the broad-brimmed hat and the armor -- are all from Prince William Sound. A color photo of the same hat with a more complete description is located in a separate part of the exhibit dedicated to the theme of commerce. The Norton Sound visor shares yet a different room with items from the Aleutians and Siberia.

"Anytime you have a complex project there are some things where you run out of time before you get them the way you want," said Crowell. "There are always things you can improve. But then there are deadlines."

Crowell said he hoped the informational signs would be improved when the exhibit goes to the Washington State Historical Museum in Tacoma.

Inadequate labeling haunts museums everywhere, Inglis said. There are two seal decoy hats at the British Museum, one mislabeled as coming from Nootka Sound. Alaska objects are often wrongly attributed to being from British Columbia, Inglis said, "because Nootka was the place everybody knew about."

So if you plan to see the exhibit in Anchorage, bring this article with you.

It may be worth noting that the U.S. space program has taken up where Cook and his Sugpiaq trading partners left off. The Pioneer and Voyager spacecraft launched in the 1970s included images and recordings intended to tell any aliens who might stumble into them all about Earth. They included nude drawings of a man and woman, pictures of people, animals, food and architecture, and music by J.S. Bach and Chuck Berry.

No beads. No tobacco.

ARCTIC AMBITIONS will remain on display through Sept. 7 at the Anchorage Museum. It will be displayed at the Washington State History Museum in Tacoma, Washington, from Oct. 17-March 6, after which the items will be returned to the lending museums, mostly in Europe.

COLONIAL CONQUEST, led by Allison Warden and Aaron Leggett, will be presented at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 7, at the Anchorage Museum. First Friday admission is free.

MEET THE ARTIST, carver, mask-maker and drum-maker Jerry "Silavuuq" Lieb will talk about his work as a Native artist in the 21st century at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 28. Lieb's work is sold at the museum gift shop and he regularly sells his work at a table in front of the 4th Avenue Market Place, 333 W. Fourth Ave. Admission will be half-price that day as part of the museum's Half-open, Half-off series.

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