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The Athabascan Peoples and Their Culture

By Eliza Jones (Koyukon Athabascan), 2009

(This is shortened version of a longer essay from the Smithsonian book Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.)

Sea, Land, Rivers

When I was growing up in the 1940s and ’50s, our family moved in every season – to spring camp for ducks and muskrats, to fish camp in summer, and to hunting and fur-trapping sites during fall and winter. That kind of traveling life was once universal in Athabascan country, from the Arctic Circle to Cook Inlet in Alaska and across the western interior of Canada. It’s a vast territory, hundreds of thousands of square miles covered by boreal spruce and birch forest. The rivers that cross it were highways for dog sledding in winter and canoe voyages in summer. Today the rivers, along with air and snow machine travel, still link our scattered communities, but roads reach only a few.

Athabascan peoples are an ancient family that spread out across the land and gradually grew apart. Koyukon, Gwich’in, Han, Holikachuk, Deg Hit’an, Upper Kuskokwim, Tanana, Tanacross, Upper Tanana, Dena’ina, and Ahtna communities occupy different areas of interior and southern coastal Alaska. Their languages share the same complex grammar yet have developed different vocabularies. The people have varying subsistence practices, customs, ceremonies, and clan structures. The Eyak, who live on the southern Alaskan coast around the mouth of the Copper River, are more distant relatives.

In Athabascan belief, everything around us has life. The land and trees have spirits, and we treat them with respect. If we need to cut a tamarack, which has the best wood for making fish traps, it is Koyukon courtesy to explain our need to the tree and to leave an offering of a bead or ribbon behind. Animals and fish are given the same kind of care. Before bringing a mink carcass into our cabin, my mother or stepfather would rub its nose with grease so that its spirit would not be offended by the human scent inside. If they trapped a fox, they put a bone in its mouth, because the animal was seeking food when it met its death.

Community and Family

Western cultural influence came to Athabascan country in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when Russian fur traders set up forts in southern Alaska and the Hudson’s Bay Company built a post at Fort Yukon. Later in the century, the U.S. government and the Alaska Commercial Company took over from the Russians. The gold rushes of the 1880s and 1890s brought a flood of miners, settlers, and traders into the region. Our communities became less nomadic, more tied to trapping and a cash economy, and increasingly dependent on clothing, guns, food, and tools from the company stores. Through the efforts of missionaries most Athabascans adopted Christianity by the early 1900s. The twentieth century brought new technologies, mass media and Western schools where the teaching was in English only.

One of the biggest changes in my lifetime has been in the way that our children learn. I grew up in an oral tradition in which all our teachers were family and kin. Story telling time, as we called it, began in October after freeze-up. We would be home in our small cabin, chores finished for the day, our mother sewing by the light of an oil lamp. My stepfather would tell a kk’edon ts’ednee, a story in our language about ancient times when animals were human beings. It would include a lot of repetition to make it easier to learn and remember and a lesson about living in harmony with nature and people. Before he continued the next night, we had to repeat the story back to him, line by line. At other times we listened while adults talked and reminisced but were not allowed to interrupt. If we had a question we asked our grandmother or someone else about it later.

I was taught to read and write in English by my mother, Josie Peter Olin, who was educated as a child at the Allakaket Episcopal mission school. I was fourteen when the first one-room government school was built in our village, and I attended it for three years to finish the work of all twelve grades. I moved to Koyukuk to marry Benedict Jones, and there we raised our children. I worked as a volunteer health aide, and he was village Chief. In 1970 we moved to Fairbanks, where I worked at the Alaska Native Language Center editing a Koyukon Athabascan dictionary compiled by Jules Jetté, a Jesuit priest who came to the region in 1898 and learned to speak our language fluently. That dictionary turned into my life’s work. It contains detailed information about Koyukon culture as well as language, including knowledge that no longer exists in our communities. After we retired and came back to Koyukuk, I taught Koyukon in the school, hoping that a new generation would know and continue our culture despite the huge changes and challenges that affect their young lives.

Ceremony and Celebration

Our midwinter celebrations take place between Christmas and New Year’s. There are church gatherings, children’s programs, snowshoe races, dogsled races and dances. On New Year’s Day we finish with a celebratory potlatch. People save and prepare special foods and make new clothing and beaded moccasins to wear for the dances. Spring Carnival takes place in early April at the end of beaver trapping season. We do a lot of traveling to other villages to share in their celebrations. It’s a wonderful and exciting time, with high-stakes dogsled races, snowshoe competitions, ice-picking contests, Athabascan fiddling and dancing every night.

Today, Athabascan communities hold potlatches on various occasions. Some are informal festivities to celebrate holidays, and others are formal and spiritual occasions to recognize turning points in the lives of community members. Potlatches can mark a first successful hunt, a homecoming, recovery from an illness or settlement of a grievance.

The most important and universal events are memorial potlatches held a year or more after a death to honor the memory of the deceased and to repay those who assisted the family during their time of grief. These are the helpers who built the casket, dug the grave, provided food for the vigil or sewed traditional clothing to dress the body. To prepare for a memorial potlatch, the hosts make, buy and gather large quantities of gifts and food. Often several families join together to share the financial burden. Hosts are not trying to show off their wealth. It is our way of thanking those who generously gave service. The protocols, songs, and dances for memorial potlatches vary among the different Athabascan peoples, yet the fundamental idea of the whole community marking the passage of a human soul to the world beyond is the same for all.

In Koyukuk, a memorial potlatch takes place over a three-day period. Residents and guests from other villages arrive with food for a gathering in the community hall. Friends and relatives sing songs they have composed for the deceased to commemorate his or her unique accomplishments, personality and service to others, and with the songs there is dancing. It is an emotional and difficult time for the family. To lift their spirits everyone joins afterward in singing old familiar songs and dancing to fiddle music or rock and roll. On the last day all of the guests sit down for a feast of special foods, including dishes that the deceased person most enjoyed. After the meal the hosts distribute gifts to everyone in attendance, with the finest presents reserved for the funeral helpers and composers of memorial songs.

Tags: Athabascan, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
20
 

The Yup'ik People and Their Culture

By Alice Aluskak Rearden (Yup'ik), 2009

(This is shortened version of a longer essay from the Smithsonian book Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.)

Sea, Land, Rivers

The Yup’ik homeland in southwest Alaska extends from Bristol Bay to Norton Sound and centers on the great delta where the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers reach the sea. It is a country of treeless tundra, countless lakes and low mountain ranges. Almost seventy Yup’ik communities are situated along the Bering Sea coast and lower courses of the two rivers, including the Kuskokwim village of Napakiak, where I grew up.

Whenever I ask elders about the traditional way of life on this land, they always say, “Caperrnarqellruuq – how difficult, how daunting it was back then.” Previous generations had to master a wide range of specific knowledge that was critical to their survival. You can see the meticulous care they took in making their tools: with a harpoon, you had to know the right wood to use, where to attach the lines, and how to balance it perfectly so that it would be effective. The values they lived by—cooperation, generosity, diligence, humility and respect for others—were just as important as skill and knowledge in sustaining their communities.

The contemporary Yup’ik lifestyle is easier than the traditional one, although people still work incredibly hard to provide for their families. We have Western schooling and such amenities as store-bought goods and clothing, although the cost of those things is high in rural Alaska. The environment around us remains the primary source of what we need, but it takes less effort to subsist by hunting and fishing with the guns, snow machines and other equipment that we depend on today than it took with the equipment of the past.

My grandparents helped care for me during childhood, and they were hard-working people who taught us how to honor Yup’ik values and utilize the resources of the land. I remember my grandmother preparing and preserving the food that my grandfather brought home from the wilderness in different seasons—blackfish, whitefish, migratory birds, caribou and moose. He had a full-time job, but was an active subsistence hunter as well. My grandmother was very concerned that we never waste food. Although she did not explain it directly, I came to understand that she was concerned that such negligence would show disrespect to the animals and diminish my grandfather’s success as a hunter.

Community and Family

At a certain time a child becomes aware of life. A baby will be sitting and looking around when an expression of surprise and delight comes to her face. My mom will say “Ellangartuq – she has just become aware.” Ella is the word for awareness, but it also means weather, the world, the universe; as human beings we gradually wake up to a consciousness of all that exists. Different stages of awareness occur during a child’s growth. For that reason it is important to be extremely careful around babies; their early perceptions will shape the rest of their lives. They will be stronger people later on if they have a quiet environment where they are never startled, or scared, or exposed to inappropriate behavior.

I grew up speaking Yup’ik as my first language and was also one of the first children to benefit from the bilingual education program that was started in the Napakiak schools. From kindergarten through elementary school I took classes that were taught in Yup’ik, and during those years I learned to read and write the language. Later on I took a Yup’ik course at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and after graduation used my training to work as a Yup’ik transcriber and translator. The work was extremely difficult at first! I was not an expert in the subtleties of grammar and structure, and the speakers used terminology that was new to me. I had to ask many people about some of the words and to check that I fully understood their meanings. I was excited by what I was doing and found it rewarding to learn new aspects of Yup’ik culture and history.

In listening to elders’ words, I have been impressed by the passion they feel about young people learning to appreciate the traditional values so that they can lead better lives and contribute to the health of their communities. Elders see how much has been lost as a result of cultural and material change and the shift away from Yup’ik ways of learning, being and speaking. Alcoholism, loss of respect for others, broken families and hopelessness come from losing that vital connection to cultural knowledge and identity.

Ceremony and Celebration

Our traditional spiritual life was based on the recognition that all things have ella, awareness. Elders were taught that if you are out walking and see a piece of driftwood sticking out of the mud, you should pull it out and turn it over so that the muddy part can dry. That piece of wood is alive and aware, and it will feel gratitude for your kindness.

Elders have told us about the masked dance ceremonies of the past. The winter celebrations honored the yuit, or inner persons, of the animals, and the dances were a kind of prayer that asked for these spirits to give their physical bodies to meet the needs of the community. Shamans made carvings or masks representing animals – walrus, caribou, seals and others. When the masks were danced in the qasgiq (community house), it was a petition for those animals to return in the spring. During Nakaciuryaraq, the Bladder Festival, the bladders of seals that had been taken by hunters during the year were returned to the sea through a hole in the ice, allowing those seals to be reborn in new bodies.

Kevgiq, the Messenger Feast, was a spring festival for sharing and bringing communities together. People worked hard throughout the year, gathering plants, hunting furs and harvesting food, and Kevgiq was a time to distribute some of what they had earned to others. Parents were especially proud if one of their children had contributed to the family’s effort for the first time – a son who brought home his first game or a daughter who caught a pike through the ice. Those events were recognized as rites of passage that meant the child was beginning a lifetime of providing for kin and community. By giving away at Kevgiq, a family ensured the future success of its children and the prosperity of the whole group. Villages still carry out the Messenger Feast tradition of inviting guests from other places and distributing presents to them. The dancing and gift-giving represent the same values as in the past, even if some of the items are store-bought goods. It is about giving generously to others and celebrating the success of the subsistence harvest.

Tags: Yup'ik, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
20
 

Nature: Botanical Expressions

At the turn of the 20th century, the intersection of botanical study with design practice stimulated an array of plant forms and motifs in furnishings, glassware, ceramics, textiles, and more. Botanical Expressions reveals how designers, inspired by nature and informed by scientific knowledge, created vibrant new designs in America, Britain, France, and the Netherlands. Blossoming vases, plantlike stuctures, fanciful garden illustrations, and a diversity of vegetal and floral patterns reveal how nature and design dynamically merged.

An increasing number of designers, trained as botanists, advocated for the beauty and order of nature’s systems, colors, and patterns. Many manufacturers operated in proximity to gardens for natural study and stocked books of botanical illustrations as resources for their designers. These primary sources, on loan from Smithsonian Libraries, appear alongside the objects they influenced.

Since the 19th century, the garden was often seen as a refuge from industry and a natural source of plenty and pleasure. This history of botanical expressions in design illuminates a reflection on the critical role of nature within our world.

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
67
 

Abstraction Methods

Artists can abstract people and objects in many ways. Which methods of abstraction can you identify in these artworks?

  • Simplify
  • Fragment (or explode; break into pieces)
  • Multiply 
  • Rearrange (move the parts around)
  • Magnify (change the scale)
  • Distort (change the shape) 
  • Morph (change into something else)
  • Arbitrary Colors

Art making prompt: arrange some objects to draw. Then choose an abstraction method to create an artwork based on the objects you see.

Jean-Marie Galing
21
 

The Path to the Diving Helmet

Some inventions are said to be ahead of their time, and some behind their time; but most inventions arise as a result of present needs, or as a result of a new development that enables an existing idea to be produced.

Think of the example of space travel.  Space travel wasn’t possible in the 1930s because the rocketry technology wasn’t available — that was only developed during the Second World War. So it was with the diving helmet; everybody knew what they wanted to do, but they couldn’t make it work until the materials and technology became available.

Key words: Diving, diving helmet, Deane helmet, James helmet, Halley helmet, diving hoses, diving pumps, Diving Museum, Gosport, England.

the_diving_museum
15
 

Exploring Systems

Systems can be vast or miniscule. They can be man-made or occur in nature. A system can be simple or complex but all systems are have various parts. Each of the parts have functions within the system and each system has its own function (what a part or system is used for is called its function)

In this collection, students investigate a variety of systems by viewing and reading about them. 

This collection can be used in the classroom as students explore the crosscutting concept of systems and system models across a variety of science disciplines. The collection can also be used in a design thinking course or unit or as students undertake engineering projects and explore processes and systems.

This collection is designed for students to use independently either in class or on their own. The collection can also be used as a small group or whole class activity driven by discussion instead of writing.

The task is provided in the first slide in the collection. Extension activities can be applied to the task. One extension is included in the task slide and prompts students to use the Learning Lab to seek out their own example of a system and explain its parts and functions. A more interactive class based extension might be for students to circulate and look for a partner/partners who chose the same system or can find a way to make connections between two or more different systems that they chose. Partnerships/teams can then compare the parts/functions that they have identified and prepare to share with the larger class community.



Sue Pike
36
 

Where would we BEE without them?

Explore bees' behavior and their role in pollination through real-world sources and data and meet Smithsonian experts in the field. This collection includes instructional strategy, student activities, assessment, and extension ideas. Organization is made visible by divider tabs indicating such components as concept understanding, Project Zero thinking routines, and calls to action.

Keywords: animal, insect, plant adaptation, animal communication, flowers, pollen, honey, hive, engineering, entomologist, pollinator, colony, system

Sue Pike
61
 

Animal Adaptations: Beaks

A collection focused on a variety of bird beaks and their functions: including Sharp Beaks, Flat Beaks, Conical Beaks, Chisel Beaks, Probing Beaks, Filter Beaks, Curved Beaks and Fishing Beaks.#ISTE2016
Sue Pike
17
 

Athabascan Potlatch Values

Coming soon!

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
22
 

Natural Designs: Alaska Native Clothing

Coming soon!

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
2
 

Photographer: Salomon, Erich

#nmahphc

The Erich Salomon Collection consists of two groups of gelatin silver prints from 1927-1943, totaling 140 prints. There is some duplication between the groups. Accession 2002.0258 was acquired in 1965 from Salomon’s son, Peter Hunter. These prints were made from Salomon’s original negatives. Accession 2002.0259 was acquired in 1965 from Magnum Photos. Subjects in the collection are mainly photographs of politicians, diplomats, business magnates, royalty; European and American.

Keywords: photojournalism, journalism, visual culture, print history, media history, Holocaust victim



Dr. Erich Salomon (1886-1944) was born to a prominent Jewish family in Berlin, Germany. He became a lawyer before the outbreak of World War I but was drafted into service. When he returned, his family had lost its fortune and he needed to work. Salomon became interested in photography and soon specialized in taking photographs where cameras were not allowed and without his subject’s knowledge.

Salomon became famous in 1928 when his photographs from the Johann Hein murder trial in Coburg, Germany were published in the Berliner Illustrirte newspaper [see images PG*008164.42 and PG*008164.47]. From that point, Salomon became a freelance photographer, gaining admittance to even the most secure meetings and banquets. Salomon was labeled the first “candid cameraman” and called himself a bildjournalist, still the German word for “photojournalist.”

Salomon first used the common journalist’s camera – a 13 x 18 cm Contessa Nettel – but it was too cumbersome for his purposes. He soon switched to the Ermanox, a small plate-loaded camera perfect for photographing in low lighting. Salomon mastered the technique and used it until 1932 when he traded it for the Leica.

In 1933 Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. As Jews, Salomon and his family were forced to flee to Holland, his wife’s homeland, for protection. Based in The Hague, he had greater access to the political conferences but he also began taking photographs of cultural events, such as concerts. Salomon traveled to Britain and the United States as well. In 1943, while on the verge of immigrating to America, Salomon, his wife and one son were forced to go into hiding when the Nazis overtook Holland. They were eventually deported and died at the Auschwitz labor camp in July 1944.

Salomon’s images survive to this day because of his foresight. In order to keep the negatives safe he hid them in three separate places in Holland during the war. The first group was placed in the Dutch Parliament library. The second, he buried in the chicken coup at a friend’s home. This group was critically damaged by the dampness, though many of the plates are still printable. The third was in the custody of son Peter Hunter. In 1952, the collection was consolidated in Amsterdam. Beginning in the 1950s, there were a number of exhibitions of his work, including a 1958 traveling exhibition which was acquired by the Smithsonian.

For more images by Erich Salomon search collections.si.edu.


NMAH Photographic History Collection
13
 

How did World War II affect West Africa?

World War II was a global conflict affecting all regions of the world, including West Africa. Africans from British and French colonies fought all over the world in the militaries of their colonizers. When Germany invaded France in 1940, Africans in French colonies  were divided between the Vichy government in West Africa and the Free French resistance in Central Africa. The currencies issued by the two separate governments illustrate this divide. 

NMAH and London School of Economics
5
 

Photographer: Muybridge, Eadweard

Photographic History Collection: Eadweard Muybridge

#nmahphc

This is a small sampling of Eadweard Muybridge Collections in the Photographic History Collection.  The collection contains stereoviews, a Yosemite portfolio printed by Chicago Albumen Works, collotypes, cyanotype proof prints, glass plate positives, Zoopraxiscope glass plates, lantern slides, a timing device, a patent model, shutter, and more.

For more, search collections.si.edu. 

Keywords:  stop action, stop motion, freeze frame, motion picture, cyanotypes, stereographs, Yosemite, Modoc Wars, California history, University of Pennsylvania, science and photography

See also the online exhibition at the National Museum of American History, Freeze Frame, https://americanhistory.si.edu/exhibitions/freeze-frame-eadweard-muybridge%E2%80%99s-photography-motion



Expatriate Englishman Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904), a brilliant and eccentric photographer, gained worldwide fame photographing animal and human movement imperceptible to the human eye. Hired by railroad baron Leland Stanford in 1872, Muybridge used photography to prove that there was a moment in a horse’s gallop when all four hooves were off the ground at once. He spent much of his later career at the University of Pennsylvania, producing thousands of images that capture progressive movements within fractions of a second.

By the 1860s, Eadweard Muybridge, born Edward James Muggeridge in Kingston-upon-Thames, England, had reinvented himself as Helios, one of San Francisco’s most important landscape photographers. His fame brought him to the attention of Leland Stanford, former governor of California, who hired Muybridge to get a picture that would settle a hotly debated issue: Is there a moment in a horse’s gait when all four hooves are off the ground at once? Muybridge took up the challenge in 1872. In 1878, he succeeded in taking a sequence of photographs with 12 cameras that captured the moment when the animal’s hooves were tucked under its belly. Publication of these photographs made Muybridge an international celebrity.

It took six years to produce the photographs Stanford sought. Muybridge’s experiments were interrupted in 1874 when he went on trial for the murder of his wife’s lover. Acquitted on grounds of justifiable homicide, he spent two years photographing in Central America before returning to Stanford’s farm. In 1878, Muybridge finally succeeded in photographing the horse in motion.

Muybridge used the wet plate process, a relatively slow method of photography. The resulting images were hardly more than silhouettes, but they showed what had never before been seen by the unaided eye.

Eadweard Muybridge traveled to Europe for a lecture tour in the fall of 1881. In Paris, Etienne-Jules Marey introduced him to the artistic and scientific luminaries of the age. This triumphal tour inspired Muybridge to seek additional funding to undertake an even more complex investigation into animal and human locomotion.

In the summer of 1883, the University of Pennsylvania agreed to fund such a project. University Provost Dr. William Pepper placed the grounds of the new Veterinary Department at Muybridge’s disposal, and a university committee was formed to oversee the project. Muybridge began making photographs in the spring of 1884.

Muybridge photographed his subjects moving in front of a black wall marked off with a grid of white threads. He used up to 36 lenses with 12 to 24 cameras, placed at 30-, 60-, and 90-degree angles to his subjects. The two cameras placed at 30- and 60-degrees were able to hold up to 12 lenses each. The 90-degree angle was known as the lateral, or parallel, view, while the others Muybridge referred to as the front and rear foreshortenings. With this set-up, a successful session could result in as many as 36 negatives.

The Cyanotypes
Muybridge’s cyanotypes are working proofs, the contact prints he made from the more than 20,000 negatives he took at the University of Pennsylvania. Since the original negatives no longer exist, the cyanotypes provide us with the opportunity to see the pictures Muybridge really made, before he edited and cropped them for publication.

The Process Muybridge used up to 36 lenses with 12 to 24 cameras, placed at 30-, 60-, and 90-degree angles to his subjects. The two cameras placed at 30- and 60-degrees were able to hold up to 12 lenses each. The 90-degree angle was known as the lateral, or parallel, view, while the others Muybridge referred to as the front and rear foreshortenings. With this set-up, a successful session could result in as many as 36 negatives.

Muybridge contact-printed his negatives as cyanotypes, the working proofs.

Using these cyanotypes as his guide, he enlarged each negative onto a separate piece of glass and assembled these positives into large glass plate composites (C). From these composites, the Photogravure Company, New York, produced a gelatin negative. The final print, called a collotype, was printed in ink from a plate prepared from this negative.

Over 800 sets of proofs exist in the unique collection found in the Photographic History Collection of the National Museum of American History. Comparisons between Muybridge’s working cyanotype proofs and his final collotype prints prove that he freely reprinted, cropped, deleted, or substituted negatives to make the assemblage of 781 collotypes in the portfolio Animal Locomotion. The Muybridge cyanotypes may be found in the online exhibit Freeze Frame: Eadweard Muybridge’s Photography of Motion.

The collection also includes prints from Muybridge’s five-month trip to the Yosemite Valley in 1867, which yielded 260 published views, 160 of them stereographs. His were among the most celebrated images taken of the Valley. By the late 1860s, the widespread circulation of Yosemite images had made the region a mythic American landscape, redolent of the grandeur, expansiveness, and power Americans had come to associate with the West and, by extension, the nation as a whole.

For more information on Eadweard Muybridge in the Smithsonian Collection see:

https://americanhistory.si.edu/muybridge/index.htm

http://collections.si.edu/search/results.htm?q=Muybridge%2C+Eadweard+cyanotypes

https://americanart.si.edu/artist/eadweard-muybridge-3475

https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-19th-century-photographer-first-gif-galloping-horse-180970990/



NMAH Photographic History Collection
18
 

How did new African countries use money to show their independence?

Starting in the late 1950s, African nations became independent from European colonial powers. They used their new currencies to demonstrate their sovereignty by replacing European heads of state with national leaders.  The new national coins and banknotes also depicted indigenous currencies like cowrie shells in Ghana and kissi pennies in Liberia, celebrating African cultural heritage. 

NMAH and London School of Economics
8
 

What did money look like under colonial rule in West Africa?

How did colonialism affect the lives and livelihoods of Africans? The kinds of money people used can provide some clues. This collection contains coins and notes introduced by the colonial powers which  Africans received in return for the sale of produce and used for paying taxes. It also includes cowrie shells, kissi pennies and manillas, which Africans often used to buy everyday goods in local markets despite colonial government policies banning them. 

NMAH and London School of Economics
12
 

Format and Processes: Tintypes

#nmahphc

This is a sampling of tintypes and cameras used to make tintypes from the Photographic History Collection. 

This sampling includes works by contemporary photographer Ed Drew, of Native Americans and military personnel. These works are copyrighted by Ed Drew.  

This sampling includes tintypes that are cased and uncased, in paper mats, in album pages, in frames, and often just the tintype plate itself. Some are lightly colored and others heavily painted.

Keywords: tintype, ferrotype, melaniotype, occupational portrait, portrait photography, studio photography, exterior portrait

Note: For additional images search collections.si.edu. The Scovil Company, held by the Division of Work & Industry, holds a particularly interesting group of pins and buttons with photography of Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, and others who ran for office. The Military History Collection also holds tintypes of soldiers and other military related themes.

Tintypes

The NMAH Photographic History Collection (PHC) has over 3000 tintype photographs dating from the beginnings of the process in 1856 to the present. ‘Tintype’ was coined and became the favored name.

Tintypes in the PHC are found in albums, the Kaynor Union Case collection, and as individual photographs. The original tintype process patent was assigned to William and Peter Neff in 1856. William Neff died a short time later, but his son Peter, who named the process Melainotype, continued on with his work. The earliest tintypes in the PHC are a group of more than thirty Peter Neff Melainotypes, some of which date back to 1856 and contain notes written by Peter Neff. Shortly after the Melainotype, Victor Griswold introduced a very similar process on thinner, lighter iron plates and called them Ferrotypes. The PHC has tintypes ranging from rare large images between 5”x7” and 10”x12”down to small images cut to 6mm diameter to fit jewelry. The Melainotypes are between 1/6 plate and 4”x5” in size and many have indistinct images. There are also unexposed Melainotype plates including a pack of 1/6 plates and large whole-plates with four decorated oval borders that were designed to be cut into smaller quarter plates after exposure.

The great majority of tintype photographs are studio portraits, including the very popular ‘Gem’ size (about ¾” x 1”). Almost every gem tintype in the PHC is an individual head and shoulders portraits, the only exceptions seen being a full length portrait and a head and shoulders portrait of a couple. Most of these gem portraits are in small gem albums designed to hold two to six gems per page. However, several gems are mounted on cartes-de-visite (CDV) size cards and set in specifically designed album pages. Some of these CDV mounted gems are in elaborate miniature frames attached to the card. The tintypes larger than gem size show a greater variety of subject matter, but still with a main focus on individual portraits, this is especially true of the smaller 1/16 and 1/9 plate images. The most common outdoor subjects noted are people standing in front of their homes and photographs of people proudly standing with, or sitting on, their horse or horses and buggy. One of the largest tintypes is a 9”x 7” outdoor view of a row of townhouses with a couple standing on one of the balconies. There is also an outdoor tintype of men fishing along with another of their days catch.

One common subject in tintype photography, as noted in textbooks, is the civil war soldier. The durability of the tintype meant that photographs taken in the field could be sent home. However, this category of tintype is not well represented in the PHC, with less than thirty noted due to the fact that the majority of the Smithsonian’s Civil War tintypes are located mainly in the Military History Collection. Most of the PHC examples of Civil War tintypes are in the Kaynor collection of cased images.

Some of the tintypes in the PHC are hand-colored. This coloring varies from light tinting of faces and hands to heavy overpainting that obscures the underlying tintype image. A number of tintypes, occupational views, depict people with the apparatus of their occupations. Some are posed studio shots and others appear to be photographs of people at their place of work. Among the occupational views are images of milk maids, doctor, grocery delivery man, weavers, fireman, ice delivery man, craftsman, cobbler, shoe shiners, mail carrier, surveyor, pipe liners, and other tintypes of people wearing work clothes and posing with tools. 


NMAH Photographic History Collection
105
 

Photographer: Becker, Murray

#nmahphc

Murray Becker was one of the key photographers of the Hindenburg disaster, the crash of a Nazi dirigible at Lakehurst, NJ on May 6, 1937. The Murray Becker collection consists predominantly of sixteen silver gelatin prints of the Hindenburg disaster. It also includes an oversized scrapbook of newspaper articles and photos covering the disaster, as well as a well-known photograph of a teary-eyed Lou Gehrig announcing his retirement from baseball.

Keywords:  Hindenburg disaster, Associated Press, AP, Lou Gehrig, photojournalism, dirigible, flight disaster, photojournalism, media history, iconic photographs, scrapbooking

On May 6, 1937 Becker and a score of other photographers, including Sam Shere of the International News Photo (INP) and Charles Hoff of the New York Daily News, appeared for a routine night landing of the Hindenburg. As the dirigible pulled in, lines were dropped from the aircraft so that it could be safely reined in to the ground below. Without warning, an explosion was heard, and the entire aircraft was consumed by flame in about 47 seconds. During those 47 seconds, when other photographers present shot one photograph at the most, Murray Becker quickly took three slides using his 4x5 Speed Graphic camera. The following day pictures of the event were reproduced in thousands of newspapers around the globe.

The photographs of the Hindenburg exploding affected newspaper readers in a way that words could not. After those photographs were reproduced across the United States and around the world, many newspaper stories were not considered credible unless they had images to support the stories. Becker went on to produce a photograph of Lou Gehrig announcing his retirement in 1939 for which he also received awards. Becker served as Chief Photographer of the Associated Press for a full thirty-two years before he retired.



NMAH Photographic History Collection
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Relationships in Nonrepresentation

What kind of relationship can you find between shapes, colors, or lines depicted in these nonrepresentational artworks? How could they symbolize a real-life relationship?

Jean-Marie Galing
12
 

Body Language

  • How does a person's gaze, stance or the way they use their hands communicate a mood or feeling?
  • In artworks depicting two or more people, how are they interacting? What does that say about their relationship to each other?


Jean-Marie Galing
15
 

The St. Lawrence Island Yupik People and Their Culture

By Paapi Merlin Koonooka (St. Lawrence Island Yupik ), 2009

(This is shortened version of a longer essay from the Smithsonian book Living Our Cultures, Sharing Our Heritage: The First Peoples of Alaska.)


Sea, Land, Rivers

Sivuqaq, the Yupik name for St. Lawrence Island, rises out of the Bering Sea in the heart of a vast and bountiful marine ecosystem. All around us, depending on the time of year, we have walrus, whales and seals. Standing on the point at Gambell, you can watch ducks and seabirds flying by in endless motion over the sea. Our island lies just below the Arctic Circle, so the winters are long and often extreme. The wind gusts at fifty miles per hour, and the wind chill can get to minus fifty degrees Fahrenheit or lower. When spring and summer bring longer daylight and new life, people travel out from the villages of Gambell and Savoonga to their hunting and fishing camps around the island. Many of those places are ancient settlements where our ancestors lived up to two thousand years ago.

I was born and raised in Gambell and have been a subsistence hunter there for my entire life, going back to when we traveled with dog teams instead of on snow machines and all-terrain vehicles. Marine mammals, fish, birds, eggs, reindeer and wild plants are important in the island diet throughout the year, far more so than store-bought foods. On the tundra and mountainsides people gather ququngaq (willow leaf), nunivak (roseroot), angukaq (dwarf fireweed) and various edible roots. In late summer the aqavzik (cloudberry) and pagunghaq (crowberry) ripen.

Walrus have always been essential to our way of life. We hunt them in open water and later on the frozen ocean, making use of nearly everything as either food or material. The meat and fat are bundled into large tuugtuq (meatballs) to store in underground food cellars, and in the past that meat sustained our dog teams as well. Good-quality hides of female walrus are stretched, split, cured and stitched to cover the angyapik (hunting boat). Walrus stomachs become heads for drums, and their intestines, ivory and whiskers are transformed into adornment and art. Our predecessors used the skins to make tough rope and covers for the nenglu (traditional house) and interior aargha (sleeping room). They spun walrus sinew into thread and carved the tusks into tools and sled runners.

I am a whaling captain like my grandfather, granduncles and father before me, and I serve on the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission. Traditionally, the captain prepared for whaling in a religious way, using charms, special songs and rituals that showed the great respect we feel for this animal. While these rituals are no longer practiced, strict hunting protocols and the responsibility of the captain remain unchanged. A bowhead whale is so immense and powerful that hunters, even though armed with modern weapons, are really at its mercy. We use skin-covered boats and sails rather than motors during the approach, keeping absolute silence, because whales have a very sharp sense of hearing. But they know we are there even if there is no sound. That is why we say that a whale decides to let itself be taken, not the other way around. One whale provides an abundance of food that is shared with families on the island and across Alaska.

Our hunting lifestyle has never been harmful to the animal species. Nature has her own way of opening up the ice and sea for us or withholding access. During storms we have to stay at home and wait for a change. When the weather is nice, the conditions may still not be right for going out, even if walrus are floating by on top of the ice floes. Sometimes we will be punished this way if we’ve failed in our respect. But as long as the creatures make themselves available to us, we will gather them for food and traditional needs.


Community and Family

The people of the island have close ties to the Yupik communities of Ungaziq and Sireniki on the Siberian coast, and we speak dialects of the same language. Before the cold war began in the late 1940s, our families traveled back and forth to visit, trade and seek marriage partners. The forty-mile trip took a full day in a skin boat using sail and paddles. Visits resumed in the 1980s after glasnost took hold in Russia, and now with a fast powerboat and calm seas, the crossing takes only two or three hours.

Some of my best memories from childhood are of traveling with my dad. He had a wonderful dog team, and in the wintertime we would go on the sled to trap white fox. Even in the summer we’d take it across the gravel and tundra. When I started raising a family I did the same thing. We would hitch up a team of twelve dogs to pull our heavy sled, which was nine feet long with steel runners. As a child you really look forward to going out with your parents and elders for food gathering and hunting, because you want to learn.

I sometimes think of early days when everyone was living in nenglut (traditional houses). They would go seal hunting on the ice, pulling whale baleen toboggans behind them to bring back the meat. You had a backpack and a rifle slung over your shoulders and an ice tester to see where it was safe to walk. You had to observe the ice and the direction it was moving, making sure not to get caught on an outgoing current. Boys were doing all that by the age of ten or twelve, and by fifteen you had to know everything. Your parents and elders made sure you were ready, or you weren’t allowed to go alone.

Our culture is changing rapidly in some ways, more slowly in others. Fluency in the Yupik language is declining in the younger generations, although among the older people our daily conversation continues to be in Yupik. There is less respect among some young people now for their parents and elders, too much television and video gaming, problems with drugs and alcohol. We need to find a balance between traditional and modern ways, and I believe the best way to do that is through education. If you can be successful in your formal education, you will be in a strong position to help preserve your Yupik heritage. I’m glad to see so many young people still going out with their families to the places where we have always hunted and fished, even if now they travel on machines instead of on foot or by dog sled. They are still eating the same foods that we have always gathered and staying connected to our land and way of life.

 

Ceremony and Celebration

The remoteness of the island has helped to sustain some of the ways of our forebears. The practices of atuq and aghula (Yupik drumming, singing and dancing) were never interrupted, despite the introduction of Christianity, and people continue to compose new songs and motions. Both communities on the island hold dance celebrations where we welcome visitors and performers from mainland Alaska, Russia and beyond. Other ceremonies are more family-oriented, marking life events such as marriage and the birth and naming of a child. When a young person catches his first seal, a special small celebration is held to share the catch with relatives, making sure that everyone gets a taste. The same thing happens with your first bird.

Many of the former ceremonial practices pertained to hunting, especially whaling. To prepare for the season, a captain would use certain songs that were specific to each clan. The purpose was to please the whale spirits. When the hunters captured a whale, the boats would come back in a line with the successful captain and crew in front. Everyone was deeply thankful, and they celebrated by feasting, singing and dancing. That feeling of appreciation and gratitude for the food that has been provided is just as strong today, even though our beliefs and customs have been modified.

The Yupik culture has a very long, rich history, and at the Smithsonian you will see artifacts that our ancestors created hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Today many of the island’s residents are world-renowned Native artists whose work is shown in national and international museums and art galleries. Some of the ivory they use comes from archaeological sites, and this material, crucial to sustaining life generations ago, is equally important today because of the income generated by art sales. But much more than that, their work is a celebration of our culture, heritage and continuing way of life.

Tags: St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Yupik, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
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Digital Story

#smithstories

David Gregory
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Emancipation Proclamation

Meridith Manis
5
 

Modern Guernica

Hilary Ypma
4
 

Subject: Self Portraits and Selfies

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This is a sampling of photographic self-portraits. 

Professional and amateur photographers have been turning the camera on themselves since photography started.  There are a number of strategies and tools that professional and amateur photographers have used, including mirrors, cable releases, timing devices, and simply turning the camera around at arm's length.  Cell phones now allow almost effortless self-portraits, known as "selfies."  

Keywords: self-portrait, self portrait, selfie, bulb release, string release, timed portrait, cable release, reflection in mirror

For additional images, search at collections.si.edu.

NMAH Photographic History Collection
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