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Found 6,930 Collections

 

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
 

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
 

Photographer: Mydans, Carl

#nmahphc

The Carl Mydans Collection at the National Museum of American History consists of 166 photographs that span the years from the mid-1930s to the late 1960s, and two Halliburton camera cases that contain all his photographic equipment. 

For additional images, search collections.si.edu.

Keywords: photojournalist, photojournalism, war photography, documentary photography, visual culture, picture magazines, current events, reportage, crisis photography, war coverage, Farm Security Administration, FSA, World War Two, World War II, WWII, Korean War, Life Magazine, U.S. Camera, Time Magazine

Text from PHC finding aid written by Vanessa Pares:

The photographs in the Photographic History Collection include the rural images created as part of his work for the Farm Security Administration and those taken while on assignment for LIFE magazine. In the mid-1930s, he covered cattle drives in the Big Bend, the oil boomtown of Freer and “brushhogs,” migratory workers who lived by the side of the road. A few years later, he completed the series on “sandhogs,” construction workers who built the Midtown Tunnel under the East River in New York City. 

During the 1940s, he recorded events of the Second World War, mainly in the Pacific theater. Once the war ended, he was sent to Bikini Island Atoll, an island chain in the Pacific that is part of the Marshall Islands chain. There he documented the evacuation of the people of Bikini from their home island in order to clear the way for major atomic testing, and the Bikinians' exodus to nearby Rongerik.

The rest of the collection includes portraits of major political, military, and literary figures, such as Winston Churchill, General MacArthur and William Faulkner. Carl Mydans was a storyteller. Always seeking the drama and history of a moment, his pictures are meant to recount a story with no words. Carl Mydans was born in Boston on May 20, 1907. He graduated from Boston University with a degree in journalism, after which he went on to work as a free-lance writer for the Boston Herald and the Boston Globe. While a staff writer for the American Banker, Mydans began to carry a miniature camera on his assignments.

In 1935, he carried a camera full time, joining the photographic unit of the Resettlement Administration, which merged into the Farm Security Administration in 1937. Under the supervision of Roy Stryker, a group of photographers—composed of Dorothea Lange, Walker Evens, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein and Carl Mydans, among others—was sent on assignment to make a difference by reporting and documenting the plight of the poor farmer. Their task was to create a “pictorial history” of agriculture and focus on those most affected by the Great Depression. The photographers would tour the nation and interpret it through the shape of the land and the faces of the unemployed, the migrant farmers, and the sharecroppers. During this time, Mydans documented cotton production in the southeastern states, the impoverished dwellings of New England, and the creation of new “greenbelt towns” or government-sponsored planned communities. 

In 1936, Mydans left the FSA and was hired by the newly established LIFE magazine. One of his first assignments for LIFE was a photo essay on Texas, focusing mainly on the oil boomtown of Freer. It was also at this time that he met Shelley Smith, a LIFE researcher and journalist whom he married the following year. Once World War II broke out, the couple was sent to Europe as a reporter-photographer team. At first they went to England, covering London under siege, then to Sweden, and then to Finland, where Mydans had his first combat experience. The couple later traveled to Italy to cover Fascism, to France to witness its defeat, to Pearl Harbor to photograph American naval operations, and then to China. When the attack on Pearl Harbor occured, Carl and his wife were in Manila, the Philippines. Early in 1942, the Philippines were invaded by the Japanese and the couple was imprisoned. After almost nine months of captivity, they were moved from Santo Tomas University—an internment camp for civilians—to Shanghai. On December 1943, the couple, along with 1,400 American and Canadian citizens, was repatriated. Although Mydans was unable to cover the war, he was grateful to have survived and continue to watch and photograph all the events that encompassed his life. Soon after his return to the States, he was sent back to the European front. 

In 1944, he accompanied Allied forces to Italy where he covered the campaigns in Monte Cassino and Rome. After Italy, Mydans traveled to Marseilles to cover the fighting in southern France. Following the liberation of France, he was rushed back to the South Pacific to rejoin Gen. Douglas MacArthur for his triumphant return to the Philippines. Three weeks after the invasion of Luzon, Mydans took part in the charge into Manila—which concluded with the liberation of the remaining 4,000 civilian captives in Santo Tomas—alongside the 8th Cavalry Regiment. Months later, on September 2, 1945, Mydans was one of the few privileged photojournalists to be present at the site of the official Japanese surrender on the U.S.S. Missouri. After the Second World War, the Mydans took up residence in Tokyo, where he worked as chief editor of the TIME-LIFE news bureau. During those years, he captured the earthquake at Fukui, the Communist Revolution in China, and the war in Korea. 

In 1950, while on a trip to New York, Mydans received word of the outbreak of the Korean war. It only took him ten days to get himself shipped back into battle. Later that year, he received a Gold Achievement Award from U.S. Camera for his coverage of the Korean conflict. After the war, Mydans completed assignments in England, Berlin, and Russia, and traveled to Vietnam in 1968 to do a story on refugees. After the closing of LIFE, he continued to work as a photojournalist with TIME magazine, and wrote books based on his experiences at war. Mydans died on August 16, 2004.

NMAH Photographic History Collection
42
 

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
8
 

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
106
 

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
 

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
 

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 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: 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
 

Photographer: Adams, Ansel

#nmahphc

 The Ansel Adams collection in the Photographic History Collection consists of twenty-five photographs, all printed about 1968. All are gelatin silver, mounted, labeled and signed in ink by the photographer. The photographs include many of his most well-known images. The selection of images was made in collaboration between the collecting curator and Adams. The date range of the collection is 1923-1962.

For additional images, search collections.si.edu.

Keywords: f-64 group, modernism, straight photography, gelatin silver print, Yosemite National Park, the American West, trees, landscape photography, seascape, portraiture


The first twelve photographs in the collection were purchased from Adams in December 1968.  The other thirteen photographs were given to the Smithsonian from Adams in December 1968. 

Ansel Adams (1902-1984) is one of the most well-known twentieth century photographers. His contributions to the field of photography include his innovation and teaching of the Zone System. The quality of his photographs set the standard by which many straight photographs are judged.

The works in the collection were used in a Smithsonian exhibition titled, "American Masters," January 26, 1974-September 1, 1975, in the Hall of Photography, National Museum of American History.  The "American Masters" exhibition included recently acquired work by Adams, Lisette Model, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Minor White, Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, Jerry Uelsmann, Lee Friedlander, Wynn Bullock, Gyorgy Kepes, Paul Caponigro, and Diane Arbus.  Adams had two previous SI exhibitions, one in 1931, and a traveling exhibition in 1956.  There is no documentation stating whether any of these photographs were used in the exhibitions.

 


NMAH Photographic History Collection
26
 

Photographer: Connell, Will

#nmahphc

This is a selection of photographs by Will Connell from his series, In Pictures, from the Photographic History Collection. 

For additional collections, search collections.si.edu.

Keywords: satire, humor, critique, Hollywood, manipulated photography, composite photography, surrealism

Will Connell (1898-1961) was an influential photographer, teacher, and author in Southern California known for his often-satirical “modern pictorialist” style, commercial photography work, and mentorship of a generation of photographers. The National Museum of American History’s Photographic History collection received a donation of 11 prints of various subjects from Connell’s wife in 1963. This donation was followed by another, from Connell’s son, in 1977, comprised of the 49 prints published in In Pictures. Connell was born in McPherson, Kansas, but moved to California soon after. 

As a young man in Los Angeles, Connell came into contact with the thriving California camera clubs of the 1910s and 1920s, and more importantly, the burgeoning Hollywood film industry. After a brief stint in the U.S. Army Signal Corps at the end of the first World War, Connell worked a variety of odd jobs while experimenting in amateur photography. 

Several motion picture studios hired Connell to photograph actors and actresses in the 1920s and 1930s, and he soon became a professional. Connell’s glamour shots of stars such as Myrna Loy, as well as his growing body of art photography, reveal pictorialist influence, and his work was often exhibited at salons and exhibitions throughout the United States. 

In the 1930s, Connell began working as a photographer for magazines including the Saturday Evening PostColliersTime, and Vogue, started teaching photography at Art Center College, and continued work at the Los Angeles studio he opened in 1925. Connell spent the rest of his life in Los Angeles, teaching, judging work, producing commercial work, and writing, notably, his "Counsel by Connell" column in US Camera, which he authored for 15 years. 

His first book, In Pictures, was published in 1937. Now considered a classic work of satire, the book featured montaged, often surreal images that mocked the Hollywood studio system and a public enamored with the motion picture industry. The photographs were published alongside a fictional account of a meeting of Hollywood moguls, written by several of Connell’s friends in the business. While the images appear to be a marked departure from Connell’s earlier soft-focus pictorialism, the sharp, poignant photographs nevertheless retain that movement’s emphasis on composition and communication of a message. In Pictures also pays homage to the film industry where the photographer cut his teeth – many of the images feature close-ups, characteristic stage lighting, and influence of the glamour of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Connell, in his work and teaching until his death in 1961, is cited as an influence on an entire generation of photographers, including Dr. Dain Tasker (COLL.PHOTOS.000031). 

Connell's  1949 book About Photography outlined an artistic philosophy that stressed a straight-forward, communicative style of photography and expressed the author’s belief that even the most commercial work can have artistic merit. A 1963 monograph in US Camera featured fond remembrances from friends Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange, among others, who praised Connell for his warm personality and unique work. 

NMAH Photographic History Collection
21
 

Natural Designs: Alaska Native Clothing

Coming soon! Preview:

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
2
 

Athabascan Potlatch Values

Potlatches are Athabascan ceremonies marking significant events in life. They are a time when cultural values are practiced, including honor, respect, gratitude, responsibility, gifting and reciprocity. This site provides materials for students to learn about Potlatches and generally about the Athabascan peoples of Alaska. Photographs with in-depth captions give information about Athabascans in the past and today. Short essays and museum objects featuring Elders’ discussions allow students to learn directly from community members. Questions and writing projects in the education unit help students understand and apply what they have read, and find shared cultural values in their own lives.


Tags: Alaska, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Athabascan, Dene, Potlatch, ceremony, ceremonies, tradition, gifting, museum object, artifact, heirloom, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
23
 

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
 

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
 

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
 

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
16
 

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
 

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
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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
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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
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The Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) People and Their Culture

The Sugpiaq (Alutiiq) People and Their Culture

By Gordon L. Pullar (Sugpiaq), 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 Sugpiaq homeland is large, spanning Prince William Sound, the Kenai Peninsula, Kodiak Island, and the Alaska Peninsula. Our climate is wet and stormy but mild. Massive glaciers flow from the high coastal mountains, but the sea remains unfrozen. Spruce forests cover the eastern areas but dwindle in the west, so that much of Kodiak Island and the Alaska Peninsula are treeless, windswept tundra. Along our coasts you can fish for salmon, halibut and crabs, hunt seals or sea lions, and walk the shore at low tide to collect shellfish and seaweed. Depending on the season you might search out an octopus under beach rocks, gather eggs on a seabird island, pick berries or go hunting in the hills for bears, caribou or deer.

Traditional Sugpiaq hunting depended on the qayaq (kayak) and angyaq (large open boat), both covered with seal or sea lion skins. Ancestral equipment included throwing boards, harpoons and arrows. Many communities today depend on commercial fishing for cash income, but in recent years that industry has faltered. Part of the problem today is the high cost of fuel for boats and home heating. An increasing number of people can no longer afford to stay in the villages and are migrating to cities such as Kodiak and Anchorage.

When the Exxon Valdez oil spill occurred in 1989 people were deeply shocked and depressed. Eleven million gallons of oil poured into Prince William Sound and then drifted west on the wind and currents, polluting fifteen hundred miles of shoreline. The huge spill coincided roughly with the geographic boundaries of the Sugpiaq culture area. Most sea life eventually recovered, but the communities that relied most heavily on fishing and coastal subsistence were disrupted for years and suffered deep economic losses. Today oil can still be found on the beaches, lying just below the rocks and sand. Its pollution still leaches slowly into the sea.

Community and Family

History has proven the Sugpiaq people to be highly resilient, despite the traumatic events of conquest and oppression. Russian traders in search of sea otter furs first conquered and then enslaved the Native population of southern Alaska. In 1784 a force led by Grigorii Shelikhov used guns and cannons to slaughter hundreds of Sugpiaq men, women and children on Kodiak Island. Men were forced to hunt otters in fleets of kayaks, sometimes paddling hundreds of miles and being gone from their homes for months at a time. Others had to provision the Russians with whales, fish and game. Women prepared plant foods, dried fish and clothing for the traders. During these years people suffered from disease and malnutrition. It was a dark, traumatic period when many thousands died.

After 1818 reform in the management of the Russian-American Company brought some relief. Alaska Natives officially became employees instead of slaves. Atrocities ended, and health care and education systems were put in place. Missionaries of the Russian Orthodox Church were influential in seeking better conditions. The U.S. government took over Alaska in 1867. In the new government and mission schools, children were beaten for speaking either Sugcestun or Russian. Educational policies were aimed at bringing about the assimilation of all to American speech, values and beliefs.

This history created complex feelings about identity. During two hundred years of Western contact and cultural change, Indigenous identity had been devalued and even shamed. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1971 put a new twist on the situation. Anyone who had a one-quarter of Native blood was eligible to enroll, meaning that he or she would receive shares in the village and regional Native corporations. This was the first time for many that being Native had any positive benefits. The new opportunity generated tension when people redefined themselves and heard comments such as “He was never a Native before land claims!”

There was much turmoil, infighting, and litigation during the early days of ANCSA. The Kodiak Area Native Association (KANA), a nonprofit established to pursue land claims and later ran Native health and education programs, came under fire. When I became president of KANA in 1983, I was asked to rebuild the organization. Elders advised that the biggest reason for our problems was that people had lost touch with who they were. They didn’t know their history, and the traditional values of sharing and cooperation had been lost. We turned our efforts to cultural rebuilding through dance, traditional arts, kayak building, language renewal, archaeology, oral history, youth-elder programs and more. The idea was to build knowledge, pride, visibility and self-esteem as a pathway for healing. From the beginning we wanted to have a museum and cultural center that people would feel belonged to them and where they could celebrate their culture. The Alutiiq Museum and Archaeological Repository opened its doors in 1995 and has realized the vision we held.

Ceremony and Celebration

Most Sugpiat have a firm belief that if not for the Russian Orthodox Church, the people would have been lost entirely. The population was in serious decline when Orthodox monks traveled to Kodiak in the 1790s. They were shocked at the conditions they saw, and the Church exerted its influence with the czar to ameliorate illegal practices of the Russian-American Company. That is why the Orthodox faith was embraced and why it has persisted so strongly to the present day.

Sugpiaq people recognized connections and similarities between their own spiritual concepts and those of the new religion. They believed in Lam Sua, the “person of the universe,” who as a supreme and all-knowing deity became equated with God. Their kassat (wise men) consulted with deities subordinate to Lam Sua and directed the performance of religious ceremonies. In these functions they were similar to priests who conducted Orthodox worship.

Traditional hunting ceremonies, held in October through March, were a means of communicating with sky gods and the spirits of animals. Performances and rituals wove together the arts of song, narrative, masking and dance. Visitors were invited from neighboring villages to share in rich feasts, gift giving and trade. These rituals continued in some communities until the late 1800s, coexisting with widespread Orthodox conversion. Over time, the Native practice of Russian Orthodoxy has absorbed certain aspects of the older winter ceremonies.

Cultural revitalization has taken hold in the Sugpiaq region since the 1980s, bringing new confidence and visibility to our people and culture. We have come a long way since the days when many suffered embarrassment and even shame to see the dance, regalia and cultural vibrancy of other Alaska Native peoples while not having our own to share publicly. We’ve listened to elders, encouraged Native language and arts, and reconsidered the meaning of events, some terrible and traumatic, that shaped who we are today. Sugpiaq young people have gained an appreciation for their rightful place in the world.

Tags: Sugpiaq, Alutiiq, Alaska Native, Indigenous, Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
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The Tsimshian People and Their Culture

The Tsimshian People and Their Culture

By David Boxley (Tsimshian), 2009

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

Land, Sea, Rivers

Most Tsimshian live along the coast of northern British Columbia between the Nass River and Queen Charlotte Sound. The shores and islands are covered by northern rain forests of hemlock, spruce, fir, red cedar and yellow cedar, woods that were the basic raw materials of our culture. Tsimshian territory extends into the mountainous interior as well, following the valley of the Skeena River.

At one time at least eight thousand Tsimshian lived there, located in twenty winter villages and many seasonal camps. Today about thirty-five hundred live in seven Canadian towns. In 1862, a Tsimshian group led by an Anglican missionary, William Duncan, broke away from Fort Simpson to found a religious colony at Old Metlakatla. Twenty-five years later they moved again, building New Metlakatla on Annette Island, in southeast Alaska. Generations have lived there since, and that is the community in which I was born and grew up. I was very fortunate to be raised by my grandfather and grandmother, Albert and Dora Bolton, who gave me a strong foundation in our culture. When I was young they took me with them to their fish camps and on trips all over our island for subsistence activities.

Most people still rely a great deal on fish, seals, berries and other traditional foods, supplemented by commercial fishing and other sources of cash income. In historical times, the year’s food gathering began in spring when the ice broke up on the Nass River and the eulachon began running there. People traveled from their winter villages to harvest the fish in nets, drying some and fermenting and boiling the rest to extract the oil. Trade in eulachon grease, which no other people could produce in such quantity, was one of the sources of Tsimshian wealth and prosperity. In spring they also gathered seaweed and herring eggs, fished for halibut, and collected bird eggs and abalone. During summer and fall they relocated to fishing sites on the rivers to catch salmon with weirs and traps, drying and smoking them for winter. At the winter villages they gathered clams, cockles and mussels, and if you visit those old settlements today you can still see the mounds of discarded shells. At different times of the year they hunted seals, sea lions, deer, elk, mountain goats and mountain sheep.

Archaeological sites in Prince Rupert Harbour demonstrate that this way of life goes back at least five thousand years. Crest objects such as chiefs’ headdresses and masks are connected to origin stories and to the succession of clan leaders who have owned and passed them down to their descendants, along with name titles and titles to land. This is important in British Columbia where the Tsimshian Nation is attempting to reclaim territories that were taken by the Canadian government in the 1870s. Crest objects and the histories attached to them validate those aboriginal claims and link the people to specific places on the land where they lived and harvested food in the old days.

Family and Community

My people are divided into four equal groups. Each is a pteex (clan) with its own principal crest: Eagle (Laxsgiik), Raven (Ganhada), Wolf (Laxgibuu), and Killer Whale (Gisbutwada). Crests are symbols of matrilineal connection, so whatever pteex your mother comes from, you will be the same. Because clans marry out, your father will be from a different one of the four. Within each pteex are multiple lineages, like branches on a family tree. Eagle, Raven, Wolf, and Killer Whale each have as many as twenty-five subcrests, a few available that are to everyone in the clan and the rest limited to certain branches. As a Laxsgiik, I may use the Eagle, Beaver, and Halibut crests; I inherited other, more restricted crests from my close maternal ancestors.

Crests represent social identity and its corresponding rights and privileges. Crest images appear on robes, button blankets, headdresses and other regalia that people wear at potlatches to show their ancestry. They are shown on ceremonial drums, staffs and rattles; on dishes and ladles used for serving food at potlatch feasts; and on the totem poles, house fronts, posts and screens of traditional lineage houses.

If you could go back in time to visit a coastal Tsimshian village of two centuries ago, you would see our social system at work. The community is built along the shore, with palisades around back to guard against possible attack from land. You arrive by canoe and announce your person and business while still afloat, waiting for permission to land. Jumping ashore without proper protocol would have been life threatening in those days. Coming up from the beach in the company of your hosts, you see the big red-cedar longhouses, lined up in a row with their doorways facing the water. Each is home to thirty or forty people, most of them matrilineal relatives but including wives and children of other clans.

The village chief’s house is the largest and is located in a central position. Its painted front panels show his crests. The other dwellings are positioned in relation to the chief’s house according to the social ranking of their household heads. In front of prestigious homes are totem poles, carved with crest emblems and figures. Poles are sculptural narratives, telling who lives in a house, the ancient origin and recent history of their lineage, and the achievements of their deceased chiefs and nobles.

Entering one of the longhouses requires that you stoop down to pass through a low door, a vulnerable position for any would-be attacker. Depending on the status of the house, the interior is lined with one or more levels of wood-planked sleeping platforms, like wide bleachers that step down to the central fire pit. The platforms are divided into family living areas, cordoned off with mats or boards. The house chief and his family have a private apartment at the far end of the house, behind a carved and painted wooden screen. Inside the house you see lots of preserved food—dried salmon and halibut, bentwood boxes filled with fish oil, seal grease, and berries; containers of dried meat. All of this came from hunting and fishing territories owned by the house members.

The original Tsimshian way of life began to change when British, Spanish and American fur traders arrived in the late 1700s. The Hudson’s Bay Company built Fort Simpson at the mouth of the Nass River in 1831, and missionaries of several Christian denominations came to work among the Tsimshian, Haida and Tlingit people who had gathered near the fort for trade. The missionaries were successful at converting a large part of the population, which was in rapid decline as a result of smallpox and other new diseases. The people gave up their traditional beliefs, ended their ceremonies and even cut down many of the totem poles.

The converts who followed William Duncan from Fort Simpson to Old Metlakatla and then to Alaska were making a new start, trying to survive in a world that was rapidly changing. Now, more than one hundred years later, Metlakatla is a pretty distinctive place. Little about its everyday appearance would remind a visitor of the lifeways of the past, but we are still proudly Tsimshian, with a strong sense of our unique identity. Our language, Sm’Algyax, has changed from the way it is spoken in Canada, and unfortunately Metlakatla has only a few fluent speakers left, all elders. That frightens me, and I’ve been trying very hard to hold on to what I know and to learn more. We are who we are, but we are what our language makes us, too.

Ceremony and Celebration

Halaayt is spirit power, which comes from above. It gave chiefs and high-ranking people the knowledge and strength they needed to be leaders and to make good decisions. Halaayt enabled them to be the link between their people and the next world, where our ancestors dwell, and to communicate with the spirits of animals. The frontlet of a chief’s ceremonial headdress was a symbol of his halaayt. The face in the center was a crest, surrounded by abalone, sea lion whiskers, feathers and ermine fur. The chief’s headdress, woven robe and Raven rattle all represented his leadership and spiritual power.

Historically, potlatch feasts celebrated events and transitions in the community – death, marriage, the completion of a new house, the raising of a totem pole, or the settlement of a dispute between clans. The largest and most important of these feasts were memorial potlatches, when new chiefs were installed and took the names of their predecessors. Potlatches have always been based on a whole system of reciprocity. During the feast, hosts of one clan recognize and repay debts that they have incurred through services given to them by people of other clans, who come as guests.

Three things are essential to a potlatch. First, it has to be done publicly. The guests are there to serve as witnesses to what is taking place, and that is what makes it legal. Second, the hosts have to gift every guest in payment for his or her witness. Finally, everyone must be fed and fed very well. More than they need. The food they take home with them is another gift.

In 1982, I set out to organize Metlakatla’s first potlatch. For our community it would be the revival of a tradition that we had left behind over a century before in the historical move to Alaska. Many potlatches have been held in Metlakatla since then, and one of the largest was in 1994. It was originally planned as a celebration of my grandfather’s hundredth birthday, but it became his memorial after he passed away at age ninety-eight. I realized that in order for the potlatch to happen on the scale that I had hoped, it would have to include all four clans. Their involvement not only ensured the amazing success of the event but also paved the way for the future, because so many participated and learned so much. We fed a thousand people every evening, three totem poles were raised, and over fifty-five button robes were dedicated on the first night alone. I feel lucky to have come along when I did, at a time when it was right for these changes to take place. The way I grew up, and the gifts of language and culture that my grandparents gave me, prepared me for the journey.

 

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

Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center in Alaska
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