Artifact Assignment

On June 16, we had the chance to visit the new Alaska State Museum, where our initial assignment was to find an artifact that spoke to us. As I wandered about looking at the extraordinary art and objects from Alaska’s past, I was instantly drawn to this traditional herring rake, used to collect roe (eggs) from female herring that had spawned on cedar tree branches or kelp. Why the herring rake? First of all, I had never heard of it before. Also, I grew up commercial seining with my grandfather, as I shared with the class. In addition to salmon, each spring my grandfather participated as one of 54 permit holders in the Sitka Sound Herring Sac Roe fishery. The first time I went along was when I was 13, and I rarely missed a year until I was 32. He passed away three years after my final time as a member of his crew. As such, Sitka, Alaska will always have a special place in my heart because of those many years with my grandfather in that fishery. This herring rake makes me want to investigate further the traditional fishing methods of the Tlingit, particularly for herring. I’d love to get a copy of the out-of-print book, Indian Fishing, by Hillary Stewart.

Discovering this artifact also directly led to my lesson plan on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, which happened in March 1989, when I was herring fishing in Sitka! I remember all of us following it on the news. When I was thinking of a possible lesson plan for Southcentral, my initial thought was researching the herring fishery in Prince William Sound that had been disrupted because of the spill.

The Aleutian Kayak: An Item of Cultural Identity


I was drawn to these artifacts because it displays the process of creating the Aleutian kayak.  The kayak is more than just a boat to the people of the Aleutian chain-it plays a significant role to the values, environment, and way of life of these people. It also makes me wonder how the frame of these kayaks were made because there are no trees on the islands-it is believed that people made them using driftwood that arrived on the islands.

These kayaks look like they were used to hunt because there is little room for goods.  Hunting kayaks can withstand rough seas and are built very strong…I was surprised to see that the design of kayaks has not changed much over the last couple hundred years.  This is no accident-the Aleuts were good at their craft and advanced in their designs.  Kayaks were so valued in the Aleutian communities that they were a symbol of men moving into adulthood.

Alaskan Artifacts-Copper wealth

Alaska State Museum and Archive
Alaska State Museum and Archive

Metal properties can be seen as old technology. Copper has the capability of cleaning bacteria from water, and of determining if water is acidic. Having this type of knowledge at a time before water testing strips could have been detrimental to the health of all the people in a single community. Copper has been used and traded across many continents for centuries. Tlingit Men would carry large copper shields at parties called Tinaa to show their wealth and status. Much of the copper that was used in Tlingit territories came from the Copper River located just north, toward the South/Central area of the state. This particular copper cup and snus box are items that were traded in the 1800’s by the Russians that had laid claim to the area. Other items featured in the exhibit included a copper tea kettle and jewelry.

Artifact: The loose thread of Art

Giyema Otter mask (Alaska State Library collection 11-C-177)
– Who created it: Billy Williams (Deg Xinag Athabascan)
– Where the object is from: Interior Alaska
– When the object is from: 1971
– What drew you to this object: Stood out from the other Athabasca objects; it was different


– What else would you like to know about this object or its maker?:
This object was very different from the other items in the Athabascan collection at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau. Looking into the background a little more revealed that this mask had influences from the neighboring northern Yup’ik group. Historically the Yup’ik have a rich mask making tradition, the Athabascan group does not.
I would like to know if the Athabascans formally traded for this mask making design or if it was adapted into the art from a handful of artists on their own. I wonder if this mask and masks like it were used in ceremonies or if they were purely decorative. Art has many influences. I wonder who or what influenced the Yup’ik to make the type of masks that influenced the Athabaskan. If you pull the thread, it unravels on and on.

SLAM – Children’s toys from the far north

I chose the Arctic for the place-based assignment, mainly because I know very little about it. So on our class trip to SLAM, I gravitated at once toward the exhibits on Iñupiaq, Yup’ik and Siberian Yupik culture. What set those exhibits apart from the rest of the museum, I realized, was the display focused on children: children’s toys, children’s clothing. A plaque next to the display explained, “Young people are treated with affection and respect for their independence. They are encouraged to learn by watching adults, experimenting with those activities, and learning from their mistakes.”

Most of the children’s toys had some kind of practical connection to adult life. There was a tiny, sled, an equally tiny canoe, a toy bowl and spoon, a miniature harpoon and a miniature ulu. But there was also a row of carved ivory birds that the display described as game pieces, and carved ivory story knife with tiny ivory figures balanced on its edge. I was struck by the smallness of all the toys. The miniature tools weren’t fitted to a child’s hand; they were smaller than that. They looked like practical things, and yet they were clearly designed to be toys and nothing else. I was impressed that in a civilization where resources are scarce, where no one can afford waste, people were willing to spend time and care and materials making tiny works of art for their children to play with.

I took photos of all the toys in the exhibit, but I chose the ulu for my featured image because something about its simplicity appealed to me right away. The blade is slate, and the handle is bone.

Ulu courtesy of Alaska State Museum, Juneau

Artifact: Kaylukaq

Kaylukaq - an Inupiaq wooden box drum
Kaylukaq – an Inupiaq wooden box drum

As we explored the Alaska State Museum on Friday, I found myself drawn to the exhibit on Inupiaq ceremony, music, and dance. The particular artifact that intrigued me was a musical instrument, a type of box drum called the Kaylukaq. This drum is Inupiaq in origin, and its maker is unknown. The kaylukaq came from a village in northern Alaska called Mary’s Igloo, also known as Qawiaramiut in Inupiaq. The drum was found between 1910 and 1921 by Dr. D. S. Neuman, however there are no exact dates for when this piece was made by the artist.

This artifact interests me because of its design and construction. It appears unique with respect to the other percussion instruments used in Inupiaq music. The instrument I have seen most commonly used in recorded performances of Inupiaq songs and dances is a large frame drum. This type of drum differs greatly from the kaylukaq in terms of materials, style, and shape. These particular frame drums used in dance music are circular with a very thin strip of bent wood used for the frame and a large piece of animal hide stretched over the frame for the drum head. This type of drum is held in the hand and struck with a stick or mallet. The kaylukaq, however, is strikingly different and seems unique and noteworthy for the ecological environment in which it is played.

The kaylukaq is a box drum, i.e. a drum made in the shape of a box. It is made from 6 thick pieces of wood, one wooden plank per side of the box. The drum is hung from the ceiling and struck with a mallet by the performer. The kaylukaq is associated with an Inupiaq winter festival called Kiviq, which translates to Messenger Feast. At the feast, an Inupiaq village hosts the leaders of neighboring villages in order to give gifts and engage in trade. It usually takes a full year to prepare for the festival, so the event happens only once a year. One of the main features of Kiviq is a series of dances called the Wolf Dances. These dances depict Inupiaq legends and honor animals hunted for food. The Wolf Dances are accompanied by the kaylukaq.

I find it very interesting that the kaylukaq is made of several large, thick pieces of wood. This is unusual because of the environment in which the Inupiaq live. The arctic far northern region of Alaska has very few trees and is mostly snow, ice, and flat tundra. It seems like it would be very difficult to find enough wood to construct a kaylukaq in an area where there are not many trees. I wonder if this factor makes the kaylukaq a rare and unique instrument? Does this scarcity of materials and challenge to construction give the kaylukaq special significance in ceremony, song, and dance?

The kaylukaq also shares similarities with a Latin American percussion instrument called the cajon. Like the kaylukaq, the cajon is also a box drum made from 6 pieces of wood. The cajon has a round hole on the back of the instrument, where sound resonates. In contrast to the kaylukaq, the cajon is played sitting down, with the performer sitting on top of the instrument and slapping the front panel of the box with his or her hands to make sound.

Some things I would like to know about the kaylukaq are:
1) How prevalent is the kaylukaq in Inupiaq music? Is it common or uncommon?
2) How often is it played?
3) Is it only associated with the festival of Kiviq?

Artifact Information:
Collected by Dr. D. S. Neuman, 1910-21

Kaylukaq Box Drum, courtesy of Alaska State Museum Juneau

Raven who Married the Chief’s Daughter

Raven who Married the Chief’s Daughter courtesy of {Alaska State Museum – Juneau} was a mask that caught my eye while I was browsing the Alutiiq section of the SLAM. This mask was made by Perry Eaton in 2013 so its not exactly an ancient artifact but it still has a traditional story behind it.

There are variations of this story along the coast of Alaska but I found a Tlinget version that was easy for me to understand. In the story, a chief allows Raven to marry his daughter named Fog Over the Salmon, with the condition that he would treat her well. They were happily married but during a hard winter they were without food. Fog Over the Salmon wove a large basket and when she completed it and washed her hands in it, the basket was full of salmon. The couple now had everything they needed. But Raven forgot that his good fortune was owed to his wife and started to treat her badly. He hit her with a piece of dried salmon and she ran away. All the dried salmon they had followed her, he tried to catch her but she turned to fog.

The full version is here:

So who is this Mask Maker Perry Eaton? I did not know who he is but I assume some of our class might. He is from Kodiak and is the founder of the Alaska Native Heritage Center and spent 17 years as the CEO of the Alaska Village Initiative which helps promote economic growth in the villages. He makes these masks in a similar fashion and design as the original Alutiiq masks, mostly they feature a sharp up or down turned brows and a distinct nose. Like the traditional Alutiiq masks they are also sometimes burned after the dance they are featured in. The one time use of masks means that there are very few left today. However, a Frenchman named Alfonse Pinart, traveled Alaska in 1872, and he collected over 70 Alutiiq masks which still reside today in a museum in France. They were brought to Kodiak in 2008 for a temporary exhibit allowing the local people to experience a piece of the rich history again.

As I tried to uncover the full story of this mask I ended up doing alot of side research and now I feel even more drawn to this piece.