Artifact: telling a story

Seagull Mask by Sam Hunter (Yup’ik), 1945-6, Hooper Bay, Naparyaarmiut-  courtesy of Alaska State Museum – Juneau

Explore their web-site to see more:

Yup’ik culture includes a vast amount of ceremony, dance, and costumes. The masks have always helped the Real People to see through the eyes of the animals, and they are used in ceremonies to tell a story.

 According to the Yup’ik story of the beginning, the first humans emerged from pods of beach grass. The animals saw the first humans as vulnerable creatures so they would offer themselves to the Human hunters, who could use their skins as clothing in the winter and consume their flesh as food. In return the Real People showed Respect, Gratitude, and Humility towards the animals.

 I choose this artifact because it tells a beautiful story about the strong connection between Yup’ik people and animals.


SLAM Artifact


The object that I took an interest in as I was jaunting my way through the SLAM was the mask which was made by Nathan Jackson. This mask was made in 1973, is from the Tlingit tribe, and is from Ketchikan. What drew me most to this object was the coloring and the hair that was coming out of the back. The colors accented each other beautifully and the secondary designs on it were also amazing. This was an artifact that immediately caught my attention. When I read the description I thought it was interesting that the mask was made from human hair, bear hide and buckskin. I found that to be incredibly cool that the architect of the mask used actual human hair in his artwork. I would love to know if this a mask that Nathan himself used, or who he made it for.

After talking to some classmates who were also looking at the mask I learned how masks such as this are worn, for what purpose they are worn, and what happens to them when the owner of the mask dies. I thought it was really interesting that the person who wears this mask sees out of the mouth, and not the eyes. This mask has a rich, deep history, and I would love to know more about it and its roots. IMG_0090

“Mask” Nathan Jackson, II-B-1683

SLAM: Artifacts of Intrigue

I absolutely love the State, Library, Archives and Museum (SLAM)! My children and I have been patiently awaiting its opening since the State museum closed for construction in 2014. I appreciated the invitation to slow down and really look at and read about the treasures living in our new museum.

Having recently learned about the resurgence of the art of fish skin sewing I took notice of a number of pieces at the SLAM that were made in this technique.  The first piece is an Eskimo fish skin ball, from St. Michael, made of dried fish skin with reinforced tanned leather seams. It’s so simple, yet ingenious at the same time.


The second fish skin piece is a pair of Yupik salmon skin boots from the Lower Yukon. I love the detail added to the seams, trim and boot tops.

Yupik salmon skin boots from the Lower Yukon

Seeing these beautiful functional pieces reminded me of my curiosity about the revived art of skin sewing and led me to further investigation. Below is a great video by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History explaining the process as it is being rediscovered by several Alaskans.

Artifact Reflection

Hunter using throwing board to launch an uxludaq (dart) from his kayak.
Hunter using throwing board to launch an uxludaq (darts) from his kayak. Courtesy of Alaska State Museum – Juneau

This throwing board and dart is from the Unangan/Unangas people of the Aleutian Islands.  The throwing dart in an adjacent display is from the Unangas people of Atka island, so perhaps this one was from Atka as well.   I believe that Unangan is the term for the people of the Eastern Aleutians and Unangas for the Western Aleutians, including Atka.

These peoples are also commonly known as Aleuts along with the Koniag Sugpiat people of Kodiak and the AK peninsula, as well as the Chugach Sugpiat people of the outer Kenai Peninsula and Prince William Sound.  The Sugpiat people are also known as Alutiit, which I believe is just the Sugpiaq language (Sugstun) term for Aleut.  Aleut came into use around the time of the Russian conquest of the Aleutian islands, though no one seems to really know what it means. Whew.  I think I got that straight.

I honestly have no idea who made the throwing board and dart and when they were last used.  And that’s really what I would like to know. I’d also like to know if anyone is bringing this art-form back to the Aleutians.  It would be really empowering for the Unangan/Unangas people I think.  Traditional kayak hunting is still being done in parts of Greenland, so there is modern precedent…

What drew me to this object is probably that I like to hunt and that I like to paddle a kayak-like-boat (packraft).  This scene brought both together.  The throwing board and dart seem perfectly made for the tight, high cowling of a kayak cockpit. Another distance weapon, like a bow, would be too awkward to carry, handle and draw while seated in a kayak. However, the small size of the throwing board and dart allows for easier handling and the throwing board probably allows the dart to be flung much further than the dart could be launched solely by hand.  And with a smaller, more controlled movement too. Which is nice when you are paddling in really cold water and you have lain your paddle down to ready your weapon (a paddle allows a kayaker to “brace” the paddle blade against the water when the kayak starts to roll to the side from sudden movement and to thereby halt the roll).

Finally the dart can be connected (I think) by a gut string cord that allows the animal to be retrieved once it has been struck and prevents it from sinking to the bottom when it dies.  It’s a perfect tool for the environment that the Unangan/Unangas peoples live in.

The piece (artifact) that spoke to me


Today, we walked around the beautiful Alaska State Museum and I found a lot of things that I enjoyed viewing and reading about.  I was able to find a handful of items that were specific to the Southeast cultures, which is what my iBook will be about.  But, I decided to blog about something that had nothing to do with the Southeast.  Unfortunately, this is the best picture I took of the piece.  It was created by Cheryl Bailey and John Ploof in Anchorage and was dated from 1985.  The piece was called I Never Told/I Couldn’t Say #2 and #4.  The piece noted it was oil paint on gelatin silver print but that didn’t mean much to me.  I first came across this set of pictures and had to stop.  To anyone else, this might appear vague and simplistic.  To me, however, it brought a wave of emotions.  As I stood there just staring at the pictures, I felt all the emotions from the hurt and troubled teenager I once was.  I couldn’t stop watching these two pictures, as if they were going to start moving or the figure introduce themselves as Katie (me) to me.  It brought me back to places and emotions that I wish never happened.  And then, as I stood there very still with watery eyes, I realized that I went through those tough times to become who I am and where I am RIGHT NOW.  It also brought a sense of confidence that I plan to spend the rest of my career as a teacher making sure that I can help those student who might’ve felt the way I did as a teenager.  These pictures were also a reminder that I can do something to build confidence, inspire, and also be a helping hand or active listener to the students that come into my classroom/school.  Although my initial reaction to this piece was heartbreak and sadness, it was immediately followed by a sense of pride in who I am now and eagerness to continue my lifelong goal of becoming a teacher.  Because one thing I’ve been told and stand by is: teachers do a lot more than just teach.

courtesy of Alaska State Museum – Juneau

Artifact – Doll & Birchwood Bark Basket

IMG_3949This doll is called “Sheila, an Athapaskan Berrypicker, Yukon” she was made by Mary Ellen Frank. The doll is contemporary, completed in 2000. Artifact courtesy of the Alaska State Museum – Juneau.

This doll is one of my favorite pieces in the collection. I have always been drawn to dolls and really anything miniature. The craftsmanship on things that are smaller amazes me, as does the imagination behind each of the characters. I chose this object in part for my love of dolls, but also because I am researching Athabascan culture. This doll holds a traditional birchwood basket with her in order to collect berries.

IMG_3931There are also many other artifacts containing birchwood throughout the Alaska State Museum like this basket on the left. The Athabascan used birchwood bark to make baskets because the bark was available, sturdy, light, and waterproof. The baskets are incredible versatile. Some are strapped onto backs, adorned with a leather harness, and embroidered with beads to be used as baby carriers. The baskets were also used to collect berries and medicinal plants or to haul water. When filled with hot rocks, the baskets could be used for cooking.

mary ellenThe artist who created the doll, Mary Ellen Frank was born in Juneau where she still lives and makes dolls. Each doll takes at least two years to complete. She has trained under renowned Inupiak doll-maker Dolly Spencer and has taken many traditional Northwest carving courses and apprenticed under other doll makers. Her process really fascinated me. She makes a rough draft of each doll, sculpting its face first in clay and then carving the final product in yellow cedar. Everything from the clothing to the facial features look realistic. Many people commission dolls to look loved ones and community leaders because Frank seems to be able to capture the spirit of a person within her dolls. In a local newspaper interview Frank said, “First, I ask myself: what is it about this person that makes them look how they look?”

Visit Aunt Claudia’s Doll Museum to see a beautiful doll collection and to visit Frank in her art studio. Call (907) 586-4969 for available open hours.

Perusing the SLAM

Jim Schoppert made this art entitled “Still Water #2” in 1985 in the Tlingit area. What attracted my attention in this piece was how the colors and shadows by the physical carvings accentuated the piece as a whole.

If I could know, I would ask the author how he would have set up his own piece (if that wasn’t the case), as it seems that the second and fourth sections should be off-set vertically in order to line up the carvings (as I have amateurly edited this photo below). In this more off-set piece, it portrays a subtle hint of waves, which follows the title of the piece.




Big thanks to the SLAM (State Library, Archives, and Museum) for letting us explore!