8 Tlingit Treasures in St. Petersburg, Russia

Peter Stanton
14 min readJun 25, 2018

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the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia

Last August, my wife and I visited St. Petersburg. We had been traveling to Northern Europe for the previous few summers, and this time we decided to take a trip to the three countries around the Gulf of Finland—Finland, Russia, and Estonia. Including Russia definitely made the trip more complicated and expensive: There’s a troublesome visa process Americans have to go through in order to visit Russia, and I have a particular phobia for bureaucracy as well as a penchant for procrastination that combine to make such processes particularly daunting.

Nevertheless, I persisted in jumping through consular hoops and paying the visa fees so we could go to St. Petersburg as planned, and I had one objective above all others in mind—to visit the Kunstkamera.

The Kunstkamera is the beautiful 18th-century Baroque building across the Neva River from the Winter Palace (of Russian Revolution and Hermitage fame). The Kunstkamera was Russia’s first museum, and it now houses the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography. Before we went, I discovered in this article by Zachary Jones that there are more Tlingit artifacts in this museum—313 of them!—than in any other place outside North America. Jones determines that there are fewer than 1800 Tlingit artifacts documented in European and Russian museums, so the Kunstkamera houses over a sixth of that total.

In other words, I was prepared to see some major pieces of Alaska history in St. Petersburg before we arrived. Even so, what I saw at the Kunstkamera completely blew me away.

Amazingly, I believe that almost all of the Kunstkamera’s 313 documented Tlingit artifacts were on public display in the museum. It was an unbelievable, awe-inspiring experience for me to examine and photograph all of them (or nearly all of them). I spent hours in front of just the cases of Northwest Coast artifacts, as hundreds of other visitors passed by. The Peter the Great Museum is a museum of global ethnography, so there are artifacts on display from every continent and every major culture in the world. That said, I believe there may be more Tlingit artifacts on display in the Kunstkamera than there are from any other culture.

The word “artifact” is rather soulless and sanitized, however, and it’s inadequate for portraying the real value of these objects: Instead, it’s worthwhile to use the Tlingit word at.óow, which is an essential cultural concept meaning “owned things.” At.óow can be both communal or personal property, and it can be physical as well as conceptual — objects, land, or fishing grounds, as well as symbols, stories, dances, and songs. A passage from this Sealaska Heritage curriculum states:

Objects were transformed into clan at.óowu through a process that began with the acquisition of a crest, its incorporation onto a physical object, its ceremonial transformation into property and its legal validation of ownership by a clan. Once an object transformed into clan at.óowu, strict cultural protocols governed the use of the clan at.óowu. [Note that “at.óow” changes to “at.óowu” in the genitive case (when it is possessed).]

By explaining and using the word at.óow, I mean to show that the Tlingit objects in the Kunstkamera aren’t just objects: They were (and are) belongings imbued with deep cultural meaning, inextricably tied to the people who created them.

The main types of Tlingit at.óowu in the Kunstkamera are armor, helmets, daggers, Chilkat and Ravenstail robes, masks, hooks, bowls, spoons, hats, and rattles. And remember, nearly all of them are on display, so you see case after case of items—a far greater volume of Tlingit items than I’ve ever seen in museums in Juneau, Anchorage, or Washington, D.C.

I couldn’t possibly talk about all of the items I saw at the Kunstkamera and adequately explain their significance. Instead, I want to share what I believe are eight of the most incredible artistic, cultural, and historical treasures of Tlingit origin in St. Petersburg:

1. This iron shak’áts’ (double-ended dagger)

The museum placard above the shak’áts’ reads:

In the 18th-19th centuries a Tlingit’s weaponry consisted of a bow and arrows, a spear, a club and iron double-edged dagger. The handle of a dagger was wrapped with a suede ribbon with a hole at its end. The warrior wrapped the loose end of the ribbon twice around his wriest, and inserted his middle finger into the opening. The bladder was fastened tightly to the warrior’s hand, and could hardly be pulled away, even from a dead warrior.

other iron daggers at the Kunstkamera

Both copper and iron were used by Northwest Coast peoples before the arrival of Europeans, (see this paper by Kyle Wark for details), but it’s likely that this dagger was made in the 19th century with iron from trade. In Xaad Kíl (the Haida language), white men are even called Ya’áats X̱aat’aay, or the Iron People. What’s interesting to me is that the Tlingit don’t seem to have wasted any time imitating European forms of hand-to-hand combat, but rather used the new supply of iron to make sure they had the strongest materials for their deadly daggers.

I think it’s also worth noting that this shak’áts’ is the only item on my list not to bear a crest of some kind. There are many single-blade daggers that have hilts with intricate designs, including the three at the Kunstkamera shown above, but I guess it’s pretty difficult to decorate a shak’áts’ when every inch is for holding or stabbing.

2. This Raven sheishóox̱ (rattle)

I chose the photo of this raven sheishóox̱ because it was the most intricately carved and beautifully painted of all the rattles on display. It is also apparently representative of many sheishóox̱ with this same form: Raven has a face on his chest, there is a reclining human on Raven’s back with his tongue interlocking with a frog, and the frog is held in the beak of a kingfisher. (You can see a large number of these rattles on this web page, and read more details.)

There were at least eight sheishóox̱ total on display, covering a large section of display case. It was shocking to me to see so many rattles at once, not only because I had never seen such a thing before, but especially because they were presented as the rattles of íx̱t’ (shamans). [In one Tlingit dictionary I referenced, sheishóox̱ is defined specifically as a shaman’s rattle, but in other dictionaries it seems to be a general term for rattle.] The museum had a large placard on display describing “Shaman’s Accessories”:

The Tlingit inhabited their world with spirits, and the shaman served as a mediator between the people and the spirits. People believed that a shaman’s soul could travel to the world of spirits and influence them so that they would not harm people. During his ritual chanting, the shaman would put on a mask depicting his spirit helper. Each shaman possessed a minimum of four masks—one for each of his helper spirits from the upper, middle, and lower worlds, and the mask of his personal guardian spirit. To fight against evil spirits, the shaman used a wooden dagger and shot wooden arrows. With the help of a drum and rattles a shaman summoned his helper spirits.

There was an entire display—which I won’t show here—with two mannequins, showing a shaman helping a sick person, rattle in hand. It was labelled “Expulsion of an ‘Evil Spirit’ of the Patient’s Body.” I get the impression that if these sheishóox̱ were in Alaska, many Native people would not want them to be on display, because of their spiritual meaning. In Russia, however, hundreds of people walk by them every day, most without understanding any of their incredible significance.

3. This spruce root hat

I am not an expert on Northwest Coast art at all, and I know even less about spruce root weaving. I know enough, however, to know that 19th-century painted spruce root hats like this one must be incredibly rare. The design looks painted in remarkably precise fashion, and the colors still look unbelievably vibrant.

There were around a dozen hats on display, but information provided by the museum was sparse and muddled. First, the hats were described as being Tlingit, Kodiak, and Chugach in origin, but no specific origin was given for any individual hat. Then, the materials were listed as “Fir-tree roots, leather, glass beads, feathers, sea lion whiskers, paint,” but I know that for the Tlingit hats the standard weaving materials were spruce roots and red or yellow cedar bark, not “fir-tree roots.” The museum placard read as follows:

The Tlingit and Alutiiq Eskimos (Kodiak and Chugach) were skillful at making various wicker hats. Hats in the form of truncated cones were worn in rainy weather. Decorated and painted hats were an integral element of religious ceremonies. On special occasions, heads of rich families wore wide hats, the brims and crowns of which were braided together in a single piece. Special hats with cylindrical extensions were worn by elders during the potlatch—ceremonial feasts in which tribal leaders gave away their possessions. The images on the hats depict mythical characters—their owners’ clan patrons.

4. This “helmet in the form of a forest giant”

There were at least twelve helmets on display, portraying figures including sea lions, an eagle, mountain goats, a wolf, bears, and supposedly a hawk. (I’ve never heard of hawks in traditional Northwest Coast art, and the helmet really didn’t look hawk-like.) Although every one of the helmets was uniquely beautiful and impressive, I think this “helmet in the form of a forest giant” was the perfect exemplar of all the incredible features of 19th-century Tlingit helmets: It features masterfully intricate and expressive carving, heavy use of paint, and beautiful ornamentation with both operculum shells and human hair. (Yes, it’s human hair!)

5. This shakee.át (headdress)

A shakee.át is a headdress or frontlet worn in dances and ceremonies, and this one is one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, in person or in photos. This one was labelled as “chief’s funeral headdress,” with the materials listed as wood, leather, sinew, whalebone, seal whiskers, abalone shell, feathers, fabric, and paint. There were a few other shakee.át on display as well, but none were so intricately adorned with so many different valuable materials. [If you’re curious, the small mask in the upper left of the picture was labelled as “mask, part of a shaman’s headdress; wood, human hair, paint.”]

The use of feathers—presumably flicker feathers—along the top of this 19th-century shakee.át reminded me of when Tlingit artist Archie Cavanaugh was charged with a crime a few years ago for using flicker and raven feathers on a headdress and hat. This piece is just a reminder that the use of these feathers goes back centuries, and it’s outrageous that U.S. federal law imposes such severe penalties (up to 10 years imprisonment and a $100,000 fine!) for use of traditional materials from birds that aren’t even endangered. Thankfully, Cavanaugh ended up paying only a $2,000 fine, but I think it’s clear that federal overreach into such indigenous practices is downright oppressive.

6. This naaxein (Chilkat robe)

Naaxein or Chilkat weaving is a style of weaving believed to have originated with the Tsimshian people, who historically lived just southeast of Lingít Aaní (Tlingit Country). However, the practice ended up becoming named (in English) for the Jilḵaat Ḵwáan (Chilkat) Tlingit people of northern Southeast Alaska, likely because they were some of the most prolific weavers with this technique by the late 19th century. If you want to learn more, this article goes into great detail about naaxein designs, meaning, and techniques.

Even if you know nothing about how such a robe is woven, though—all the countless hours, all the intense skill—this naaxein is still unbelievable to examine up close. What’s more, the Kunstkamera had three of these 19th-century naaxein on display (with two visible in the picture above). I doubt there’s another museum anywhere else in the world with three of these amazing historical robes on display.

7. This yéil koowú (ravenstail robe)

Believe it or not, yéil koowú (ravenstail) weaving is even older, even rarer, and perhaps even more complex than naaxein. (I think I’ll leave it to the real weavers to judge which is most difficult, though.) Yéil koowú (literally, raven’s tail) is actually a neologism, because the original Tlingit name of this weaving style was lost, as was knowledge of the technique itself. This article explains how artist Cheryl Samuel began to study and revive yéil koowú only in the 1980s. Samuel’s short online biography mentions that she studied these very four robes in the Kunstkamera (the three naaxein and one yéil koowú) in 1980, before going on to find other robes in London, Vienna, Copenhagen, and Dublin. It’s indescribable to imagine how few of these old treasures have survived, and inspiring to think that their existence has helped revive and continue old traditions in the present.

Finally, I saved my favorite for last:

8. This full suit of armor, including breastplate, vambraces, visor, helm, and another shak’áts’

There are so many reasons why this suit is amazing: First of all, it fully demonstrates in stunning fashion how intimidating a Tlingit warrior could be. It calls to mind the following description (by Aleksandr Baranov, no less) of a battle that took place on Hinchinbrook Island in 1792:

[They] came up so stealthily in the darkness that we saw them only when they began to stab at our tents. … We shot at them without any result because they had on thick armor made of three and four layers of hard wood and sinews, and on top of that had heavy mantles made of moose hides. On their heads they had thick helmets with the figures of monsters on them, and neither our buckshot nor our bullets could pierce their armor. In the dark, they seemed to us worse than devils. The majority of them kept perfect order, advancing toward us and listening to the commands given by one voice and only a part of them ran back and forth doing damage to us and to the Natives in our party.

Reading that passage is amazing enough on its own, but to see this full suit of armor is to be able to imagine exactly what the warriors in that battle looked like—the very first historical battle between Russians and Tlingit. Just like with the shak’áts’, this display demonstrates that Native-made arms and armor were just as—if not more—effective than their European counterparts. This armor was blocking musket balls!

Additionally, I’m not sure that any fully-assembled suit of 19th-century Tlingit armor like this exists anywhere else in the world. This talk from Tommy Joseph overviews the research he did on Tlingit armor all over the United States and Europe in order to create his impressive “Rainforest Warriors” exhibit of recreated traditional armor and weapons. The only example he shows in the presentation of a full suit of 19th-century Tlingit armor is this very suit in the Kunstkamera, so I believe it may be the only one. All of the 19th-century Tlingit armor in existence has been scattered to collections in museums around the world, but the Kunstkamera seems to be the one place that possesses and displays the most. The same might be said for Tlingit at.óowu in general.

Looking at all of this at.óow in the Kunstkamera, it’s difficult not to think about how it came halfway across the world to St. Petersburg in the first place. Unfortunately, the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography is not transparent about those stories when it comes to its displays from Alaska and the Northwest Coast: The museum’s artifacts from other places around the world often had explanations displayed of what ethnographic expeditions or collectors were responsible for bringing items to Europe and Russia. But for all of the Tlingit at.óowu—there was nothing. I believe I read all of the printed information in all of the North American display cases, and there wasn’t a single solitary sentence about Russian colonialism anywhere to be found.

It’s too bad it seems the museum can’t be honest about Russian colonialism and why it has so many pieces of Tlingit at.óowu compared to items from most any other culture around the world. Even if just a few of the pieces have a documented provenance—a story of exchange or sale with a Russian trader or administrator, for example—it would be highly useful to share those stories. Otherwise, are we to assume that all of these objects were acquired purely through colonial looting?

The sheer wealth of Tlingit treasures still kept in St. Petersburg also raises the question: Could we ever bring some or all of this at.óow home to Lingít Aaní? Repatriation from foreign museums is still extremely rare, but just last month Germany returned nine objects to the Chugach people. Many may doubt that Russia would ever do the same, but I still hold out hope for the future.

There are a few Cesar Chavez quotes that I find particularly inspiring when it comes to this kind of issue:

You know what made the movement? The one thing that helped us all the time is that we’ve had all the time we needed, and more. We’ve never had any deadline.

I despise exploitation and I want change, but I’m willing to pay the price in terms of time. There’s a Mexican saying, ‘There’s more time than life.’ We’ve got all the time in the world.

I feel the same way about the at.óow in the Kunstkamera: Even if it seems inconceivable that Russians would ever agree to return such treasures, all the Tlingit people have to do is wait. A hundred years ago, the Russians were in the midst of an earth-shattering revolution; a hundred years from now, who knows what their government will look like. Tlingit people will still be waiting, ready to bring home centuries-old testaments to their heritage.

As a final note, I should point out that I created a public Facebook album with all of the (good) photos I took in the Kunstkamera, including items from other parts of Alaska and North America. Anyone can follow the link to check out those photos, even if you don’t have a Facebook account.

Gunalchéesh for reading. Please leave a comment if there are any corrections that should be made to my writing, or if you want to share more information.

I’ve made a list below of all the Tlingit vocabulary used in this article, and if you haven’t seen it already, please check out my piece “10 Tlingit Words We Should All Be Using in Southeast Alaska.”

Tlingit Vocabulary from this Article

at.óow—“owned things,” the Tlingit concept of ritually-validated property

at.óowu—the genitive (possessed) form of at.óow

shak’áts’ — double-ended dagger

sheishóox̱—rattle (possibly specific to shamans’ rattles)

íx̱t’ — shaman

shakee.átheaddress

naaxein—Chilkat weaving

Lingít Aaní — Tlingit Country

Jilḵaat Ḵwáan—Chilkat people

yéil koowú—ravenstail weaving

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Peter Stanton

I’m an Alaskan history teacher in Ketchikan writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. I also write regularly about language, reading, travel, and politics.