Photograph by George Davidson, 1878
From a glass plate
Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture,
Neg. 2.5L46

The late nineteenth century was a period of gradual decline in Tlingit potlatching and disruption in procedures for the social transmission of status. This era also coincided with the arrival of Euro-American photographers eager to document Native life, while the Tlingit appropriated photography for purposes specific to their cultural practices of display, memory, and mourning. Upon a chief’s death, his body would be situated among all of his crest paraphernalia—physical manifestations of his clan identity as well as political, cultural, and economic power. This photograph was likely commissioned by the powerful Shakes family to serve as a visual inventory of their clan wealth after their leader’s demise. The Tlingit word for photograph is kaa yahaay’i, meaning “a person’s shadow, departed soul, reflection, or picture,” a sentiment that likely resonated with the popular Victorian genre of postmortem photography. The permanent imaging of a chief lying in state among his possessions may have proved an important tool for memorializing his legacy for clan inheritors. The same was true for photographers themselves, who—like anthropologists and museum collectors at the time—wanted to immortalize what they mistook to be dying cultures.

Tags for Interactive Tag Cloud: Hudson’s Bay Company, indigenization, mortuary, repurposing