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Fig. I
Fig. Ia. Beaded hair ornament. Tlingit. Bead, hide, iron, abalone. Collected by George Emmons in 1894. Courtesy of the Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History, E/321.
Fig Ib. Tlingit baskets displayed on bench, Alaska, ca. 1913. Photograph by Frank H. Nowell. Courtesy of University of Washington Special Collections, NA 675. Fig. Ic. Will Taylor mural, “Weaving a Blanket—Tlingit,” at the American Museum of Natural History, North Pacific Hall, executed between 1910 and 1926. Image 120421, courtesy American Museum of Natural History Library.

Unknown maker, Taku River Tlingit
Hide, beads, metal, abalone and dentalium shell, yarn, sinew, and cloth
21 1/4 x 4 3/4 in. (54 x 12 cm)
Purchased from George T. Emmons in 1904
American Museum of Natural History 16/9389

Rare in museum collections today, Tlingit beaded hair ornaments illustrate the processes by which new technologies were adapted to changing historical contexts in the late nineteenth century. The social biographies of such objects—as media, motifs, and finished products alike—reflect how deeply embedded they were in multiple material, temporal, geographical, and intercultural relations.

This style of hair ornament was attached to the braids of young Tlingit women of the highest class. According to its collector, George Emmons, this particular piece was owned by the wife of the principal chief of the T’aaku Kwáan, or Taku River division of Tlingit.1 Members of this matrilineal society received their clan identity from their mothers, and such hair ornaments were worn as a status symbol and a declaration of femininity. Women artists were more commonly associated with geometric rather than representational motifs. The Tlingit elite wore heavy jewelry and garments as symbols of their privilege, to signify ownership of wealth and control over the human body. The weight of the hair ornament against the wearer’s head was also gendered; it was meant to encourage high-ranking women to make decisions carefully in a society in which women were subject to strict rules of protocol.2 In this way, the hair ornament can be considered a feminine counterpart to Tlingit armor laden down with Chinese coins (cat. II). Such beaded pendants were based on earlier prototypes made from hide decorated with dentalium shell and fringed with goat wool, two valuable items of intertribal trade.3

The three beaded hair ornaments in the AMNH collection differ in their manufacturing processes. In this example and one other (19/1031, not pictured), the beadwork is stitched directly onto the hide backing, whereas in E/321 (fig. Ia), the beadwork was created as a separate panel and then stitched to the hide at its edges. The small, colorful seed beads were products of the fur trade, while the beading techniques had diffused to the coast from the interior Athapaskans (see cat. 4, octopus bag). This hair ornament also contains other intercultural objects of exchange: dentalium shells, as well as larger blue trade beads and red cotton cloth, both popular items in the fur trade. The metal attachment is likely derived from Athapaskan dagger finials.4 In adopting the form, Tlingit artists transformed the functional guard into a decorative element while reversing the direction of the angle of bend (upward on knives, downward on hair pendants). The metal ornament on this example is further adorned with engraved designs and inlaid abalone shell, another trade medium and a symbol of prestige. The AMNH collection contains a few isolated finial-like pendants, both with and without inlay, which were attached directly to a woman’s braid.5

The motifs in beaded hair ornaments are most likely reinterpretations of historical Tlingit basketry designs (fig. Ib).6 Emmons described many of these, providing Tlingit names with English translations. For example, in the top section of this ornament are three strips called dar-war tar-yee dta-ye (literally, checkers-under-board) or dar-war kus-see dta-ye (checkers-foot-board), or “Checkerboard,” while the upright and inverted, stepped U designs between those strips were known as guth-lu’h-ku, which Emmons glossed as “Waves.” The rotated H-shaped motifs on the lower portion were called shon ghe-kulth kah ka’tch-ul-tee (literally, old-person-hand-back-of-tattooed), or the “Tattoo” pattern.7 Exhibit consultants Kerrie Dick (Kwakwaka’wakw and Haida) and Donna Cranmer (Kwakwaka’wakw) pointed out the presence of the “Tattoo” motif in classic Raven’s Tail weaving as well as baskets. Like other beaded objects of the late nineteenth century, these hair ornaments suggest that geometric or abstract imagery—that is, non-figurative or crest imagery—may have been a means of maintaining status display under the radar of colonial surveillance.8 Whereas much new beaded regalia depicted floral imagery, the basketry-based designs seen here allowed for the expression of hereditary positions at a time when more conventional ceremonial forms were under threat.

Despite their recent advent when collected and their rarity in museums today, these beaded hair ornaments have been enshrined through ethnographic display. In 1909 the AMNH sent artist Will S. Taylor and ethnologist Harlan Smith to British Columbia and Alaska to collect artworks and record landscapes as inspiration for a series of murals for the Northwest Coast Hall. One of these, “Weaving a Blanket—Tlingit” (fig. Ic), features Native women weaving a Chilkat blanket while wearing the specific beaded hair ornaments from the collection (this one and E/321). One model for this scene was a Smith photograph showing a Tlingit weaver from Klukwan wearing Western-style dress in front of a modern house.9 In his mural, Taylor reframed the women as “traditional” by adorning them in fringed buckskin dresses, labrets (lip plugs), and other beaded ornamentation. Taylor also magnified the scale of the hair ornaments so that they extend down to their wearers’ waists, emphasizing their effect as status symbols (while also making them more legible to viewers, as the mural images are hung high on the museum walls). This process of repositioning the women as stereotypically Native, by translating photography into painting, parallels in some sense the Tlingit adaptation of conventional basketry motifs in the recently borrowed technique of beading. In both cases, modern media were being deployed even as their modernity was undermined by a historicist perspective that privileges the past.10 The temporal coding of the painting is confused; Taylor traditionalized the women by replacing their Western-style clothing with earlier garb while assuming the hair ornaments were equally traditional, when they were in fact quite “modern” for the Tlingit, although validated by their reference to prior designs. [Alyssa Greenberg and Aaron Glass]

Selected Exhibitions and Publications:

Aldona Jonaitis, From the Land of the Totem Poles: The Northwest Coast Indian Art Collection at the American Museum of Natural History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1988), 223, pl. 89.

[1] George Emmons collection notes, accession 1904–8, Anthropology Division, American Museum of National History. On hair ornaments in general, see George Emmons and Frederica de Laguna, The Tlingit Indians (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991), 240. Emmons recorded the Tlingit name for all hair ornaments as tcheene (ibid., 242); a current Tlingit dictionary lists ch’éen as meaning “hair ribbon,” and kaa shaksayeks’i as meaning “hair pendant” (http://www.alaskool.org/language/dictionaries/akn/dictionary.asp).

[2] Megan Smetzer, personal communication. On women’s creation and use of geometric designs, see Franz Boas, Primitive Art (1927; repr. New York: Dover Publications, 1955), 289; Aldona Jonaitis, Art of the Northwest Coast (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 21–22. On the cultural value and gendered dimension of “heaviness,” see Sergei Kan, Symbolic Immortality (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 89–91.

[3] Emmons and de Laguna, The Tlingit Indians, 240.

[4] Emmons collection notes on AMNH hair ornament E/231 (courtesy of Bill Holm); Emmons and de Laguna, The Tlingit, 241–42. See also William Fitzhugh and Aron Crowell, eds., Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988), 60, 229.

[5] Emmons collection notes on AMNH beaded hair ornament E/231, and metal pendants E/749-752. Emmons recorded the name of these pendants as “Tchene” or “Tcheen-ku-tathle” and said they were once equal in value to one or two slaves.

[6] See George Emmons, “The Basketry of the Tlingit,” Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. 3, pt. II, 1903; Frances Paul, Spruce Root Basketry of the Alaska Tlingit (Lawrence KS: U.S. Dept. of Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1954; repr. Sitka AK: Sheldon Jackson Museum, 1991); Sharon J. Busby and Ronald H. Reeder, Spruce-Root Basketry of the Haida and Tlingit (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003).

[7] Our thanks to Sharon Busby for helping to identify the basketry motifs. See Emmons, “Basketry,” 273–74, 277. Emmons collection notes at AMNH suggest the presence of another motif, which he identified as “sha’r-dar yar-a’r-kee,” said to have been derived from the profile of a mountain, but this design is not readily evident in this ornament.

[8] Megan Smetzer, “Assimilation or Resistance: The Production and Consumption of Tlingit Beadwork, “PhD diss., University of British Columbia, 2007.

[9] Aldona Jonaitis, From the Land of the Totem Poles: The Northwest Coast Indian Art Collection at the American Museum of Natural History (Seattle: University of Washington Press; New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1988), 221–25.

[10] Judith Ostrowitz, Privileging the Past: Reconstructing History in Northwest Coast Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999).