A long way from home

Tlingit helmet's arrival in Springfield may remain a mystery

After surviving a 1792 attack by a Tlingit war party in Prince William Sound, future Governor of Russian Alaska Alexander Baranov described the Tlingit warriors as wearing “thick helmets with figures of monsters on them.” While the figures on the helmets must have been terrifying indeed to Baranov, they were anything but monstrous to the wearers. They were their clan crests, vital elements of Tlingit social and personal identity. A Russian account of the 1802 raid on Saint Michael also mentions Tlingit war helmets, and documentation of the 1804 Battle of Sitka describes Chief K’alyáan’s Raven helmet, which now resides at the Sheldon Jackson Museum near the site of the battle.


Use of the helmets in the context of warfare ceased soon after the 1804 battle, as did their creation. K’alyáan’s is one of the fewer than 100 known to still be in existence, and this rarity contributes to the high regard which museum professionals hold for Tlingit war helmets. Forty-one are held at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia, and 10 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

In addition to their scarcity, the helmets are rare in being equally at home in both ethnographic and fine arts exhibitions. The unmistakably Northwest Coast design feature known as formline, combined with the quality of their workmanship make them particularly aesthetically striking.

One might imagine, then, the excitement of Springfield Science Museum Curator of Anthropology Dr. Ellen Savulis last fall when she pieced together that a splendid Tlingit helmet had been hiding in storage at her institution for more than a century. Savulis’ discovery began as she reviewed the museum’s collections last fall in the course of putting together an exhibition titled “People of the Northwest Coast” when she came upon a holding cataloged as an “Aleutian hat.” Shortly after the exhibition’s opening, Savulis related that the museum’s catalog records lacked provenience (i.e., birthplace) information for the item. For that reason, University of Alaska Museum of the North Director Dr. Aldona Jonaitis said the helmet probably didn’t arrive in Springfield via an ethnographer.

“It’s unlikely that the helmet was collected by a professional ethnographer, who would have been sure to document when and where the helmet was acquired, as well as recording native language texts related to it,” Jonaitis said in a phone interview.

Savulis, interviewed at the museum in Springfield, noted that she was able to glean some facts about the item’s provenance from its catalog records. Namely, it had originally been assigned a cataloging number of 1901-04, indicating that it was part of the museum’s permanent collection within two of years of the 1899 relocation to the current building in downtown Springfield. The item’s catalog records also showed, surprisingly, that it had not left storage to be exhibited during its 100-plus years there.

Despite the lack of detailed records, the fact that the item was carved from a large block of wood gave Savulis reason to doubt that its origin lay in the Aleutian Islands, which are almost barren of trees. Savulis contacted Alaska State Museum Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson, who was able to identify the “Aleutian hat” as a mislabeled Tlingit war helmet. Few, if any, are in a better position to make that evaluation than Henrikson, who has examined the majority of existing Tlingit war helmets firsthand in the course of writing his master’s thesis about Tlingit body armor.

Another expert, Sealaska Heritage Institute President Dr. Rosita Worl, who wrote her doctoral dissertation on Tlingit concepts of property, said in an interview that she recognized the helmet’s clan crest as Eagle, expressing some surprise that it might be identified otherwise.

Tlingit war helmets are highly valued as objets d’art by private collectors. In those rare instances when one becomes available for purchase it is guaranteed to fetch top dollar. In May of 2008, one sold for $2,185,000 at the Fairfield Auction in Newton, Conn. Worl related that war helmets are also highly valued by the Tlingit, but not in a monetary sense. While “some people might call them ‘art,’” Worl said, to the Tlingit, war helmets are at.óow, sacred items owned cooperatively and vital to Tlingit ceremonial life. Because they endure through time while remaining associated with a group, at.óow relate to cultural history and identity in a way that words like “object” and “artifact” strain to convey. Underlining this, Dartmouth College Professor of Anthropology and Native American Studies Dr. Sergei Kan stated that war helmets are quite possibly “the highest level of ceremonial regalia” in contemporary Tlingit social life.

The provenance of the war helmet prior to its 1901 cataloging as part of the Springfield Science Museum’s (then known as the Museum of Natural History) permanent collection may remain a mystery indefinitely. Jonaitis did suggest one possibility, that it may have been acquired by an East Coast resident visiting Southeast Alaska as part of the thriving 19th century tourist industry.

“Tourists would disembark during their upriver steamboat journeys to pick up items to take back East with them,” she said. “It may have been that the helmet returned with a trustee or someone else associated with the museum in Springfield and was eventually donated into the permanent collection there.”

Regardless of how it found its way to the museum in Springfield, the helmet is currently being well cared for there in an environmentally controlled case as part of the “People of the Northwest Coast” exhibition. The ultimate disposition of the helmet depends upon the outcome of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) process, which will determine whether the helmet remains a part of the museum’s permanent collection or is repatriated to the Tlingit. Worl expressed hope for the latter.

“There have been times before … Oh, how to say it? Items have just appeared like this, and it was like they wanted to come home,” she said.

Additional reading

• Dauenhauer, Nora, Richard Dauenhauer, and Lydia Black, eds. Anóshi Lingít Aaní Ká – Russians in Tlingit America. The Battles of Sitka, 1802 and 1804. Seattle: University of Washington Press; Juneau: Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2008.

• Harkin, Michael E. “Object Lessons: The Question of Cultural Property in the Age of Repatriation.” Journal De La Société Des Américanistes 91, no. 91–2 (2005): 9–29. http://jsa.revues.org/2932.

• Kan, Sergei. A Russian American Photographer in Tlingit country: Vincent Soboleff in Alaska. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013.

• Lévi-Strauss, Claude. The Way of the Masks. Translated by Sylvia Modeski. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982.

• Preucel, Robert W., Lucy F. Williams, Stacey O. Espenlaub, and Janet Monge. “Out of Heaviness, Enlightenment: NAGPRA and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.” Expedition 45, no. 3 (2003): 21–27. http://bit.ly/KOWzJy.

• Thornton, Thomas F. Being and Place Among the Tlingit. Seattle: University of Washington Press; Juneau: Sealaska Heritage Institute, 2008.

Matthew Timothy Bradley is a native of the Eastern Cherokee Indian Reservation in Western North Carolina. He studied anthropology at Indiana University and is currently based in Berkshire County, Massachusetts.


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