Behind the bracelets: Documenting the lives of Native jewelers

Jim Jacobs, a jeweler, in his potlatch costume with potlatch spoon carved from mountain sheep horn in Sitka in 1931.

There’s a great deal of doubt involved in matching historic Native jewelers with their creations, even in cases that seem straightforward like that of a silver snuffbox owned by Rudolph Walton and emblazoned with his initials.


“I kind of wonder ‘Did he make it or was it a gift?’” Zachary Jones asked during his lecture on documenting Tlingit, Haida and Tshimshian jewelers at Celebration last week.

“He made it,” called out a woman from the audience, adding that she had heard so from his granddaughter.

“We should chat,” Jones responded.

Jones, a former Sealaska Heritage Institute curator, current state archivist and University of Alaska Southeast lecturer, is working on uncovering the lives of jewelers past and present.

Jones has searched through museums and historic documents but said it’s the living who provide some of his best leads. He had a booth at Centennial Hall during Celebration 2016 where he sought more spontaneous leads, like the one that occurred during his talk, and invited future listeners to contact him. (You can watch the lecture online at

Jones first became interested in the provenance of Native jewelry during his time at SHI, the nonprofit arm of Sealaska Corp.

“Folks would walk in,” he said, “hold their wrists out and be like ‘Can you tell me who made this bracelet?’ … and I often had to say ‘I’m not certain.’”

There’s no guidebook to Tlingit jewelers and many historic silversmiths didn’t sign their work. In his quest to document them, Jones said he’s tried to study every historic piece he can lay his eyes on, in a museum or out of one.

But most museums have only a few items attributed to artists. It wasn’t something of importance to early collectors, Jones said, but he thinks “... it’s important to acknowledge folks, so what I’m doing here and at my booth at Celebration and elsewhere is talking to folks and hoping to have folks come forward with those stories.”

Jones seeks other clues to identifying artists’ works. One is style, like a piece in the Sheldon Jackson Museum that Jones has attributed to Jim Jacobs (1846-1941, Tlingit names Yéilnaawú and Kíchxhaak) by “this classic double line I’ve never seen any other artist do and some of the other signature features that are his,” such as three hash marks on the cheek and under the jaw or beak.

Another hint is handwriting. Several of the silversmiths Jones discussed would write “Sitka” on the spoons they sold to tourists. Walton (1867-1951, Kaawóotk’) “wrote ‘Sitka’ unlike anyone else,” Jones said, pointing out the artist’s cursive. Another silversmith has become known for his “wacky ‘k’” and Jones has been trying to match Sitka Charlie (X’aasooká) with an all-caps, serif “SITKA” with a characteristic slanted “S.”

But it’s the silversmiths themselves that Jones really wants to talk about. “There’s been a lot of books ... where people have talked about style and what it looks like but not who the jewelers themselves were,” he said.

About Jacobs, he says: “He loved his children. Unfortunately some of them died young, and people recall really his sadness and grief over losing his children because he had such a kind heart.”

Jones recalled Walton’s work with the Alaska Native Brotherhood, saying he “really fought for land rights and a lot of things that were important to the community at the time. Folks today benefit from his work and service.”

Charles Gunnok (1846-1923, Góonwakh) was not only a silversmith but a Native policeman and Kake’s first mayor. Sitka Jack (1836-1916, Khaltseixh) married an Eagle Nest house woman named Martha and had 13 daughters with her. “So people sometimes say that’s why there’s so many Eagle Nest house people,” Jones joked.

Also in the audience was Kathryn Bunn-Marcuse, an art historian who has done work on Haida jewelers and is the associate director of the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Native Art at the Burke Museum of the University of Washington.

She thanked Jones for his research.

“You have really done so much work to bring out the people and what is their family history and who were they, what was their role in the clan, and that is even harder” than just identifying by style, she said. “It’s such an important part of the picture.”


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