Mattel's new Barbie goes Alaska Native

Doll adorned in Tlingit regalia draws mixed reaction

Posted: Thursday, February 24, 2000

When Vicki Soboleff first saw Tlingit Barbie, she was annoyed. But after further thought, she was impressed.

``I'm a Haida, not a Tlingit, but I've lived here a long time. There should be a little pride they picked Tlingit people - they could've chosen anyone along the Northwest coast,'' Soboleff said.

Mattel introduced Tlingit Barbie this month as part of its Dolls of the World series. She has long, straight black hair and brown skin. Her features are perhaps vaguely Alaska Native, but she's got the long neck and Barbie body, which bears limited resemblance to any woman of any group. As Juneau doll collector Alison Caputo said, ``Barbie is Barbie.''

Wrapped in a Chilkat blanket, the doll is marketed as a Northwest Coast Native Alaskan Barbie. The description on the box opens with: ``Yake'i ixw Sateeni - it's good to see you. . . . I am a Tlingit, sometimes called totem pole people.''

Pictures of totems, eagles and coastal mountains illustrate the package. It goes on to say: ``My people live in the Northwest Coast and Panhandle area of Southeast Alaska. The Chilkat River runs through the area, and is the home to the largest gathering of bald eagles in the United States.''

The box describes Southeast Alaska, and Tlingit Barbie's narrative reads: ``Today our lives are a blend of the modern and traditional. Our dinner may be salmon or seal meat . . . or pizza. For fun, we play basketball or two-foot kick, a traditional Inuit game.''

Caputo ordered Tlingit Barbie through the Internet. She said three dolls are issued each year by Mattel in the Dolls of the World series, and then discontinued. This year's edition also includes a Swedish Barbie and a Spanish Barbie dressed as a bullfighter.

``They've gotten a lot more realistic. The early ones were totally gold lame and hot-pink versions of their ethnic costumes,'' she said.

Tlingit Barbie's Chilkat blanket features a stylized Northwest Coast form-line Eagle design and uses non-traditional colors and other fabricated designs.

Caputo posted a review of the doll on the World Wide Web, offering a critique of the doll and her outfit. The review can be reached by going to

Caputo has several dozen collectable Barbies, and said Mattel created a new face mold for the doll.

``There are certain face molds they'll use on many different races,'' she said. ``Now, they're actually using a lot more (new designs) than they ever did in the past.''

K-B Toys carries Tlingit Barbie in Juneau, where Vicki Soboleff first saw the doll. Soboleff is the leader of All Nation's Children dance group in Juneau. A mother of two daughters, she is also a doll collector.

``My initial reaction of anger was because it's hard to accept that non-Native people copy the art of Native Alaskans. We don't have the money to do that ourselves, and then we see tourist shops downtown with cheap imitations of Native art,'' she said.

She said after her initial reaction passed, she was actually impressed.

``Yake'i ixw Sateeni - is correct. I am surprised they had a correct Tlingit phrase. I tried to find a name to see who might have assisted them. Then I almost bought it - at least they did a Northwest Coast doll.''

Repeated calls to Mattel this week were not returned.

Summer Thompson at K-B Toys in Juneau said the store has two Tlingit Barbies left in stock.

``We've had people asking for them,'' said Thompson, ``collectors and grandparents that want to send an Alaskan Barbie as a gift.''

The Christmas Store in downtown Juneau carries a few Barbies, dolls that owner John Farnan thinks will appeal to summer visitors. Farnan said he carried Eskimo Barbie when she first came out 10 years ago, and then picked her up again when they reissued her a few years ago as Arctic Barbie.

``We bought a batch before the series closed. They sold well,'' he said.

Tlingit Barbie, like the others in the series, retails for about $25.

Soboleff said she thinks little girls would enjoy the doll.

``They can identify with it. I'm sure if they get a Tlingit Barbie, they think it would be neat,'' Soboleff said. ``It's not ugly - I thought the Pocahontas doll was ugly. My girls are not interested in Barbies, but I think I will get one for my niece.''

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