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Native spoons draw anthropologist to Southeast

Harvard scientist seeks out elders to learn history, rituals linked to elaborately carved utensils

Posted: Friday, March 22, 2002

A bear cradles an otter in one carving. In another, a mysterious beast rests head-to-head with a human, their tongues connected.

The elaborate Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida carvings decorate the handles of 40 antique ceremonial spoons. The spoons were carved from goat and sheep horn, probably between 100 and 200 years ago. They have been in the collection of Harvard University's Peabody Museum for decades, but virtually nothing was known about them.

Anthropologist Ann-Marie Victor-Howe is in Juneau from the Cambridge, Mass., museum, this month to interview Native elders and artists and learn the history of the artifacts and the rituals behind their use. Carved with stylized Northwest Coast renditions of frogs, owls, humans, hawks and strange, mythical creatures, the spoons are between five and 10 inches long. Some are inlaid with abalone.

"They are like miniature totem poles," said Victor-Howe. "I'm trying to identify the crests, and the clans the crests belong to. Some of the carvings are very complex."

The spoons were used only for potlatch ceremonies, she said. They were likely kept by the clan leaders or nobility in baskets or bentwood boxes.

"These were brought out like regalia, they are special," she said.

Pointing to the elaborate carvings in several photographs she added, "It's very powerful, all this."

Victor-Howe visited Native elders, scholars and artists in their homes in Juneau, Sitka, Hoonah, Ketchikan and Hydaburg and brought detailed photographs of the spoons. Others came to Juneau to share their knowledge with her.

She first met Ketchikan artist Nathan Jackson, a renowned Tlingit carver and sculptor, several years ago when he was in Boston carving a totem pole for the Peabody Museum. They've met twice since.

"They are very much designed with traditional figures in them," Jackson said. "The ideas may have stemmed from totem poles, rather than a single figure. It depends on what the artist had in mind as far as composition. Some represent stories connected with a particular clan."

One spoon depicts a burly human figure holding a sea lion and tearing it in half, which is central to the "Strongman" story owned by one clan. Another depicts Gunakadeit, a sea monster of Tlingit legend.

The majority of the spoons were acquired by the Peabody Museum in 1869. An army officer named Fast bought and collected several dozen spoons in the 1860s while posted in Sitka. Victor-Howe said little is known about Fast. Other spoons, dating as late as the 1920s, were donated to the museum.

Some of the spoons are carved from a single horn. Others are made in two pieces, with the bowl attached to the handle with copper rivets. Jackson said they seem to have been made using a carving knife or an engraver, a sharp-edged tool like a chisel.

VictorHowe lived in Alaska for 15 years before going to work for the Peabody Museum in 1993. She served as a curator at the University of Alaska Museum in Fairbanks and was a subsistence specialist in Juneau. She has been working on the spoon project since July 2001 and also conducted interviews in Southeast last summer.

The Sealaska Heritage Institute helped her, she said. "They've given me an office to work in and provided introductions."

She plans to publish a book for the general public on the spoons and prepare an exhibit for the Peabody Museum, as well as publish her findings in academic journals.



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