Unraveling history

Native artist inspects Tlingit trove bound for new museum

Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2003

George Gustav Heye, a wealthy New Yorker born in 1874, was a compulsive collector of American Indian artifacts. He would visit Indian reservations and be anxious and irritable until he'd bought everything in sight. He sponsored digs. He bought out other collectors. By the time he died, his collection had grown to 800,000 items.

Some people who knew him said he didn't seem to care about individual Indians or about keeping their cultures alive.

"George didn't buy Indian stuff in order to study the life of a people, because it never crossed his mind that that's what they were," an anthropologist who worked with him told a New Yorker reporter in 1960. "He bought all those objects solely in order to own them."

There were other sides to Heye. Some people credit him with ending a drought in North Dakota by returning a sacred rainmaking bundle to the Hidatsa Indians.

"I think he did go beyond just hoarding things," said Thomas Sweeney, spokesman for the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian.

It's hard to imagine, though, that he could have seen in his collection what Teri Rofkar saw.

Rofkar, an Alaska Native weaver from Sitka, recently picked through the Tlingit portion of his collection as a visiting scholar at the National Museum of the American Indian, which now owns Heye's trove.

Amid hundreds of things carved, sewn and woven by her forebears, Rofkar had an easy familiarity, as though decades and centuries did not stand between her and the people who made and used them.

"Good-looking pants!" she said, eyeing a slender pair of red-trimmed leather leggings lying flat in a drawer. "He would have been HOT stuff."

She lifted old baskets off their shelves and examined them, sometimes with a magnifying glass, to learn the techniques of long-dead weavers.

"How many free rows did she get? Four, and then she started to add warp," she said, looking over one specimen.

Heye's collection will be the cornerstone of the National Museum of the American Indian when it opens near the Capitol next year. Much of it is and will remain housed in a Smithsonian facility in Suitland, just outside of Washington, D.C.

The collection's new keepers say they don't want to keep it locked away. They've been opening the doors at Suitland so Indians can reconnect with the things their cultures produced. The scholarship they gave Rofkar, which included tours of other East Coast museums, is part of that effort.

Rofkar, 46, weaves both baskets and textiles, having learned as a child from her grandmother. She teaches others to weave, mostly in Southeast Alaska.

She's excited by what she sees as a renaissance in weaving on the Northwest Coast.

"There's getting to be more and more of us," she said.

Dwarfed by the 12-foot-high metal stacks in the Suitland building, she opened a yard-wide drawer to find a score of baskets, some of them hundreds of years old.

She allowed herself to ooh and ah a little, but she said she tried to keep her awe in check.

"You can't let it overwhelm you, because then you can't develop a relationship," she said.

So she dug right in, basket by basket.

She ticked off the designs she recognized - wave, tides, shaman's hat, Raven's hood, porpoise board.

Some of the basket weavers used the same techniques that she learned from her grandmother and that Rofkar passed on to her own daughter.

But over and over again, Rofkar saw one complicated striped pattern she didn't know and didn't even know what to call.

"No one on the coast is doing it anymore," she said.

She hopes a better name will suggest itself, but she came to think of it as "candy stripe."

Sitting with one of the old baskets and her own weaving materials, she figured it out. Now she hopes to teach it to others.

Heye kept little or no information about the weavers when he collected his things, but Rofkar recognized some of them by their work.

"I think this gal has a piece in the Sheldon Jackson Museum," she said, holding one little basket.

Another weaver impressed her with spruce root cut so finely it looked as though the basket were woven of thread.

Rofkar turned the basket over and pointed out that the weaver had started out with thicker warp and weft.

"Just before she went up the side, she split everything down, and once again," Rofkar noted.

One drawer she opened was full of rattle-tops, baskets with small clattering bits woven into a chamber in the lid.

She lifted and shook. Some held stones. One clinked with metal shot. In one of the long drawers she found a delicate woven teapot, just a few inches high.

Her grandmother, Eliza Mork, used to make teapots and little cups, Rofkar said.

Rofkar said she used to think her grandmother's teacups were too touristy, not fitting projects for such a talented weaver.

But they meant something to her grandmother. When Mork was a girl, in the early 1900s, Sitka was a segregated town. Her grandmother said she could see that on the other side, little white girls had tea parties with little china teacups.

"Gram said she would go home and just cry and cry," Rofkar said.

Decades later, Mork retained an affection for the little teacups she wove for sale.

After Suitland, Rofkar visited other East Coast museums. At the University of Pennsylvania she saw 16 baskets from her clan, Ta'kdeintaan, of Hoonah.

"Some of them were probably my grandma's and my great-grandma's," she said. "I recognized the patterns, and there was continuity of the styles."

There she also finally saw the Lituya Bay robe, which she had recreated based only on a written description. The weaving took her 800 hours.

"I tried to keep my cool, but that was just - Oh my god," she said.

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