The ole curiosity shop of Peter the Great

Posted: Friday, June 22, 2007

My son Allan on his trips to Russia has met many of the leading historians of the Russian American field and the heads of famous museums. One is the Peter the Great Museum of Ethnography at St.Petersburg. The scientific director of the department of American Ethnography is SergeiKorsun.

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The museum is also called the Kunst Kamera. This is a German title that refers to a place of curiosities. Peter the Great, a 6-foot-8-inch giant, in the early 1700s was fascinated with human and animal abnormalities, still contained grotesquely in a room at the museum, most preserved in formaldehyde. He also, Allan notes, was a rudimentary dentist, probably learned along with shipbuilding on his trip to Holland and Europe as a young man. He liked to practice on his boyars whether a tooth ached or not. His dentist tools and his collection of teeth are on display.

This was a common regal prerogative. Elizabeth the Great of England asked one of her ministers to have his tooth extracted to show her that it didn't hurt too badly before she endured the same procedure.

But the Peter the Great Museum is also a great repository of Native art from around the world. It is a storehouse of Tlingit art with dozens of masks, body armor, blankets and tools.

One of the earliest pieces is a tribal emblem, collected by the sea captains Ismailov and Bocharov, in 1788, at Yakutat.

They were instructed by Grigorii Shelikov, who founded the first European settlement in Alaska at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island in 1784, to explore along the coastline in a southeasterly direction.

The painting is on a piece of animal skin. It shows a figure of the mythical ancestor of the Tlingit, who lived on the shore of Yakutat Bay.

Allan also was given a 2007 calendar featuring Tlingit art, which instructs how time was told 200 years ago in southeastern Alaska.

It was lunar, with the month of July the start of the year, called the Salmon Moon. This was the time when the Tlingits caught salmon and stored up supplies for the entire year.

August was the Mountain Shadow Moon, when the berries ripened and the first snow appeared on the mountains.

September was the Child Moon, when the fishing season ended.

October was the Big Moon, when people returned to winter settlement with supplies of food.

November was the Digging Moon when bears dug dens to hibernate.

December was Through the Head Moon when hair appeared on the heads of seal embryos and people began to wait for the arrival of wild geese.

January was the Black Bear Moon, the time when bear cubs were born.

February was the Sea Plant Budding Moon when seaweed began to grow.

March was the Land Plant Budding Moon when plants began to bud.

April was the Pre-Breeding Moon which preceded breeding among animals. This was also called the True Moon of Flowers.

May was the Breeding Moon.

June was called Ten and Three Others, (the 13th Moon} the moon cycle ofthe Tlingit and modern calendars did not coincide.

There were other names for the monthly periods among the many villages of the Tlingit.

• Lifelong Alaskan Elton Engstrom is a retired fish buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau.

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