New Research on the Art of the Northwest Coast
The Princeton University Art Museum has in its care a small but exceptional collection of Northwest Coast Native art. Thanks to a few prominent individuals and a well-funded survey expedition, the collection grew from nothing to nearly eight hundred objects in the 1880s, though much of it remains out of the limelight.
Beginning in 1879, Reverend Dr. Sheldon Jackson, a Presbyterian missionary who would become General Agent of US Education in Alaska, sent art and artifacts from southeastern Alaska to the Princeton Theological Seminary to form what he referred to as a “Missionary Cabinet.” Intended to illustrate “the present condition and needs of Pagan lands,” the collection soon outgrew its home, and in 1882 the Theological Seminary transferred it to the Trustees of what was then Princeton College. At that point, nearly three hundred objects from Alaska, Arizona, and Washington entered the E. M. Museum of Geology and Archaeology, housed in what is today the Faculty Room of Nassau Hall, followed by additional donations from Jackson in 1883 and 1885.
In 1886, the museum’s holdings were further supplemented by Professor William Libbey, Class of 1877, who had joined an expedition to climb Mount St. Elias in Alaska. Although the expedition failed to reach the summit, Libbey returned with a substantial collection of Yakutat Tlingit material, including the contents of a despoiled shaman’s grave. These materials joined the Jackson collection at the E. M. Museum. The collection eventually became part of Princeton’s Department of Geology and Geophysical Sciences and was subsequently kept in Guyot Hall from 1909 until the 1990s, when the works came to the Art Museum on loan.
Lieutenant George T. Emmons, another well-known collector of Northwest Coast art during what is known as the “scramble” of salvage anthropology, was on the Mount St. Elias expedition with Libbey. He took a share of the objects gathered in Yakutat and in later years traded some works from his own collection for those in Princeton’s holdings. A small number of private donations have augmented the collection since.
Works from Princeton have been part of prominent exhibitions of Northwest Coast art, such as the landmark Arts of the Raven exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery in 1967. A 1997 article by Allen Wardwell in American Indian Art Magazine featured works from the collection and object-essays written by students who participated in a Mellon-funded seminar on Native Northwest Coast art that Wardwell taught at Princeton in 1994. Yet the majority of the material remains unknown, unresearched, and in some cases lacking basic identificatory information. As a McCrindle Graduate Intern for the 2016–2017 academic year, I worked to fill in some of the gaps in the catalog record so that the collection might be made accessible to scholars, researchers, and indigenous communities of origin.
Much of the material gathered by Sheldon Jackson consists of what have typically been considered “poor” tourist pieces, many likely made by Native students at the Sitka Industrial and Training School (later renamed the Sheldon Jackson Institute). The aesthetic quality of such pieces varies. In 1961, while surveying material to display at the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair, Dr. Erna Gunther wrote that most of the objects were only “interesting that such poor work should have been done so early on the Northwest Coast.” However, for Jackson himself, “new wood carving [was] as good as old,” and today such works present a wealth of information about students and artists during the boom of salvage anthropology and tourist collecting.
Many of these model “totem” poles and figures depict indigenous stories and knowledge. Two model poles in the collection, for example, represent stories of the Gaanaxteidee clan. One depicts Dukt’ootl’, known as the Strong Man or Black Skin, who is shown ripping a sea lion in half with his bare hands. Another portrays Ka-kuthch-an, the girl who raised Tlukwx-aasá, the woodworm, who is part of the story of the Gaanaxteidee migration to Klukwan. Objects and images such as these that communicate hereditary rights and clan membership are known as crests, or, for the Tlingit, at.óow, “purchased objects,” though the social and spiritual meanings of at.óow are complex. A wooden comb collected by Libbey from Chief Yen-aht-setl of the Teikweidí clan is one such crest. The comb depicts a spirit peering between the ears of xóots, or Brown Bear, and would have referred to the owner’s lineage and its associated rights when worn.
Further study might reveal the identities of the artists who created these works. Consultation with experts at museums in Alaska has already associated specific artists with objects in the Princeton collection. Engraved silver bracelets and rings collected by Libbey were identified by Zachary Jones of the Alaska State Museum and Archives as likely the work of the silversmiths Sitka Jack (Khaltseixh) and Jim Jacobs (Yéilnaawú/Kíchxhaak), who were commissioned to create bracelets given out at a ku.éex’ (potlatch) or traded. The Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka includes many objects collected by Jackson similar to those he sent to Princeton.
Indigenous collaboration, however, has yet to be a formal part of the Art Museum’s research efforts. The Northwest Coast collection is an opportunity to engage with source communities, elders, and artists to enhance Princeton’s educational opportunities and to return knowledge of these objects to their places of origin. Tlingit and Haida consultants can help in naming objects in their own languages and identifying culturally sensitive material. The Tlingit objects from the íxt’ (shaman) grave collected by Libbey, for example, including l’axkeit (masks) and sheishóox (rattles), are considered by some Tlingit to be spiritually potent and possibly dangerous beings. Community input is required for their safe display and handling. Research on the Princeton Northwest Coast collection continues in the new academic year with the support of the Mellon Foundation.
Christopher T. Green
Class of 2012
McCrindle Graduate Intern, 2016–2017