Naming and Claiming: The Language of Indigenous Art

Sheet’ká Kwáan (Sitka), Tlingit, Aak’wtaatseen (Salmon Boy), before 1882. Wood with red and black paint, 33.3 × 9.4 × 7.8 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Museum collectionWhat is in a name? I have spent the last few months pondering just this question as the Museum’s Andrew W. Mellon Research Specialist for Understudied Collections in Native American Art. The second of three specialists who will work with Museum collections over a three-year period, I am cataloguing the historical collection of Northwest Coast Indigenous art so that the objects can be added to the Museum’s online collections database. In my field, online databases can be repositories of collecting histories and tools for digital repatriation. Digital repatriation is a fairly new effort by museums and other institutions, enabled by technology, to conceptually return belongings to Indigenous peoples.

Donald Gregory, representative from Sealaska Heritage Institute, views collections of stone toolsAs more than eight hundred objects from the Northwest Coast are prepared for the Museum’s database, questions arise: what are the ethical obligations of the institution? How do Indigenous communities want their belongings accessed online? What belongings are not appropriate for digital spaces? What overtures of return can the Museum activate in the digital world ?

I answer these questions by addressing the basics of museum records. An object’s archival footprint includes the name of the artist, the artwork’s title, its date of creation, and its materials. For the majority of historical Indigenous belongings in museum collections, researching these simple facts exposes glaring voids of knowledge. At the time of the objects’ collection, their proper appellations and the names of the artists went unrecorded. A date might be pinned to when a work was acquired but rarely to when it was made. Geographic classifications used by museums originated in settler-colonialism and so define Euro-American rather than Indigenous concepts of territory.

In collaboration with Northwest Coast Indigenous communities, I am working to title belongings in the Tlingit and Haida languages of their makers and to define titles, materials, and geographies in Indigenous terms. Indigenous names help audiences, Indigenous and otherwise, to understand the cultural underpinnings behind Indigenous works within museums.

Story map of Aak’wtaatseen’s (Salmon Boy) travels through the waterways around Sheet’ká Kwáan (Sitka), with Łingít place names. Cartography by Barry Levely, published in Thomas F. Thorton, Being and Place among the Tlingit. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008Take this figure of Aak’wtaatseen (Salmon Boy) as an example. It represents a Tlingit transformation story, and the figure was made to appeal to the first wave of American settlement and tourism in Sheet’ká Kwáan, or Sitka, Alaska, in the 1880s. When the story of Salmon Boy is told in Łingít, language ties places to people. The short English version recalls:

A young boy had no respect for salmon, even though they are vital to Tlingit lifeways. He disrespected them by not eating them completely, by not disposing of their bones properly, and by overfishing. One day when he was swimming in a river of spawning salmon, a current pulled him into the ocean with all of the salmon spirits who had given their bodies to feed the people and animals near that river.

In the ocean he lived with the Salmon People all winter, where by example, they taught him to respect salmon. In the ocean, salmon looked just like humans. Salmon Boy witnessed the violence inflicted upon Salmon People when humans did not treat them properly. He learned to properly dispose of salmon bones, to not overfish, and to show respect for salmon as a vital component of human life.

In the spring the Salmon Boy returned with the Salmon People to the river. His mother caught him with a net, and immediately recognized him as her son. She took care of him as a salmon and slowly he transformed back into a boy.

He taught his people the appropriate ways to treat and use salmon. One spring he saw an old, tired salmon in the stream which he recognized as his salmon spirit. He speared the fished and immediately died. His people knew to return his body to the river so that his spirit could return to the Salmon People.

Princeton’s goals for digital return parallel Salmon Boy’s lessons: The Art Museum is consulting with origin communities and listening to Indigenous directives to learn how to steward these belongings with respect. This is the beginning of an ongoing relationship of exchange and of perpetual return.


India Rael Young
Research Specialist for Native American Arts


Donald Gregory, representative from Sealaska Heritage Institute (left), and Robert Sam, representative from the Tribe of Sitka (right), discuss the interior brim of a spruce root hatTlingit, Ségaataana (berry basket), before 1883. Twined spruce root with grass false embroidery, h. 13 cm, w. 15 cm, d. 16.5 cm. Princeton University Art Museum. Lent by the Department of Geology and Geophysical Sciences, Princeton University

Ségaataana means small basket that hangs around the neck. Such baskets are used in the first stage of berry picking. When full, the basket is emptied into the kah-dihk-kuhk, or the basket one wears on her back. The designs, created with false embroidery, also have names that refer to elements in the natural world. This basket pairs guth-luh-ku (waves) with kah-zee-dy, a design that represents the wrapping of a belt around the body.1

1. Basketry types and Łingít spellings come from Frances Paul, Spruce Root Basketry of the Alaska Tlingit (Sitka: Sheldon Jackson Museum, 1981); spellings are currently being updated in collaboration with Łingít language specialist Marsha Hotch.