Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Connecting to Collections: Beaded tunic in Winter and Pond photographs

Last month, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the grand opening celebration for Sealaska Heritage Institute's new Walter Soboleff Center. The event featured speeches, dance performances, unveiling of monumental artworks, and a traditional ceremony.
The Yees Ku Oo dancers perform in front of the Soboleff Center, May 15, 2015.

During the traditional ceremony, representatives from clans from around southeast Alaska presented clan hats and other at.oow to be displayed in the Nathan Jackson Gallery. Bill Thomas of Haines presented several pieces of regalia, including a beaded tunic. During his speech, he mentioned that the tunic can be seen in some historic photos taken by Winter and Pond.
Bill Thomas speaks about the beaded tunic held by Chuck Smythe of Sealaska Heritage Institute, May 15, 2015.

The Alaska State Library Historical Collections has a large collection of Winter and Pond photographs, which include some of the most iconic images of southeast Alaska from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Partners Lloyd Winter and Percy Pond arrived in Juneau in 1893, and over the next fifty years, took thousands of photographs that documented life in southeast Alaska. Pond died in 1943, and two years later, Winter sold the business to Francis Harrison, who managed the company until it closed down in 1956. The photographs and negatives were transferred to the Alaska State Library Historical Collections in 1981.
Percy Pond (left) and Lloyd Winter in front of the Taku Glacier. Alaska State Library Historical Collections PCA 87-1280

Photographs from this time frequently depicted Native Americans in ways that served to justify colonialist policies that subjugated Native peoples. This is especially true of staged photographs of Native people meant to make them appear primitive or savage. In the Winter and Pond collection, there are a few exoticized studio portraits of Alaska Natives, but there are also many photos taken in Native communities that provide a glimpse of Tlingit life at the turn of the century. In The Tlingit Encounter with Photography, author Sharon Bohn Gmelch notes, "Winter and Pond's photographs are notable for the range of subjects and conditions they show. They did not limit themselves to narrow stereotypes or attempt to create falsely romantic images of the Tlingit by removing traces of modernization or Western culture."

A significant portion of the Winter and Pond collection can be viewed on vilda.alaska.edu, Alaska's Digital Archives. I searched the digital collection and found two images that show the tunic, or one that is very similar. Both photographs were probably taken in Klukwan around 1894 or 1895, according to Victoria Wyatt in Images from the Inside Passage. The top photo was taken outside the Frog House. The lower photo was taken in a makeshift tent studio. In both, the tunic is worn by a man on the far right.

Group of people wearing regalia.
Alaska State Library Historical Collections PCA 87-0035.

Two people wearing beaded regalia.
Alaska State Library Historical Collections PCA 87-0037

The opening of the Soboleff Center was a significant event, in part because the Center is a place where young Native people can feel connected to their history. Hopefully, these 120-year old photographs can contribute to that experience. Seeing these old photos alongside the actual tunic made me think about the tunic's long life and its significance to the people who made, wore, and cared for it. It also made me appreciate the ways that Alaska's cultural and historical institutions work together to help preserve and interpret history.

The tunic is now on display in the Nathan Jackson Gallery at the Walter Soboleff Center, and you can see it for yourself.

Learn more:
  • View the finding aid and read background information about the Winter & Pond Photograph Collection (PCA-87) at the Alaska State Library Historical Collections
  • See Winter & Pond photographs on vilda.alaska.edu 
  • Read articles by LAM staff about problems of early photographic depictions of Alaska Natives.

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