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Basketry hat

Tlingit basketry hat
ca. 1820
Spruce root, bear grass
12 x 40 cm

A sailor’s hat, woven of spruce root and grass—using what you have to remember what you saw.…

When explorers came upon the coast of Alaska, their uniforms must have looked strange to the Tlingit living along the glaciers and fjords. The need to trade for fresh water and supplies would have brought foreigners and locals together as the anchor hit bottom. Long-distance mariners themselves, the Tlingit understood well the needs of travelers. As more glei kwaan (people from across the water) arrived, so did the trade wool to make hats. A window of time closed, and this lovely sailor’s hat became a “collector’s item,” rather than a prestigious clan object. Similar stories play out over and over on the shelves of museums around the world.

The weaver’s use of negative spaces in the design on the band, and the abundance of roots needed to weave a piece this large, lead me to speculate that she lived near Yakutat, Alaska. Only in Yakutat and Sitka did the Tlingit turn the tide of invasion. In 1802 the Tlingit drove the Russians from Sitka, only to lose it again in 1804. In Yakutat the Tlingit homeland was secured after a battle in 1805; the Russians never did rebuild the settlement there.

Sailor hats made of wool felt are worn today in Tlingit dance regalia. Sitka’s dancers wear them when they perform a group of songs called the Aleut Series, recognizing not only the Russians, but also the unfortunate Aleutics who accompanied them in hunting and battle as slaves. The historic voices are silent now, except for one very outspoken Tlingit hat.

—Ch´ais-koowu-tla´a T´ak dein taan, Ta´ax´ hit (Teri Rofkar, Tlingit Raven from the Snail House), weaver

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