an artist, collaborator and conservator, Tlingit master carver Tommy
Joseph has been involved with many of the most important totem projects
in Alaska over the past 20 years.
The short list includes the Indian River History Pole carved
with Wayne Price, the Kiks.adi Memorial Pole and the much-photographed
"Holding Hands" Centennial Pole, all in Sitka National Historical
But the soft-spoken artist will address the brutal arts of war
at the Anchorage Museum on Thursday, specifically the battle armor
and weapons of the Tlingit Indians. It's a subject he's devoted
special attention to over the last few years.
Joseph's totems can be found in England, New Zealand, at the
Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and in front of the Department of
Veterans Affairs homeless shelter at Benson Boulevard and C Street
One of the recent generation of artists finding new ways to
explore totemic forms, he often incorporates unexpected or modern
elements in his work. On a pole for the Family Justice Center in
Sitka, there are young people wearing contemporary clothing. A rainbow
is featured on the "Good Life" pole created for Sitka's Pacific
High School. A camera shutter can be discerned on the pole honoring
the late Japanese photographer Michio Hoshino. Multicolored hands
decorate his Census Pole, created to encourage participation in
the 2010 U.S. census and which traveled across the state.
It may seem like a leap to go from items now considered ornamental
-- bowls, blankets, totem poles -- to devices meant for killing.
But before contact, Native Alaskans expected all tools to be both
functional and decorated. War equipment was considered especially
important and was especially well-decorated.
Joseph said he started to "seriously research" Tlingit battle
gear in 2004, the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Sitka between
the Russians, led by Alexander Baranof, and the Kiks.adi clan, led
by Chief Katlian.
"There wasn't a whole lot available online or in books," Joseph
said. "So I decided to do the research myself."
began with the collections at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka,
where the raven-shaped battle helmet worn by Katlian in the fight
against the Russians is kept, and the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.
He got a grant to explore the holdings at the Burke Museum in Seattle.
Then a Smithsonian fellowship that let him look over items held
in several East Coast museums.
An award from USA Artists let him travel to Europe, where he
visited the British Museum, several Russian museums and "I'm not
sure how many museums in Paris." He photographed the pieces, examined
them and "picked 'em apart in my mind."
With an individual artist grant from the Rasmuson Foundation,
he re-created the weapons and armor he'd studied and mounted a solo
show at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau last year. "Rainforest
Warriors" featured six mannequins in full battle gear along with
assorted artifacts and paintings.
The traditional war equipment in Southeast Alaska bears a striking
resemblance to that worn by the ancient Greeks as described in Homer's
"Iliad." Fighting was close and hand-to-hand, with copper knives
the primary tool. The blades jutted forward and backward, Joseph
said, and were held in the middle. In place of a second blade, some
of the knives had a blunt pummel, often carved in the form of an
Other weapons included copper-tipped spears, war clubs with
heavy bone heads and nasty-looking, laboriously carved jade spikes
up to 16 inches long.
"They were like a miner's pick," he said, "for whacking skulls."
and leather served for armor. The most prominent piece -- the one
most commonly displayed in museums -- was the helmet, often decorated
with a human or animal face. It came down to the eyebrows. A bentwood
neck collar was attached to the rear of the helmet and held in place
with a mouthpiece clinched in the teeth.
The body was protected with the heaviest of hides -- moose,
bear or sea lion, sometimes in multiple layers. Joseph has seen
examples with hides as much as a half-inch thick. "It was like our
modern day Kevlar," he said. Vertical wooden slats were strapped
to the leather, typically in top and bottom halves, some reaching
halfway down the warrior's legs, which could also be guarded with
Musket balls could bounce off such armor, Joseph said.
Joseph said some of what he discovered in his research came
as a surprise.
"We were told that war helmets were always, always made from
a spruce burl," he said. The rock-hard knot is difficult to split
even with a maul. "But I found some that were made from straight
grain -- and some were maple," a non-Alaska wood that would have
been acquired via trade with tribes in present-day British Columbia
"One that really surprised me was made of red cedar," he said.
"That's a soft wood."
The maker of a cedar helmet covered it with animal hide, however,
to reinforce it, much as modern plastic-foam bike helmets are sometimes
covered with a light nylon skin.
Joseph was born in Ketchikan in 1964 and has lived in Sitka
for most of his life. He said he became interested in traditional
art when a carver presented a workshop on making halibut hooks for
his third-grade class.
Last week it was Joseph who was teaching apprentices how to
make such hooks at the Alaska Native Heritage Center. He was also
working on a new war helmet at the center's Southeast site.
After his talk about battle gear this week, he'll stay in Anchorage
to do conservation work on one of his poles that recently came into
the museum's possession.
doesn't often come to Anchorage. Only coincidental gaps in timing
with various other projects permitted him to make an extended visit
this year. Among other things, his Sitka studio, Raindance Gallery,
is slated for expansion, in part to accommodate the popular workshops
he conducts there.
And yes, if you need a Tlingit war helmet, you can buy one at
the gallery. Though his in-depth study of Tlingit weapons is only
about a decade old, they've been an object of artistic interest
for some time.
The Kiks.adi pole, for instance, carved in 1999, has a frog
at its base, the clan symbol of the Tlingit leader Katlian. The
frog appears to be holding a raven in its lap.
A closer look shows that it's a replica of Katlian's helmet.
At the museum
TOMMY JOSEPH will present the Smithsonian Spotlight talk on
battle dress at noon Thursday in the Anchorage Museum, 625 C St.,
where he also will be doing conservation work on a totem pole 1-3
p.m. Thursday through Saturday and June 9-10. The public is welcome
to observe and encouraged to ask questions. Free with museum admission.