This is the kind of cool story that makes me want to poke around in all the community museums I see. A fantastic Tlingit war helmet has been recently rediscovered in the backroom of a museum in Springfield, Massachussests. The helmet was accessioned in 1899 as an “Aleutian hat” and the designation was never questioned until now. The news article about it suggests only 95 of these helmets are known, with the largest collections found in Russia. They are part of an elaborate system of armour known from the contact and early historic period in Tlingit territory (Southeast Alaska – Alaska Panhandle).
They are carved from a single piece of wood, in this case with an eagle crest or motif. Way back when, we had a couple of posts here on Tlingit armour. This post starts with some (highly collectible) plastic figurine Tlingit warriors and goes from there, while this one looks at some replica armour made by Tlingit artist Tommy Joseph. The museum news release notes,
Today, a few helmets are still brought out at ceremonial gatherings, such as potlatches, to commemorate prominent events and honor past clan elders. Because they are associated with combat, the helmets are not actually worn on the head during such peaceful gatherings, but are instead held in hand or perhaps held over the head of someone needing spiritual support.
I’m glad this one survived, though clearly its true home is in the community. It seems that if it managed to spend over a century un-noticed in the museum maybe they might not miss it for the next century too? On the other hand, neglect is one of the great preservatives in the world.
Actually, this whole post is just an excuse to link to the image below, a detail of Ketchikan artist Ray Troll’s “The Battle of Sitka, June 1802“, an event noted in passing once before on this blog. The armour and helmets (and neck guards, or gorgets) are pretty accurate so far as I can tell. Note how the helmet and gorget together make just a little slit for the eyes, not to mention a fearsome appearance.
You might know Troll’s work from some iconic NW t-shirts (pun warning): data in the strata (want); dies for love; octopi wall street; spawn of the dead; and the immortal ying yang, which I wore every day for about a million years.
Troll writes, and my knowledgeable readers can discuss, the following:
This drawing was inspired by reading historical accounts of Russian and Tlingit conflicts in Southeast Alaska in the late 1700’s and early 1800s. It intended primarily as a study of the incredible carved wooden war helmets and intricate body armor that Tlingit warriors of high status wore into battle.
Sometime near the summer solstice in 1802 hundreds of Tlingit warriors attacked the Russian/Aleut settlement of St. Michael’s, near present day Sitka, Alaska, slaughtering most of the inhabitants. In a carefully planned assault half of the attacking force came by immense war canoes and the other half descended on the fort from the surrounding forest.
A Russian historian named Khlebnikov wrote this passage about the attack:
The Tlingits “suddenly emerged noiselessly from the shelter of the impenetrable forests, armed with guns, spears and daggers. Their faces were covered with masks* representing the heads of animals, and smeared with red and other paint; their hair was tied up and powdered with eagle down. Some of the masks were shaped in imitation of ferocious animals with gleaming teeth and of monstrous beings. They were not observed until they were close to the barracks; and the people lounging about the door had barely enough time to rally and run into the building when the (Tlingits), surrounding them in a moment with wild and savage yells, opened a heavy fire from their guns at the windows. A terrific uproar was continued in imitation of the cries of the animals represented by their masks, with the object of inspiring greater terror.”
If you’re in Springfield, then the helmet goes on display on Boxing Day. The AAA has a backup to the news release, without the good pictures.