Friday, December 23, 2011

What Stories are Woven into a Basket?

Anfesia Shapsnikoff, at right, instructs a basket weaving class
at the museum in the early 1970s. Kodiak Historical Society.
Have you been to the museum to see our temporary exhibit, “What Stories are Woven into a Basket”?   Baskets have been on display in the museum for decades, but this exhibit is a new look at an old topic. In this exhibit, baskets are not just beautiful artifacts, but objects that speak to stories of loss, revitalization, adaptation, and fascination. In the exhibit, visitors learn how the tradition of Aleutian-style grass basket weaving became endangered in part due to the Aleutian campaign during WWII. Anfesia Shapsnikoff, a Unangan weaver in the Attu tradition, worked to revitalize Aleutian-style grass basket weaving. Starting in the 1950s, Anfesia taught a series of workshops at the museum and trained a new generation of weavers. 

One of the first objects in the museum's
collection, this coil of cured Attu grass
was donated to the museum by Anfesia
Shapsnikoff. It is currently on exhibit.
Baskets have been a core component to the museum’s identity since the founding of the Kodiak Historical Society in 1954. In fact, during the first meeting of the new society, Anfesia donated a coil of Attu grass that was cured by a weaver in 1912, becoming one of the first objects in the museum’s collection.  

But baskets have an even longer association with the museum. After Alaska was sold to the US in 1867, the Russian American Company magazin (the building in which the museum is housed) was sold to the Alaska Commercial Company. The ACC operated a store from the magazin, and within the store sold grass baskets from Woody Island. Archaeological excavations on the museum property in 2008 unearthed a large spruce root basket left in a trash midden outside the perimeter of the building sometime before the 1912 eruption at Katmai.  The basket had evidence of being patched before it was discarded, indicating that local baskets were utilitarian objects of value in 19th century life in the magazin as well.  
This photograph was taken inside the magazin, then the
Erskine family home, likely in the 1930s or 1940s. Note
the large basket on the floor. The family had a large basket
collection of their own. Kodiak Historical Society.

In the beginning of the 20th century, the ACC manager for Alaska, W.J. Erskine, decided to open his own business and purchased ACC’s Kodiak holdings. This included the magazin, which W.J. turned into his family’s home. The Erskines were avid collectors of books and artifacts. Baskets were included in their collection, including some that are on display in the current exhibit. Recently while digging around in the archive I found an image that likely highlights baskets within the Erskine family collection. Published within the Kodiak Woman’s Club section of the Alaska Federation of Women’s Clubs’ souvenir publication from 1924-1926, the photographed baskets include some that are very similar to the Erskine’s Makah baskets. Nellie Erskine was vice president of the Kodiak Woman’s Club during this time, caring for the club’s library within her home. 

This picture from around 1926
highlights baskets that were in Kodiak
at the time and likely within the
Erskine family collection.

Baskets apparently have been on display in the magazin for well over one hundred years. However, after January our exceptional collection will return to museum storage, as the baskets have earned a well-deserved rest. Come by and see them on exhibit while you can!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Filipinos on Kodiak: Celebration and Inquiry

For the last 100 years, Kodiak's story is very much an immigrant story. The most current US census data lists Kodiak as 7% Latino and 20% people of Asian descent, and those numbers only reflect Kodiak residents, not seasonal workers temporarily living on the island. Fulbright Scholar Joefe Santarita spoke at the Baranov Museum on Filipino Kodiakans, and jokingly emphasized the question of why people from the tropics immigrate to Alaska by quoting an article on King Crab fishing that states "Alaska has cold, frigid, eat-into-your-soul weather." On a more serious note, Mr. Santarita spoke about a variety of socio-economic reasons that Filipinos have immigrated to this island. His talk helped inspire Baranov Museum staff to launch both a celebration and inquiry into Filipino culture on Kodiak.

Our first celebratory event was a Family Fun Night hosted with the Filipino American Association of Kodiak ( Members of FilAm Kodiak prepared a veritable feast of foods ranging from bibinka to lumpia, and highlights included dressing up in traditional Filipino garb and learning how to dance. FilAm Kodiak President Mary Guilas-Hawver took the lead to engage the variety of participating community members in Filipino culture, and fun was had by all.

FilAm Kodiak's support of the Baranov Museum did not end with family fun night; they are now our partner in a project called Kodiak's Filipino Community Stories (KFCS) that received $8,500 of funding from the Alaska Humanities Forum. The Baranov Museum, FilAm Kodiak, and Media Action ( planned KFCS to engage high-school students in ethnography and digital storytelling about the history of Filipino Americans on Kodiak, culminating in an exhibit featuring these digital stories during October 2012, National Filipino American History Month.

While we will keep you posted about how the KFCS project unfolds, we hope that you consider the family photographs and family objects in your life that shed light on Kodiak's Filipino history and consider sharing them with the museum and this project. Even the most seemingly trivial items can contain a world of stories; an old, tattered pair of extra tuffs your grandpa wore in a cannery, a western union receipt documenting money sent home, a recipe handed down through the generations.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Key to Kodiak's Bear Guiding Past

Half of a Kodiak bear, currently part of
the Natural History exhibition at the
Baranov Museum.

What could half of a taxidermied Kodiak bear and an old room key possibly have in common?
Kodiak Hotel room key, a
new addition to the museum

On Monday we are having an Acquisitions Committee meeting, so this week I have spent researching recently donated or acquired objects. The Acquisitions Committee is a group of museum volunteers who meet with me, the curator of collections, and Katie, the executive director, to decide which objects the museum will accept as part of our permanent collection. Several weeks ago I came across the key in an old folder. Note that the key chain asserts "Drop in any mailbox, we guarantee postage." In fact, the key was given to the museum from the post office.
Promotional materials created by the
Kodiak Guides Association to tempt
hunters to Kodiak to land a trophy, likely
from the 1940s. From the KHS archive.

But I knew very little about the Kodiak Hotel. Time to hit the archives! I spent several hours digging around in the photo collection in order to discover more about the place. A few photos later and I had an answer: the Kodiak Hotel was the successor to the Sunbeam Hotel, which was owned by famed bear guide Charles Madsen.

Charles Madsen was a pioneer bear guide in Kodiak. He was the founder of the Kodiak Guides Association and was instrumental in promoting Kodiak as a hunters' paradise. He came up with the slogan "Kodiak, Home of the World's Largest Bear," putting Kodiak on the map due to his enthusiastic advertising of the island and his success in tracking our famed bears.

The bear pictured above was killed by Charles Madsen, and it first went to the Madsen's family living room. Judge Roy Madsen, Charles son, told the museum that the bear was too big to fit in the living room, so they cut it in half! Afterwards it was placed in Madsen's Totem Igloo Curio shop, a souvenir store attached to the Madsen-owned Sunbeam Hotel.  

WWII servicemen stationed in Kodiak as part of the Aleutian Campaign run by the Kodiak Hotel and Totem Igloo Curio Shop, both owned by famed bear guide Charles Madsen, in October of 1942. The half bear lived within the curio shop. KHS P 355-6-12.

Comedian and actor Joe E. Brown poses
with the half bear in the Madsen's store,
1942. KHS P 355-6-11
Today the bear is stationed in the natural history corner of the museum, but in truth that bear is one of Kodiak's most important ambassadors. Out of town guests would frequently pose to get their pictures with it. USO performers who came through town to entertain the thousands of troops stationed in Kodiak during WWII would have a snapshot taken next to it. This half of a bear with over sized teeth and a hairless nose from generations of petting can likely be found in old photo albums around the world. From being free in the wilds of Kodiak, to a mascot in the Totem Igloo, to a natural history specimen in the Baranov Museum, this bear has stories to tell.

The Kodiak Hotel in 1961. Alf Madsen gave
the bear in front of the hotel to the city of
 Kodiak in honor of his father, Charles. Alf
continued in his father's footsteps and was a
bear guide, too. P 688-2.

Some time after WWII the Madsen family sold the Sunbeam Hotel, at which point the building became the Kodiak Hotel. The bear found a home in the Baranov Museum. Judging from the appearance of the hotel key, it is very likely that it was a key from the Sunbeam, as well. As a result, not only did this key unlock room 26 in the Kodiak Hotel, it helps to create a fuller story of the history of our local businesses as well as Kodiak Island hunting and bear guiding. At the Baranov Museum, what initially seem like completely distinct objects can be connected in surprising ways.

-Anjuli Grantham, Curator of Collections

Monday, November 7, 2011

Rural Outreach Reflections

Only two hours delayed after a bumpy flight into Port Lions, I realize how lucky I am that the weather allowed me to stick at least approximately to my schedule. Hand in hand with my two year old son, aka my special assistant, I am ready to jump into lively conversations and art projects revolving around Kodiak’s diverse history with each of the 26 students at the Port Lions School. This trip is part of the Baranov Museum’s rural arts and education outreach program, funded by the Alaska Council on the Arts and American Seafoods. I am immediately wowed by the beauty of Port Lions.

As the Baranov Museum’s Curator of Education, I am struck by the challenges and opportunities of teaching about the Russian and Early American colonial periods on Kodiak. What language should I use with K-12 students? How do I balance the stories of colonialism, forced labor, the battle at Refuge Rock with Father Herman’s advocacy for the Alutiiq people throughout the early Russian American Company days? How do I convey the subtleties of history without sugar-coating how harsh the past has often been? I laugh to think that museum educators face this balancing act often in the midst of a squirming, energetic group of 4th graders longing to touch every item in the museum collections that they can. Now, as a visitor for two days to Port Lions, I am happily aware that my students will bring the richness of their particular experiences and stories from a rural Kodiak perspective. This proved to be true over the next two days.

In class with the high school students throughout the afternoon, personal anecdotes and connections to touchable artifacts and stories continue to emerge. One boy explains how Alutiiq halibut hooks are designed to trick the halibut into staying subdued, and another tells the story of actually fishing with one. A girl etches her scrimshaw with a silver salmon, as it not only fit into the context of traditional scrimshaw design, but was also the first fish she ever caught as a young girl. I was delighted to learn that students were well-versed with the cruelties and the subtleties of history, and that rather than giving them information, I could engage them in dialogue on their thoughts and reactions to historical events. After digging in to the meat of Kodiak’s history, students consolidated their knowledge and expressed their creativity with art projects; scrimshaw and matryoshka.  On several occasions between conversations I heard the full, wonderful sound of a creative silence as students intently etched and painted.

On my second day I return from a lunch time walk and the teachers inform me that if I wanted to make it out of Port Lions, I would have to leave right away as the winds wouldn’t allow for my 5 pm flight. My “no” was immediate, and I teased the students that afternoon that they were stuck with me. I was glad to have the extra time, as two days are hardly enough to get to know each other and cover as much material as we can. The Port Lions welcome was warm, and my overall impression was wonderful. My son and I made it out on the ferry the next morning, with only the pang of leaving a wonderful place with kind people.

-Marie Acemah, Curator of Education

Friday, October 21, 2011

Exploring the History of Kodiak's Filipino Community, Part One

Filipino Fulbright scholar Joefe Santarita,
in residence at Kodiak College during the 2011-2012 school year
Last Saturday, Joefe Santarita, Fulbright scholar from the Philippines, gave an enlightening lecture to a standing-room only crowd at the museum on the history and contributions of Kodiak's Filipino community. The contributions of the Filipino community are unquestioned. From cannery work to banking, from military to transportation, Filipinos make up the largest minority in Kodiak and Kodiak's Filipino community is the largest in Alaska. But although many recognize these facts, the over one hundred year history of Filipinos in Kodiak has not received the attention that it deserves, and this is something that the Baranov Museum is looking to remedy.

What do we know about the historical legacy of Filipinos in Kodiak? In Joefe's preliminary research, the earliest mention of a Filipino in the Kodiak archipelago was in 1900, although we are fairly certain that Filipinos have been coming to Kodiak for much longer than that. In fact, in 1788 a Filipino crew member of the Iphigenia at least saw Kodiak Island as the fur trading vessel travelled through Shelikof Strait. Other "Manilla Men" aboard the multi-ethnic whaling and fur trading vessels of that same era were well familiar with the "Kodiak Grounds"- the whaling area near Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska.

However, 1900 is a fair estimate as to the beginning of a sustained Filipino presence in the archipelago since it was after the 1898 Spanish-American War that Filipinos traded one colonial government, Spain, for another, the United States. Although as colonial subjects Filipinos were not considered citizens, they were American "nationals." At that point pensionados, or Filipino students, started travelling to the US to receive higher education. These pensionados usually came from the upper class of Filipino society. As a result, not only were these individuals the first Alaskeros, but also the first to start what can be seen as an historic trend- college students working in Alaskan canneries as a summer job.

As anyone who works or has worked in a cannery knows, this is a tough job. The hours are long, the physical labor exhausting, and the pay is often minimum wage, and those are today's conditions! Imagine what it was to work in a cannery one hundred years ago. During his lecture, Joefe showed the crowd a song that hints at the conditions and emotions of these Filipino student cannery workers.

Cannery workers in the 1940s in an unidentified Kodiak-area cannery.
From the collection of the Baranov Museum/ Kodiak Historical Society
"A Cannery Worker's Song in Dacanay"

It's a hard and lonesome fate
That we face in Alaska
Oh! What a fate!
Stale fat and ill-cooked fish,
Our major, daily dish
From the stingy, bossy Chink
Gives us tummy-ache
Oh, Skies, give approbation
For all these tribulations
Ah! Consolation!
The fish, let it run slow.
To give us less to do,
Or let the work be through
So home we go.

The song hints at the multi-ethnic composition of the canning crew in the slight again the Chinese boss. In the early years of the Alaskan canning industry, there were two contracts. One was between Chinese labor contractors and the cannery, in which the contractors agreed to supply workers, workers' supplies, and the annual salmon pack. The other was between the Chinese labor contractor and the cannery worker. As a result, the Chinese contractors were middlemen who financially benefited from cannery workers' poor living and working conditions, including providing substandard grub, like "stale fat and ill-cooked fish."

Further research is required to figure out more about the stories and experiences of those working in the early canneries, but the 1910 Karluk census data surely piques the imagination.

The canning line inside a Kodiak area cannery in the 1940s.
Baranov Museum/ Kodiak Historical Society

1910 Census, Karluk
White           226
Mixed           19
Aleut             78
Filipino          81
Chinese         67
Mexican        43
Hawaiian       25
Korean          3
Puerto Rican  3 
Chilean          2

Note that there were more Filipinos living in Karluk than Alutiiqs/ Sugpiaqs during the summer that the census was compiled. Also, consider the makeup of today's cannery labor force. How different is it now?

As you can see, the museum is only beginning to scratch the surface in our quest to document the significant history of the Kodiak Filipino community. Please stay tuned for more information as our research continues, and know that we need your help to tell the story. What do you know about the history of Kodiak's Filipino community? Please let us know!

For more information:
Thelma Buchholdt. Filipinos in Alaska: 1788-1958. Anchorage, AK: Aboriginal Press, 1996.

Sue Ellen Liljeblad. "Filipino-Alaska: A Heritage." Alaska Historical Commission, 1978.

Patricia Roppel. Salmon from Kodiak: An History of the Salmon Fishery of Kodiak Island, Alaska. Alaska Historical Commission Studies in History No. 216, 1986.