Monday, January 30, 2012

Kodiak's Russian New Year Celebration

Masqueraders in Afognak Village in the 1930s went to serious lengths
to disguise their identities, including wearing gloves as to not be
identified by their hands. Kodiak Historical Society P 639-8n.
Masquerading for Russian New Year continues as a Kodiak tradition, with the 2012 event earlier this month drawing an animated crowd, thanks to sponsorship efforts from the Sun’aq Tribe and the Native Village of Afognak. Up until around the 1940s or so, masqueraders donned fantastical homemade costumes and went en mass from door to door, disguising even their voices as to protect their identities. They would wear borrowed clothes and change their posture and stride to confuse onlookers. Once a masquerader’s identity was discovered they were out of the game, but not for long! Many people would have several costumes in waiting so that they could continue the masquerading rounds.

Eli Metrokin wore this mask
for Kodiak's Russian New
Years in the 1930s.
In her book Faraway Island: Childhood in Kodiak, Carolyn Erskine Andrews recalled a particularly memorable Russian New Years for the Erskine family. Her mother, Nellie, and Nellie’s friend Mrs. Finnegan decided to go as a monkey and an organ grinder. Nellie pieced together a costume that bore a passing resemblance to a monkey, but her efforts were in vain. Most Kodiak villagers had never seen a monkey before and had no idea what an organ grinder was. Add to this the fact that Nellie squatted and acted like a monkey for the entirety of the evening’s festivities, and you can understand that the villagers were likely left perplexed as to Mrs. Erskine’s behavior. Apparently, Nellie’s muscles were sore for days due to her monkey-like charades.

Recently, Mary and Joseph Jensen donated a masquerader’s mask, which was worn by Mary’s father, Eli Metrokin, in the 1930s. The wire mesh mask still has the colored outlines of eyes, nose, and mouth drawn in faded tones. Mary described how villagers would tie cheesecloth around their face and then put on the wire masks as to distort their features. She recalls that it was a special thing, to have a wire mask. Other old-timers recall that masquerading costumes and masks were for sale at Kraft’s and Erskine’s stores.

This photograph from Afognak Village helps us to see how the mask above
was fashioned into a costume. Kodiak Historical Society P 639-7n.
Within the museum I recently came across a wonderful collection of photographs from Afognak Village, taken in the 1930s. A schoolteacher captured masqueraders as they were entertained in a village home. Compare Mr. Metrokin’s mask with those in the photograph to the right, and you get a sense as to how the disguises were fashioned. It appears likely that the wire masks sold in Kodiak were also sold in Afognak Village stores during the same period.

Do you have masquerading photographs and objects from Kodiak’s past?  In your next foray into the attic, see what turns up. Who knows, perhaps Nellie’s monkey costume is just waiting to be discovered.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Baranov Museum's Literary Past, Revealed and Revived

The building that currently holds the Baranov Museum has quite the storied history: from fur warehouse to boardinghouse, it has played many roles in its two-hundred-plus years of existence – including home and social hub, when it was owned by the Erskine family from 1911 to 1948.

W.J. Erskine, an ambitious businessman, worked for (and later purchased the Kodiak holdings of) the Alaska Commercial Company; Nellie, his cousin, was a San Francisco debutante with an ebullient spirit and a thirst for adventure. They married in 1909 and moved to Kodiak in 1911, where, as their daughter Carolyn wrote in her memoir Faraway Island: Childhood in Kodiak, “Between them, they established a home unlike any other in that part of the world.”

Nellie on her first trip to Alaska in 1908
 An important facet of that home was their extensive library. When W.J. and Nellie moved to Kodiak, they brought their love of reading with them. Nellie, in particular, excelled at combining literary and social interests. On Wednesday evenings, she would have local children over so she could read aloud to them from the classics. ("...she would read a chapter out of The History of Mankind or some boring, boring book like that and then she would read a chapter from The Wizard of Oz," reminisced Thelma Johnson in A Legacy Built To Last, also deeming Nellie "just a lovely person, very lovely.")

But children weren’t the only ones who benefited from Nellie’s literary enthusiasm. One of her social endeavors was the formation of the Kodiak Library Club. She and other Kodiak women established the club in 1922, decades before the A. Holmes Johnson Public Library was founded. The club involved fortnightly meetings, each devoted to the discussion of a specific book. Each meeting had a designated discussion leader and hostess, and the Erskine home was often the location. The Library Club quickly expanded into the Kodiak Women’s Club, devoted to numerous types of social and public service, but it always retained its literary roots.

Nellie's literary passion was news to me when I happened across the mention of her weekly classics readings in one of the museum's albums. It was an idea that captivated me right away, since I've been devouring books my whole life. (I have it on good authority from my mother that I used to try to eat mine back before I figured out how to read them.) Getting acquainted with literary classics in college, I was struck time and time again by the way these great, lasting works encapsulate just how much has changed about society -- and, even more resonantly, just how little has changed about humankind -- since the time they were written.

The bookplate designed by W.J. Erskine
for his family's personal collection
 History and literature have always gone hand in hand, and the idea that this magnificent old house has a literary past is a thrilling one to me. The stars seemed to align after my interest had been piqued by these long-lost Wednesday readings: Anjuli, our curator, discovered a Kodiak Women's Club yearbook from the 1920s soon afterward, which introduced us to the existence of what had once been the Kodiak Library Club. Then came another fantastic find: a complete inventory list of the Erskines' family library, taken in 1937.

The list is full of titles both familiar and long forgotten -- although a great deal of Googling has proven that few things are lost to absolute obscurity in the internet age. Drawing from the authors featured in the Erskine Library Inventory, we at the museum have decided to revive the building's history as a meeting-place for literature lovers by starting the Baranov Museum Literary Club. One Sunday afternoon each month will be devoted to discussing and exploring a work by one of the authors on the Erskines' list.

The Literary Club will kick off on Sunday, January 15 from 2:00 to 3:30 with Oscar Wilde's very funny play The Importance of Being Earnest -- a fun one to read aloud, not to mention that it poses some big questions about the institution of marriage, the nature of fiction, and whether cake or bread-and-butter is the truly stylish snack. Do join us, and bring your loftiest British accent! The play can be read online or downloaded in various E-reader formats for free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Please email to RSVP if you'd like to participate.

Faraway Island: Childhood in Kodiak by Carolyn Erskine Andrews
A Legacy Built to Last: Kodiak's Russian American Magazin by Susan M. Jeffrey