Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



Published in Silk Roads, Other Roads: Textile Society of America 8th Biennial Symposium, Sept. 26–28, 2002, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.


Copyright 2002 by the author(s). Used by permission of TSA.


Although not the first to make the connection, Ensign Albert Niblack of the U.S. Navy wrote most succinctly in 1888: "There seems nothing unreasonable in tracing the origin of much of the dance and ceremonial paraphernalia to customs originating in war." Since that time, numerous scholars have suggested and disputed links between Tlingit carved and painted armor and ceremonial regalia. Beaded regalia, on the other hand has been almost entirely neglected in Northwest Coast ethnographic literature due to notions of authenticity and cultural degeneration. In 1945, anthropologist Erna Gunther for example, explained beaded dance collars as a mere disguise for western-style shirts. By examining the changes wrought by colonial processes in the contact zone of Southeast Alaska throughout the 19th century, I shall consider in more detail the possible links between 18th century wooden armor, specifically neck armor and wood and hide breastplates, and 19th and early 20th century beaded dance collars and tunics. I will suggest that the layers of meaning are richer and more complex than previously believed. The impact of colonialism, both Russian and American, spiritual and secular, changed the object of physical protection to one of cultural continuation.

While recognizing the complex interactions within Tlingit communities, and with other Native groups on the Northwest Coast and interior, for the purposes of this paper I shall focus primarily on the relationship between colonizers and colonized. Mary Louise Pratt's notion of the contact zone is central to my argument. She defines it as "the space of colonial encounters, the space in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations, usually involving conditions of coercion, radical inequality and intractable conflict." Early interactions within the contact zone led to the incorporation of new materials into armor, and later, the development of new forms of regalia such as the beaded dance collar and tunic. Originally, following Robert Young and Homi Bhabha, I described this process as "hybridization." I have since rejected this notion due to the racist history of the term as well as the fact that it suggests a mingling of two essentialized wholes. I am struggling to find a new way of understanding or describing objects that demonstrate the selective incorporation of ideas and motifs from new sources, in a way that recognizes their role in resisting colonial incursions and shaping indigenous identity.

Early travelers to Southeast Alaska describe pre-contact Tlingit armor as consisting of a heavy wooden helmet, a wooden visor or collar, and an animal hide tunic worn under a garment made up of thin slats or rods of wood held together with sinew. Many of these objects were embellished with carved or painted animal crest figures. Preand early contact armor served several purposes, protection from clubs and spears, identification of the warrior's clan affiliation, and, last but not least, to inspire fear in one's enemies.

The 18lh century advent of the Russian, American, and British fur-trade on the Northwest Coast, particularly the introduction of firearms, led to rapid changes followed by the eventual obsolescence of armor. Urey Lisiansky, a Captain in the Russian Navy, present at the 1804 destruction of the Tlingit fort at Sitka. noted early alterations to Tlingit armor: "Their war habit is a buck-skin, doubled and fastened round the neck, or a woolen cuaca [vest], to the upper part of which, in front, iron plates are attached, to defend the breast from a musket-ball.' Not only were the iron plates a new modification, but, according to Lisiansky, the woolen vest, was introduced by Americans. Within a few years of contact the Tlingit began altering their old designs through the use of new materials to accommodate a different kind of warfare. In addition, Lisiansky noted a shift in the use of war helmets, which he referred to as masks: "These masks were formerly worn by the Colushes [Tlingit] in battle, but are now used chiefly on festivals."