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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Alaskan/Aleut Diorama, Kayaks: Peabody Museum #2

Here's a look at a display of Alaskan, and specifically Aleut, items at Harvard's Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. (We previously blogged about the Peabody's fine diorama of a Baffinland Inuit settlement.) I apologize for the quality of the photography, which was shot on my mobile phone, through glass, without a flash.


The diorama shows a "typical late18th century Unangan (Aleut) settlement in the eastern Aleutian Islands... . Some Unangan village settlements were occupied continuously for over 4,000 years. The houses depicted here are rectangular, semi-subterranean, and are accessed through a hole in the roof. They were inhabited by a number of families which occupy separate areas along the sides and ends." The white object left of center is a seal or sea lion skin stretched on a frame. It is being prepared for use as part of the cover of a kayak. (The quotation is from the display card. Click any image to enlarge.)   
To the diorama's right of center, a man works on his overturned kayak, of a type typical of Kodiak Island and displaying the distinctive Aleut stern. His double-bladed paddle is much shorter than the Eastern Inuit paddle shown in the previous post, and the blades are broader. The function of the different colors of the two blades is, I presume, purely decorative.
The man in the previous photo wears a paddling hat much like this one, collected in 1867 or '68. To quote the display card: "This hat is an effigy of some unknown creature. It is made of bent wood (probably spruce) and held together using baleen stitches. The wing ornaments are made of bone, and there are attachments of fur, feathers, and multicolored thread....The red flannel once held sea-lion whiskers." 
The kayak at the diorama's center shows a full complement of deck gear, including paddle, harpoon, possibly a throwing stick (i.e., atl atl) and what I believe are javelins on the aft deck. A bent-wood box is also seen.
Kayaks are stored fairly low off the ground on wood supports. Unlike the Baffinland Inuit, the Kodiak Island Aleuts had no dogs from which they needed to protect the boats' skin covers.
Model of an Kodiak Island 3-hole kayak. The three-person baidarka came into use after the coming of Russian fur traders, who typically sat in the center cockpit and did not paddle. 
Model showing the frame of a three-hole kayak similar to the one above, displaying the distinctive bifurcated stem and vertical sternpost. The kayak is very roomy, suitable for carrying large cargoes of fur -- especially of the favored sea otter.
From the display card: "This adult parka, or kamleika, is fashioned from seal intestine sewn with caribou sinew. The parka's detail is elaborate, and it lacks a drawstring for kayaking, which suggests it may have been used for a special occasion. Elaborate parkas were used in dance ceremonies before launching kayaks for hunting trips." The small child's kamleika features details of hair of a type unspecified, and also lacks a drawstring. 

Because strips of intestine are so narrow, a great deal of sewing was required to produce garments of this type. If the kamleika was intended for kayaking, not show, that sewing must have required the most painstaking effort to ensure water-tightness.  

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing these photos. I am guessing that the kayaks in the diorama were created by museum staff rather than native artisans. The models outside of the dioramas on the other hand are typical of ones created by native artisans.
    The kayak models in the diorama are Aleut straight bow types of the sort collected by Russians on Akun island and now in the museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg Russia.
    The bentwood hat appears to be from the Alaska Peninsula. According to Lydia Black's book, Glory Remembered, wooden headgear of Alaska sea hunters, this hat is typical of Katmai which would make it Alutiiq.
    The depiction of the dwellings in the diorama is also interesting. These are the larger apartment complex style that housed multiple families. These were later replaced by single family dwellings, although still constructed in more or less the same manner with a wooden framework covered by sod. These dwellings were semi subterranean and when they eventually collapsed they left behind a depression in the ground so that if you know what to look for, you can see where these houses were located.

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