Alaska museums team up to reclaim a rare piece of Native history - The 150-year-old spruce-root hat was on California auction block

By Megan Holland
Anchorage Daily News
January 4, 2005

The Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and the Anchorage Museum of History and
Art jointly purchased this rare 19th-century decorated Alutiiq spruce-root
hat at the Bonhams and Butterfields auction in San Francisco in December.

Natasha Calvin, left, and Janice Criswell view the Alutiiq hat minutes
after discovering it in a box in Calvin's basement in Sitka in January 2000.
The hat originally belonged to Calvin's grandfather, Andrew Kashevaroff.
Criswell is an expert in spruce-root basketry and teaches Native weaving at
University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau.

Andrew Kashevaroff, dressed in Tlingit ceremonial items from the
Alaska Historical Museum (now the Alaska State Museum), is shown about 1930 outside the museum in Juneau. (Courtesy Alaska State Museum)

The hat hung on a wall in a kitchen for decades, where cigarette smoke
blackened the woven reeds. Then it hid in the darkness of a basement trunk
for nearly 30 years where mold spores collected -- the owner not knowing its
cultural or monetary value.

Now, nearly five years after its discovery at a home in Southeast Alaska, a
rare Alutiiq hunting hat estimated to be more than a century and a half old
has been purchased by two Alaska museums -- a coup in saving it from Outside collectors.

"To have something like that still in Alaska, it's incredible," said Steve
Henrikson, curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau.

The purchase is a first in Alaska because two museums joined forces to buy
the hat -- the Alutiiq Museum in Kodiak and the Anchorage Museum of History and Art. And it marks a triumph, say museum curators, because it reclaims an Alaska artifact, so many of which were displaced around the world by early explorers.

Only several Alutiiq hunting hats are known to exist, Henrikson said. But
others may be out there in Russian museums or dusty attics in Europe, where
he suspects they were originally taken.

The hat went on auction at Bonhams and Butterfields in San Francisco in
early December. While most of the hundreds of other items at the Native
American, Pre-Columbian and Tribal Art sale sold for a few thousand dollars,
the Alutiiq hunting hat commanded the highest price: $160,250. It is now
back in Alaska. It has been evaluated by a conservator and is destined for
Kodiak today -- a return to its probable origins after about 150 years.

Experts guess the age of the hat based on the style of its Russian beads.
Not much is known about its use other than it was likely worn by a hunter in
a kayak and used for ceremonial purposes, said Sven Haakanson Jr., executive
director of the Alutiiq Museum.

The hats became rare by the late 1800s.

"Mainly, people did not have time nor the access to the material to make
them," Haakanson said. "Their value changed from displaying wealth to
meaning nothing when money came into the scene."

The hat spent many years in the kitchen of a cabin owned by the mother of
Natasha Calvin. Then it was stored, until five years ago, in an old Army
footlocker in Calvin's Sitka basement. Calvin is the granddaughter of
Russian Orthodox priest Andrew Kashevaroff.

Kashevaroff was an avid collector and became the first curator, from 1919
until 1940, of what is now the Alaska State Museum. He may have inherited
the hat from Alutiiq relatives before settling in Juneau. Or, museum
curators speculate, he may have picked it up on his missionary travels
around Kodiak Island or Prince William Sound.

"I knew it was an old Indian hat. But that was about the extent of it," said
Bob Ellis, husband to Natasha Calvin, who died in 2001.

Henrikson discovered the hat at Calvin and Ellis's home. The family said
they had a few artifacts lying around and offered to show them to the museum
curator. When Ellis carried it up from the basement to the dining room
table, "I just about hit the ceiling," Henrikson said. "I was speechless for
about five minutes."

For several years the state museum had it on display in Juneau, on loan.
With the smoke and mold removed, the spruce-root basket hat showed itself to
be decorated with shells, beads, red cloth and sea lion whiskers.

The family tried to work out a deal to sell it to the museum, but the state
was never able to come up with the money, Henrikson said. This summer,
Calvin's daughters, who inherited the piece, decided to auction it in San
Francisco.

That's when word of the hat began circulating in Alaska, said Helen
Simeonoff, who grew up in Kodiak but now lives in Anchorage. "I raised Cain over it."

When Haakanson first heard about it, he figured there was no way his museum
could raise the funds: "We don't have that kind of money laying around."

But, he said, "after thinking about it, we felt that if we did not do
something about this, the hat would disappear forever." He waged an intense
campaign to raise money among Native corporations and joined with the
Anchorage museum to come up with money.

Haakanson also appealed to retired banker Ed Rasmuson, who gave tens of
thousands of dollars of his own money because, he said, "I hate to see
beautiful art leave Alaska."

The last time such a hat was available was more than a decade ago. It sold
on a San Francisco auction block for $110,000. Since then, Henrikson said,
"the price of Native American art has just skyrocketed." He expected this
hat to go for a lot more than it did.

The Alaska museums were in competition with another high bidder, although
they don't know who it was.

"When I heard that we got it, I started crying because I was so upset about
losing it," Simeonoff said. She hopes the hat will revitalize spruce-root
hat making. "We will be able to study it -- the weaving technique, the
shapes, the color, paints used."

The two museums will share ownership, something Anchorage museum curator of collections Walter Van Horn said is extremely rare. He contacted the
American Association of Museums for a recommendation on joint ownership, but the organization knew of only one such case, involving a modern art
installation piece, not an artifact. The relationship between the two
museums over the hat will be based largely on trust, Van Horn said.

"What this means is another piece of us is getting put back together again,
after the destruction of our culture," Simeonoff said. "We were always here,
but most of our clothing, utensils, masks and everything else are all in
museums, not here."

The hat will go on display in Kodiak early this month. When it is
Anchorage's turn, Van Horn hopes to create an Alutiiq exhibit. Until now,
the museum has had too few objects from the Alutiiq peoples, he said.

Haakanson, who is also an Alutiiq Native from Old Harbor on Kodiak, said,
"Bringing back a cultural piece to Kodiak and Alaska means so much, from the material to the symbolic level."

"The loss on Kodiak has been very hard on our own 'spirits,' " he said. "And
now to begin bringing symbols back such as the hat shows how rich our
culture once was and what it can be again."

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