For this year’s Textile Society of America symposium, I researched one special item often overlooked in the American Museum of Natural History’s vast collection—the nineteenth-century at káté daakéit or Tlingit “bullet container” pictured below. It is one of many cultural belongings at the museum that have remained in my thoughts after my work there. For this project, I spoke with several Tlingit and Haida weavers and other experts, some of whom know this case well and others who were seeing it for the first time. My paper, “An Uncommon Ammunition Case: Interpreting ‘Transitional’ Textiles and Social Worlds in Nineteenth-Century Tlingit Alaska,” was honored with a 2020 Founding Presidents Award.
The case is distinctive because the artist used a combination of two weaving styles. For the flap, she followed the well-known curvilinear design conventions of naaxein or “Chilkat” weaving, and for the body, she rendered geometric designs in a stair-step pattern. The fine, angular pattern is reminiscent of a stylistic precursor to Chilkat weaving, Raven’s Tail, which is technically and visually more closely related to basketry. Weavers stopped producing Raven’s Tail in the early 1800s and revived the practice in the 1980s.
Scholars generally interpret early nineteenth-century weavings with both Raven’s Tail and Chilkat designs as “transitional”—evidence of a linear shift from one style to the other. I took a different approach. I considered what the weaver’s choices suggest about interlinked artistic and social transitions—as well as continuities—in nineteenth-century southeast Alaska.
One key conclusion is that the case exemplifies Tlingit women’s ongoing roles as textile designers. While women are regarded as having both designed and woven the earlier Raven’s Tail patterns, for Chilkat weaving, men typically painted the curvilinear designs as a template for female weavers to follow. While scholars have long recognized the gender collaboration in naaxein production, they often note that the shift to the curvilinear approach brought with it a shift in the designer. Such a framing implies that women’s roles became chiefly technical and no longer creative. But this ammunition case, which I suspect was made in the mid-nineteenth century, disrupts the notion that women relinquished their designer roles.
The stair-step pattern is actually not one I have yet seen on the few historic Raven’s Tail weavings still extant. It is in fact an old pattern from local basketry and quillwork, historically also women’s arts (look for the stair-step motif on the spruce-root baskets in the image above). Throughout the 1800s, this motif, which is recorded as shadaa ya.áagi (“weaving for the head”), was associated with Tlingit shamans and warriors: a sign of spiritual and physical combat. But by the late nineteenth century, as colonization increasingly suppressed Tlingit armed conflict and shamanism, the design became more widespread—and more ambiguously symbolic. Women came to use shadaa ya.áagi frequently on basketry and beadwork as they adapted their production to meet new social, material, and economic opportunities. I suggest that in selecting a long-standing basketry design, the designer-weaver of this ammunition case drew upon the Raven’s Tail textile tradition in a forward-thinking way. As weaver Lily Hope expressed to me: “I don’t think Chilkat and Raven’s Tail weavers get enough credit for being contemporary in their times…for weaving with intent.”
I share the Founding Presidents Award not only with TSA presenter Regina Meredith Fitiao for her excellent paper on siapo, but with all of the individuals who discussed the ammunition case with me. I thank you for the gift of your knowledge and hope that my contributions are beneficial.
Laura J. Allen is an interdisciplinary independent scholar of the Indigenous Americas, focused on dress and textiles. She served as the Curatorial Associate for the Northwest Coast Hall renovation at the American Museum of Natural History in 2017–2018, and received her M.A. from Bard Graduate Center in 2020. www.laura-allen.com