Saturday, September 28, 2013

A Coast Salish Blanket hidden in Alaska

While wandering the exhibits, my husband heard what he thought was an announcement about a Salish blanket and rushed over to me. I hadn't heard it so we headed to the front desk to inquire. It turned out a staff member had radioed another asking if they had seen the Salish blanket and that is what he heard. It seemed my earlier email had started a hunt for a lost Salish blanket. Apparently neither museum could find it! I said I was the one who had stared the panic. They were most helpful and apologetic for misplacing the blanket and they kindly showed me all the pictures they had on file. When we finished, somewhat disappointed but appeased by the photos and conversations, we followed the suggestion of the woman at the front desk and headed across the parking lot, into the State building up to the 8th floor where I logged into the internet. Surprisingly (and most fortuitously) an email from the curator 'Come back, we found the blanket!' So back we went and had a wonderful time looking closely at Judge Wickersham's blanket.

In a summer post, I had promised to tell you about a special find in Alaska. It is a relatively unknown Coast Salish blanket once owned by Judge Wickersham. He lived in Washington State, purchased the blanket somewhere there (more on this next year as I follow an interesting lead) and took it with him when he moved to Alaska.  And there it remains, in the Wickersham House Museum...although that isn't where I saw it and that is part of the story of fortuitous luck.
I found out about the blanket from another Salish blanket researcher, Elaine Humphrey, an expert in microscopes. Elain has been investigating the fibre contents of Salish blankets using Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) - a fancy microscope for extreme close-ups (see my SEM post). She had been to see the blanket and collect some fibres from it. Most interestingly, there is a small patch of black fibres which when she put under the SEM, turned out to be human hair. There is just a little of this fibre in the blanket. Think about it. Was it the weaver's hair? The spinner's hair? The original owner's hair? Was the blanket dedicated to someone? I would love to know the hidden story behind it.
[Mark Kaarremaa Photo:
Close up detail
showing black hair fibre
next to the blue triangle]

I was already booked on a cruise to Alaska but somehow had the mistaken impression that the Wickersham House Museum was in Fairbanks and that would involve a plane trip from the Alaskan Coast to Fairbanks, not something I could fit in for this trip. I happened to be talking with Elaine the week before the trip when I mentioned this and she exclaimed " Fairbanks! No. The blanket is in Juneau." I practically ran home and phoned one of the state curators who was kind enough to start arranging with the Wickersham House a visit for me.
The day before leaving on the cruise I received an email. It seems the blanket had apparently been moved from the State museum back to the Wickersham House but we hadn't quite connected with the curator there to view it. I hoped that by the time the ship got to Juneau, we had arranged for a viewing.
Internet connectivity is on cruise ships is terrible! It should be inexpensive and a decent speed. It isn't. If you can send emails for free from 30,000 feet above the earth, then surely you can send from sea level??? To make a long story short, we arrived in Juneau and no word from the curator. I assumed that I just hadn't given them enough time. None-the-less, we decided to visit both Museums.

[Photo: Judge Wickersham's
blanket hanging on the wall
Cruise ships do not advertise things like local museums. It is a shame. The State Museum in Alaska (see earlier post) is well worth a visit! We entered, paid a minimal fee and the woman at the desk gave us some good hints on where to go next ( cross the road, through the parking lot, into the State Building, take the elevator,get off at the 8th floor for a good view, stop by the library where there is internet service, go out the far door from the 8th floor out to the upper street and then head for Wickersham Museum). We hoped we could remember all that but in the meantime looked around the incredible exhibits. 

Judge Wickersham was bigger than life. Statesman, author, Judge, pioneer, keeper of the peace in the gold rush. He was on the first team of white men to climb Mt McKinley. And wrote 43 diaries in which he recorded life. It is heart wrenching to read his entry about loosing his son. His diaries from 1900 until his death 1939 can be found here.
[Photo: Judge Wickersham]  
The picture at the top is the blanket as of 2013. Note the hole. There is another hole a bit smaller in the lower right just out of the photo. The Judge apparently liked to sit on the blanket on his chair, so the holes line up when folded and also lined up with his tush. Note the picture at the bottom of the blanket on the wall taken before 1940. It is hard to see if this size photo but click the link to see the full image and you will notice it has been folded. The stripe in the middle is really the right edge of the blanket but has been folded in to, I suspect, hide the two holes. Interestingly the blanket also hides the full story of the black hair.

1 comment:

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