Guest Blog: Indigenous Commerce Networks

(Once again I’m lucky to have a smart and creative Ph.D. student working in the lab as an Intern this summer, Ms. Yoko Kugo. Thanks to the National Park Service for partial support of her internship. Her final project was an exhibit that illustrates the diverse trade networks used by Alaska’s Indigenous peoples in earlier times. Visit the 4th floor of the UAF Elmer E. Rasmuson Library to see the exhibit in person. Contact me if you want more information!)

Indigenous Commerce Network across Bering Strait and Alaska

Indigenous peoples of Alaska traded goods with other regional groups beyond their territories and across the ocean since time immemorial. Besides some regions having hostile relationships with their neighbors, many people cooperated to establish peaceful trading partnerships. In the Bering Strait, traders waved strangers empty hands or showed them furs and other trade items. They often brought women in the visiting party. In the interior to southeast Alaska, Athabascan women married Tlingit men and helped their husbands to estimate and judge the price of trading items. This illustrates that women played an important role for each society to maintain resources and wealth in peace.

Burch 1988 235 Chukchi trade

“Tuski and Mahlemuts Trading for Oil” by Henry W. Elliot, from Dall’s Alaska and Its Resources (1870)

This drawing shows Tuski (Chukchi) brought a woman and child to maintain peace when trading goods with Iñupiat. Notice the seal skin filled with seal oil. (Burch 1988, 235)

Language is an important tool for communicating with other cultural groups and maintaining local peace and exchange. Not surprisingly, Indigenous “businessmen” were fluent in multiple languages. The Bering Strait Iñupiat were familiar with the Chukchi language, while the Tlingit people in southeast Alaska communicated with other tribes along the Pacific Northwest Coast using the Chinook Jargon.

As seen on the map of Indigenous Commerce Network (Burch 1988, 236-237), Indigenous people traded with their neighboring groups for land mammal pelts, maritime products (seal oil, skins, ivory, shells), copper, jade, and wood. Some of these same materials are still valuable for Indigenous cultures to make handcrafts and regalia today.

Burch 1988 236-237-cropped JPEG

A Map of Indigenous Commerce Network (Burch 1988, 236-237)

Some raw materials used in the trading system are …


In the Indigenous commerce systems, Tlingit people obtained dentalia from the west coast of Vancouver Island. Since the interior Athabascan people valued dentalia used for personal ornament more than the coastal people, the dentalia became valuable for the Tlingit. The Tlingit people often called dentalia “the shell money.” The dentalium chief’s neccklaces were important status in the Athabascan culture.



Ch’etth’ena’ Necklace
Dentalium Necklace
Denalium shells, glass beads, moosehide, buttons, waxed thread
Unknown maker
(Tanana Athabascan) Minto  
Guilbert Thompson Collection
0737-0001 (UAMN)



Mr. Newton Collection
UA99-006-0005AB (UAMN)

Animal Furs and Skins

In the upriver region, the Yupiit traded goods with neighbor groups of Athabascans, obtaining birch bark to make canoes and baskets. Athabascans traded wooden utensils and land mammal furs (beaver, otter, marten, wolf, wolverine, fox, etc.) with coastal Yupiit to obtain sea mammal fats, skin boats (both umiaks and kayaks), dressed sea mammal skins, Siberian reindeer hide thongs and sinew, tobacco, and European copper and iron products.


Piluguut (Boots)
Bearded seal, wolverine and otter fur beaver fur calf skin, red cotton and yarn, dental floss
Unknown maker
Central Yup’ik (Nunapitchuk)
Wendell Oswalt Collection
UA70-053-0137AB (UAMN)

Russian-American Influence

In 1741, after Vitus Bering’s arrival in Alaska, the Russian government claimed the territory for themselves. The Russians’ first permanent trading station was built at Three Saints Bay on Kodiak Island in 1784 and it established the monopoly of the Russian-American Company in 1799. Russian Orthodox missionaries traveled along with fur traders and introduced Alaska Natives to Christianity. After several epidemics decimated Alaska Native populations in the mid-19th century and Russian men intermarried with Native women, many Alaska Natives accepted Christianity.

Commonly known as “Russian” trade beads. Beads were widely and used among the Alaska Native peoples.

“Beads were valued at so much according to color: Yellow 30 cents; Red 40 cents; Blue 50 cents. Chilkat.”

(Emmons 1991,56)


Trade Beads
Mrs. Bateman Collection
UA75-062-0002 (UAMN)

Alaska Natives’ traditional trading systems shifted from items-for-items to items-for-cash after the arrival of American whalers in the Bering Strait in the 1850s and the U.S. purchase of Alaska in 1867. In order to obtain cash, many men and women used new items, such as commercial dye, cotton, and modern metals, applying their traditional skills to make objects for sale. Their traditional home-made tools were replaced by silverware, coffee cans, firearms, and other items. Those new handmade objects became authentic “Native Art.” Nevertheless, still today, many Alaska Natives recognize their traditional designs in their regions and perceive specific objects as a symbol of wealth. Their tool-making techniques, objects, and regalia show their identities, “who they are.”


Xaat Kákw
Spruce Root Basket, Cup and Saucer
Spruce root, maidenhair fern
Unknown maker
Henry Wolking Collection
0236-3993AB (UAMN)


Tobacco Pouch
Seal gut, cotton cloth, thread
Unknown maker
Unangax (Belkofski)
Dr. Harold McCracken Collection
UA74-067-0005 (UAMN)


Exhibit at the UAF Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, 4th floor


Yoko Kugo (L) and Angela Linn installing objects for the exhibition at the Rasmuson Library.

Selected Bibliography:

Black, Lydia T.

2004  Russians in Alaska 1732-1867. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.

Burch, Ernest S. Jr.

1988  War and Trade. In Crossroads of Continents: Cultures of Siberia and Alaska. W. Fitzhugh and A.Crowell, eds. Pp. 227-240. Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Duncan, Kate C.

1989  Northern Athapaskan Art: A Beadwork Tradition. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Emmons, George Thornton

1991  The Tlingit Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Fienup-Riordan, Ann

2007  Yuungnaqpiallerput: The Way We Genuinely Live. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Gibbs, George

1970  Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon, or Trade Language of Oregon. New York: AMS Press.

Laughlin, William S.

1980  Aleuts: Survivors of the Bering Land Bridge. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.

Oswalt, Wendell H.

1990  Bashful No Longer: An Alaskan Eskimo Ethnohistory, 1778-1988. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Zagoskin, Lavrentiy A.

1967  Lieutenant Zagoskin’s Travels in Russian America, 1842-1844: The First Ethnographic and Geographic Investigation in the Yukon and Kuskokwim Valleys of Alaska. Henry N. Michael, ed. Penelope Rainey, transl. Arctic Institute of North America, Anthropology of the North: Translations from Russian Sources, 7. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.



Guest Blog: Dogs in the North

 Mahriena Ellanna is a UAF undergraduate student in art history and indigenous art, and has worked in the Ethnology & History department at UAMN for a year. Born and raised in Alaska, and in Fairbanks since she was 5, Mahriena shares the research behind an exhibit she is assembling for the UAF Rasmuson Library. ~~AJL

I was 12 when I went to my first starting line celebration. It was for the Yukon Quest, The 1,000 Mile International Sled Dog Race. The race started in Fairbanks that year, my hometown, so I decided to go with some friends. I remember how they looked, those working sled dogs, the most anxious animals I’d ever seen. Each sled had at least two sled brakes in the ground, to keep the dogs from taking off with the sled. Sled dogs don’t need a driver to know what to do when they’re strapped into their harnesses and roped in next to each other; it’s bred into their blood and in every instinct they’ve ever felt – pull.

Effie Kokrine and her dog team. Effie was born when dog sledding was the dominant form of transportation and her father, Johnny Folger, ran a leg of diphtheria serum.

Figure 1. Effie Kokrine and her dog team. Effie was born when dog sledding was the dominant form of transportation and her father, Johnny Folger, ran a leg of diphtheria serum.

Dog sledding is one of a few forms of mushing, which is a general term for any travel method powered by dogs. Dog sledding is unique from other forms of mushing, though, because Alaska Natives used it approximately 15,000 years ago, according to research done by the Yukon Quest. Sled dogs were used for many reasons, such as, transportation of people and their belongings, hunting, and protection. Survival in the arctic would have been nearly impossible without them.


Fan Hitch

Traditionally, the average team consisted of approximately 3 dogs, each with their own separate lead, spread out like a fan (Fan Hitching). This way, if one dog fell through the ice or into a crevasse the rest of the team was safe, along with the sled and driver. The dog could be pulled up by his harness and lead, then treated for any injuries.

Before breeding was popularized, a dog’s worth was based on work ability rather than looks. The most popular dogs in the north were the Inuit and Interior Village dogs. They were lightweight, but could carry loads almost three times their weight for long distances.

Inuit Sled Dog in show stance

Inuit Sled Dog in show stance

Working Inuit Sled Dog

Working Inuit Sled Dog

These dogs have a number of qualities that make them perfect for pulling heavy loads long distances. The first unique quality they possess is a stiff spine, which gives the dog the ability to evenly distribute weight through out the whole of his back (where the harness is placed) without causing physical damage. The dogs also have strong hips to push themselves forward, while their equally strong shoulders pull the harness and the sled load.

The second quality unique to sled dog breeds, such as malamutes and huskies, is the ability to change metabolism. This allows them to run for hours and hours while retaining fat storage and without becoming fatigued.

In 1741, Russian explorers came with their sled dogs. Their dogs were much smaller than the Inuit sled dogs because they were built for speed. These dogs were bred with the larger Village dogs to create a small and sturdy breed, with the same ability to pull heavy loads for long distances at an efficient pace.

The Russians brought new dog sledding concepts with them (Gangline Hitching). They developed the idea of a lead dog (the dog that drives the team forward and knows the trail and commands) increased the number of dogs in a team, changed sledding formations, added handles to the sleds, and added baskets to the sleds that were large enough and the proper shape to carry people.

Gangline Hitch

Gangline Hitch

The demand for dogs skyrocketed, especially during the Gold Rush. Sled manufacturing was commonplace. Everything changed in 1913, when the first plane flew over Alaska. Airplanes could do all the same jobs as a dog team –delivering mail, bringing supplies to villages and towns, and carrying people from place to place—more reliably and more quickly.

Photo Credit: Eric Long of the National Air and Space Museum Stearman C2B biplane; Flown by several Alaska bush pilots, including Joe Crosson—first pilot to land on Mt. McKinley—and Noel Wein—founder of Alaska’s first airline.

Photo Credit: Eric Long of the National Air and Space Museum
Stearman C2B biplane; Flown by several Alaska bush pilots, including Joe Crosson—first pilot to land on Mt. McKinley—and Noel Wein—founder of Alaska’s first airline.

Mushing isn’t a necessity of life anymore. The most common place to see dog sledding is in annual races, such as the Yukon Quest and the Iditarod, but if you’re lucky enough to come visit Alaska, you could experience it the way the first Alaskans did—by dog sled—thanks to local tour companies.

(Historic Photo Credits)

Figure 1.

Figure 2.

Yukon Quest Logo: 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse

Yukon Quest Logo: 1,000-mile race from Fairbanks to Whitehorse

Iditarod Logo: 998-mile race from Anchorage to Nome
Iditarod Logo: 998-mile race from Anchorage to Nome

Those Invaluable Students!

During my fifteen years at the UAMN, I’ve been lucky enough to be on both sides of the “student assistant” job title. Starting in 1996 as a fresh MA student at UAF, I managed to get hired for student wages in the Ethnology & History department at UAMN. My curator and MA committee chair, Dr. Molly Lee, saw my enthusiasm and educational background combined with a strong baseline of collections work experience and gave me a chance to contribute to our mission.

Ethnology staff using a new "hands-on" collection piece, 1996. Copyright UAMN.

During the three years of grad school, my responsibilities in the collections lab went from being a “curatorial assistant’s assistant” to being the primary collections representative under our curator. After I graduated, I was lucky enough to get hired on as permanent staff, a position I am lucky enough to still hold today, despite budget cuts and economic downturns.

As a student employee, I had the opportunity to learn from senior staff in MANY different museum departments who were generous enough to act as mentor to me. As those long-term staff retired, I have suddenly found myself in the position of being one of those holding the institutional memory and mentoring all new students who are navigating their way through the uncertain days of their undergraduate and graduate careers.

Micole (Van Walbeek) Ogletree, 2008, installs objects for a special exhibit. Copyright UAMN.

Each school year (depending on the economy), I am able to hire at least one student to work in my lab to undertake basic collections management work. In addition, each summer I take on a student intern for an intense 6-week period of collections management and exhibition development.

John Smelter, 2009, works on preparing objects for his exhibit. Copyright UAMN.

Since Molly retired in 2008, I’ve found that I have less and less time to do the work I truly love, the hands-on lab work, cataloging, making boxes, and fine-tuning of collections organization. More often than not, I have to delegate this good stuff to my students.

Jen Crane and Pascale Jackson, 2004, packing history objects for our move. Copyright UAMN.

It takes time to train new students every year and to continue to provide them with support during the day for answering questions and keeping them moving in the right direction. But what a fulfilling way to add to the academic training of our students! Talk about a win-win scenario! We are achieving our mission of education and preservation all in one activity!

Museums with connections to universities are positioned to provide such a unique on-the-job training opportunity for students, I am thankful every day of my career. Had I not been exposed to this kind of work while studying at the University of Iowa, I never would have known about the options available to me at UAF. Each year I have new personalities to learn about and new generations to “understand.”

Leah Bright, 2011, removes old numbers from new accessions. Copyright UAMN.

These young people help keep me connected to our popular culture when it’s so easy to become disassociated while working in the basement all day… the new music and celebrity icons are just the start!

Pascale Jackson, 2003, packing collections during our museum expansion. Copyright UAMN.

Young people are our new audience for the public side of our museums and it’s critical that we in the collections world stay connected to what is happening out there in our cultures… changes are occurring every day and those changes have a major influence on how our exhibits and public programs are received. I guess this is one of the small ways I have found to stay connected, while getting work done at the same time.

To all of the students who I’ve been so lucky to work with over the past 15 years, I tell you again, thank you for a job well done!

Hiroko Ikuta, 2004, removes a drawer for cleaning. Copyright UAMN.

It’s been a pleasure to laugh and share hot-glue-gun burns with you. Some of you have gone on to work in museums while others have taken a different path. What is really important is the enrichment of one’s academic life that we can help provide, in addition to that paycheck (however meager!).

Briana Brenner, Emily Chagluak and Charles Hilton, summer 2011. Copyright UAMN.

Lyazzat Khamzina and Emily Moore, 2006, examine Tlingit beadwork. Copyright UAMN.

Conservator Monica Shah shows students Pascale Jackson and Candice (Smith) Krupa some basic cleaning techniques, 2005. Copyright UAMN.

Alysa (Klistoff) Loring, 2007, and her exhibit at the UAF Rasmuson library. Copyright UAMN.

Katrin Simon-Sakurai, 2005, works on rehousing bentwood bowls. Copyright UAMN.

The Passing of a True Friend

Museums acquire collections in many different ways. Our database lists the following modes of acquisition: Bequest; Collecting Expedition; Donation; Exchange; Fieldwork; Grant; Loan; Purchase; Transfer; and the ever-present “Undetermined” and “Various”. When the “Donation” line is selected, it often belies the true nature of the relationships that may have been established over years of communications and interactions. Just such a relationship has sadly come to an end with the passing of our dear friend Dr. Robert Lathrop, DDS. Bob was a dentist who worked in northern Alaska, starting in the 1950s, and made such a strong connection with the people in those Inupiaq communities, that he lived off the land with them, sharing their values and activities. He and his wife Petey learned the ways of the people who they served, and as such, were accepted into the communities rather than being considered just visitors.

Bob Lathrop with team leader Fluffsie, on the Kukpuk River, Alaska, March 1951.

I first interacted with Bob in 1997 while I was a graduate student working in the lab. He and his wife Petey had just made a MAJOR donation of 109 objects to the Ethnology & History department. Bob was also in the process of cleaning out a property he owned in Kotzebue, so my co-worker in the lab, Christopher Hrycko, had the extreme luck of traveling to Kotzebue to help Bob pack up some of his gear. My role was to help process that collection when it came to the museum, cataloging and organizing the objects and information.

The first thing that struck me was Bob’s attention to detail and his meticulous hand-written notes. Doctors are renowned for their horrible handwriting… apparently this does not hold true for some dentists! Bob’s writing was amazing – written with ruler-straight lines and margins, a slight angle, and a unique combination of upper and lower-case letters – full of details and heart-warming commentary. I LOVE reading Bob’s letters, lists, greeting cards, captions… anything.

An example of one of Bob's inventory lists.

In 1998 I was fortunate enough to visit Bob and Petey in their home in Anchorage, along with my then graduate advisor, Molly Lee. There we shared a cup of coffee and lots of stories, and began a friendship that continued for over a decade. In 2000, Bob and Petey donated three items – a lynx parka was added to our permanent collection and a pair of boots and a sealskin bag were handed over to the education department for their hands-on collection. They were delighted that these items would be shared directly with area school children through our educational programs.

In 2001, my curator, Molly Lee, and I had the EXTREME pleasure of finding out that Bob and Petey were interested in donating the bulk of the ethnological items that they had collected during their life in “Arctic Alaska.” This turned into a 2 day road-trip to Anchorage in the Museum truck where we worked with Bob and Petey as well as a local appraiser, Joe Crusey, to evaluate, get the stories of, and pack what ended up being 333 objects. These pieces ranged from dozens of small ivory carvings (around 87 of them in fact!) and walrus tusk cribbage boards, to beautiful and functional tools of daily life. Over the next few years, Bob made several donations, totaling another 52 items.

Bob and Petey in their Anchorage home, December 1998. Photo by Molly Lee. Copyright UAMN.

Petey passed away January 26, 2003 in Anchorage. Molly and I continued to correspond with Bob, visiting him whenever we traveled to Anchorage. In 2004, Bob made the most generous and amazing gift so far – he established a University endowment to support the Ethnology & History department, with priorities of paying student salary, of purchasing Inupiaq artifacts, of conserving collections, and for any further general support of the department.

The more time I spend working with the Lathrop collection, the more I value people like Bob and Petey Lathrop and realize how very lucky our department is to have made a connection with them. Molly Lee established that true friendship with Bob and Petey and helped me to continue the process as well. I learned from her that it’s not just about getting the “stuff” and the “money” but it’s about the relationship-building that happens and how we are changed through those relationships. By learning about the people and the lives they lived while making and wearing and using these incredible artifacts, we are better able to preserve and interpret them for present and future generations. Generations who might never see work like this anywhere else.

Some of the hand-made Inupiaq artifacts from the Lathrop collection. Photo by Barry J. McWayne. Copyright UAMN.

When we received the news of Bob’s passing from Bob’s long-time-friend Harry Harvey, it was truly a sad day. The only positive being that now Bob could re-join the love of his life, Petey. When I attended the memorial service with my colleague and former head of Development at UAMN, Emily Drygas, I was surprised to feel the bubbling up of such strong emotions that I could barely tell my story of knowing Bob and Petey.

So many students have been supported through these generous friends. Countless visitors have been enlightened about the creativity and ingenuity of the Inupiaq people because of the hundreds of objects they donated. And we will continue to tell the story of the Lathrops, because it is our job (and pleasure!) to preserve these objects and their stories in perpetuity.

Petey Lathrop steering their St. Lawrence Island umiak in front of Cape Dyer, Alaska, August 1951.

Too much of a good thing?

I’ve decided that one of the problems with being an “object-person” and having a blog where I share my thoughts about some of my favorite pieces in our Museum collection is that it’s hard to know where to start! Sixteen-thousand objects is sort of a daunting number when you’re creating your first post… start with my favorite piece? Start with the newest piece? Start with the oldest piece? Hmmmm. All good options… or maybe something we know all about? Or perhaps something we know nothing about… there are certainly plenty of both in the ethnology & history collection at UAMN.

I guess I’ll go with a piece I first saw in the collection around 1997, while I was working on my M.A. in Cultural Anthropology at UAF, which resulted in the exhibit and publication,  Not Just a Pretty Face: Dolls and Human Figurines in Alaska Native Cultures.

Athabascan Doll, UAMN

The mysterious Athabascan doll. Photo by Barry McWayne. Copyright UAMN.

This doll and the associated pieces (catalog number UA78-15-1AF) came into the museum collection in 1978, purchased from a man in Delta Junction, Alaska, who found it in an old trunk that he had purchased in a warehouse sale. It is Athabascan in origin, probably made in the early 20th century. It is so intriguing, for a number of reasons. My predecessor, Ms. Dinah Larsen, who ran the Ethnology department for over 30 years, made some initial contacts to help her decode the assorted pieces and parts of this doll.

First, Dinah wrote to the Numismatic Division at the Public Archives of Canada, to see what they could tell her about the coin that was found tucked into the black silk ribbon that is wrapped around the doll’s body. The response came from the National Currency Collection of the Bank of Canada – the coin is a Canadian 25-cent piece struck during the reign of Queen Victoria, produced by Heaton Mint, Birmingham, England, some time between 1871 and 1890.

The next person Dinah contacted was Dr. Robert A. McKennan, a well-known anthropologist who conducted fieldwork in Interior Alaska and wrote a number of monographs on the Athabascan people of Alaska. Dinah included a photo of the doll, mentioning her thoughts regarding the original purpose of the doll, which was not as a child’s plaything but rather something more in the ceremonial realm. Dr. McKennan agreed. “I agree with you that it must have been more than an ordinary doll, and as you know, when faced with an insoluble question like this, anthropologists generally take refuge in the catch-all phrase of ‘ceremonial object.’ Certainly the care with which it was made, plus the profusion of ornaments, suggests such a use as a possibility, and to carry such a thought further, such a ceremonial use could have been continued over a period of time from the early contact era to the modern, which in turn might account for the increasing modernity of the decorative objects. However, I know of no such use of ceremonial dolls.”

This kind of dead-end happens frequently when you conduct research on museum objects that have no documentation when they’re acquired. However, to solve the mysteries, we have to go on and use our intuition and break apart the components of the objects, to see what we can decipher in bits.

Again, from McKennan’s letter of 1979:

The hair: Human hair, done in a style that appears Tanana, Gwich’in or Upper Yukon Athabascan. Also “suggests a male, but this is counterbalanced by the straight rather than pointed hemline on the coat. The nose ornament of course could fit either sex.”

The moccasins/boots: Similar groups.

The brass clock-parts: Often used in the early days for personal ornamentation.

Gloves: Mittens were, of course, the original form of hand-wear and gloves only came in after white contact. The dangling bits on the ends of the gloves’ fingers point to a ceremonial rather than functional use.


During my coursework for my MA, I showed this doll to a number of Athabascan elders, all of whom seemed a bit uncomfortable in its presence. Little was said of it… which could either indicate that they didn’t know anything and were unwilling to conjecture, or that they did not want to talk about it.

I continue to be intrigued by this small, complicated little object. It lives in a cabinet in our doll collection, with other Athabascan figures made for sale or use. I will keep asking questions about it, and maybe one day we’ll learn its true origins. Or maybe not… and that’s okay because it’s the discussions and the ongoing use of the piece that will keep it alive.

These mysteries that present themselves to me nearly every day that I work with this collection is one of the reasons why I am so in love with being a Museum Collections Professional.