Faculty Feature: A hat pays a visit to its Alaskan home

Lucy Fowler Williams and Robert Preucel

Lucy Fowler Williams (left) and Robert Preucel with the Tlingit Raven-of-the-Roof hat.

Photo by Daniel R. Burke

The Tlingit people of Sitka, Alaska, recently welcomed home a treasured object. Nearly 90 years after it was last worn, the Raven-of-the-Roof hat—a Native American headdress from the University of Pennsylvania Museum’s collection—was flown back to its original home for use in a Coho Salmon clan memorial potlatch, or feast.

For Lucy Fowler Williams, keeper of the American Section, and Robert Preucel, associate curator of the North American section, taking the hat to Alaska gave them a chance to see it in use by the clan, and also presented “an opportunity to make our collection come to the community in a very important context for them,” said Preucel.

When they flew into the Sitka airport in November of 2003, Preucel and Williams were greeted by about 30 people eager to welcome them and the hat to the community. “These hats don’t come home all that often,” Williams explained. In an act that symbolized the balance integral to the Tlingit people, members of the Coho Salmon clan brought with them a ceremonial dagger, signifying the eagle, and touched it to the hat, which represents the complementary symbol of the raven.

The wooden hat is believed to have been made between 1825 and 1850 and was brought to the Museum by its first Native American curator, Louis Shotridge, who purchased the hat and helped to build an extensive collection of Tlingit artifacts. The hat—shaped like the head of a bird—is carved from a single piece of wood painted bright blue and red, with plates of copper for the ears, beak and brows. Tufts of human hair shoot out from the back of the hat.

For the Tlingit people, objects carry enormous weight, “embodying their history and their ancestors,” said Williams. Similarly, the potlatch ceremonies hold enormous significance, because they are events so elaborate that hosts can gain status in the community from their success. The memorial potlatch that drew Williams and Preucel to Alaska was a symbolic end of mourning for a beloved member of the community, Sarah Davis James, who died two years prior. The elaborate feast, with songs, dances and food, lasted 22-and-a-half hours.

The Raven-of-the-Roof hat was displayed at the potlatch alongside other raven and eagle items, including a caribou hide robe, drums, staffs and a second Coho Salmon hat. One prominent member of the raven clan wore the hat for a special dance.

Preucel and Williams remember at least seven courses of food served during the potlatch, including venison, salmon, hemlock boughs with steamed herring eggs, and berries. Williams and Preucel were also given a gift basket filled with several of James’ favorite foods.

Williams and Preucel hope to return to Sitka later this year for a celebration commemorating a potlatch from 1904, the last such feast before the governor of Alaska and missionaries encouraged the abandonment of the practice—considered a heathen custom that led to wasteful spending and feuding. If Preucel and Williams return to Alaska for the commemorative ceremony, they will again loan an object to the Coho Salmon clan.

Recently, the Museum hosted a visit from Tlingit people from Angoon, Alaska, as part of its ongoing repatriation activities, which acknowledge the claims of federally recognized Native American tribes, corporations and organizations to certain objects held by museums. While the Raven-of-the-Roof hat is not one of the objects sought by the group, the Tlingits did lay claim to a bear shirt, a raven cape, rattles, dance batons and an elaborately woven Chilkat blanket. The curators’ trip to Sitka, “made their visit here much more pleasurable and enjoyable,” said Preucel.

Originally published on February 26, 2004