European Contact: Trade and Transformation
The Tlingit, Haida and other Native groups we know today were well established on the Northwest Coast when the first Europeans arrived in the 1700s. At first, these newcomers were welcomed as trading partners. High-ranking Native families made a handsome profit dealing with Russian, Spanish, English and American fur traders. Northwest Coast potlatch ceremonies grew larger and more elaborate, and the growing desire for precious goods went hand in hand with a boom in artistic productivity.
But foreign ships brought trouble as well. As Alaska and British Columbia opened to settlement, Native relations with whites were marked by bouts of economic instability, violent conflict and the spread of disease. One of the worst disasters came in 1862, when a devastating smallpox epidemic struck the region. According to some estimates, nearly two-thirds of Native people on the Northwest Coast sickened and died. In addition to this crisis, Christian missionaries and government authorities urged and finally ordered Native people to give up their traditional ways of life. Yet many people quietly fought to preserve their heritage, often blending old ways with new.
Wealth from Abroad
Russians were among the first Europeans to visit the Northwest Coast, building a permanent settlement at Sitka, Alaska, in 1799 and dominating the fur trade for many years. The Russians bartered with Native traders for sea otter pelts, often paying with decorative materials such as metals and European beads.
From Body Art to Bracelets
Native artists of the past used color and line to adorn their bodies as well as to decorate precious objects. To prepare for ceremonies, Tlingit dancers printed their faces with crest designs, using wooden stamps spread with pigment. Among some groups, tattooing was a common practice as well. Most Native men and women confined tattoos to the hands and arms, but Haida men also covered their chests and legs with elaborate crests.
In the mid-1800s, Christian missionaries discouraged tattooing, so Native people sometimes wore jewelry to cover or replace the marks on their skin.
Beads of Glass
Valued for their bright color and versatility, European glass beads were widely traded on the Northwest Coast. "Russian beads" were a common trade item made in Venice or Bohemia, but introduced to Alaska by Russian fur traders. Blue glass beads were much sought after and were often given away at potlatches. Chiefs were also known to flaunt their wealth by tossing them into the sea.
Beaded octopus bags became an essential part of Tlingit dance regalia in the 1800s. Both the beadwork patterns and the art form were borrowed from Eastern Woodland artists, who combined Native symbols with floral designs learned from missionaries or copied from European textiles.
The Art of the Bracelet
Worn for centuries on the Northwest Coast, the cuff bracelet has evolved into one of the region's classic art forms. Around the time of European contact, artists were making bracelets of indigenous materials such as bone, horn and copper as well as iron pulled from driftwood or passed along trade routes. The Tlingit and Haida were probably the first to craft jewelry from silver and gold coins, both for their own use and for sale to outsiders.
Silversmiths soon designed bracelets in the distinctive style of the northern Northwest Coast: animal crest images formed a bilaterally symmetrical design that covered the entire surface. Artists also used European motifs. Many bracelets of the late 1800s incorporate the eagle shown on U.S. silver dollars, a symbol of the United States that is also an important Tlingit and Haida crest.