The Austin Peay State University Department of Art, with support from the Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts, had the pleasure of hosting two visitors from the Northwest Coast Nov. 3-5, 2014. Tlingit carver Tommy Joseph of the Eagle Moiety, Kaagwaantaan Clan from Sitka, Alaska, and Native American Art Historian Ashley Verplank McClelland, an adopted member of the Tlingit Raven Moiety, T’akdeintaan Clan of Hoonah, Alaska, participated in a series of events on the APSU campus.
Joseph has been actively engaged in Northwest Coast carving for more than 20 years as an instructor, interpreter, demonstrator, restorer and commissioned artist. He has produced a wide range of artwork including totem poles, smaller house posts, intricately carved and inlaid masks, bentwood boxes and Tlingit armor. McClelland, an art history doctoral student at the University of Washington, has worked at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle, Washington for more than 10 years. She is currently the Rights and Reproductions Manager and a Curatorial Assistant in the Ethnology Division. Joseph and McClelland began their professional relationship in 2007 when they discovered their shared interest in Tlingit armor and weaponry.
The collaborative public talk at APSU, “Rainforest Warriors: The Art of Tlingit Warfare,” highlighted recent research by the artist and the scholar. McClelland has extensively studied Tlingit daggers and her essay on the subject is forthcoming with the University of Nebraska Press in 2014. In order to prepare for his one-man exhibition “Rainforest Warriors” at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau for fall 2013, Joseph spent 11 weeks researching collections throughout the United States and Europe, including the hard-to-access Kunstkammer in St. Petersburg, Russia. During his travel he was able to study firsthand historical Tlingit armor that was taken during the early contact period in the late 18thand 19th century.
The process of making full sets of battle gear such as helmets, face guards, breastplates, and shin protectors, as well as weapons such as clubs, bows and arrows, and daggers, all in traditional materials with historical techniques was incredibly tedious and time consuming, and required great skill. He began this project in 2004 by making one helmet to commemorate the Tlingit for 200thanniversary of the Battle of Sitka, where countless Native American warriors fell to the Russian army. That was 30-something helmets ago, Joseph joked. He has presented his research and creative work for this project all over the country, including his 2013 TEDxSitka talk “Constructing Tlingit Armor.” His talk on the topic at Austin Peay concluded with a wood carving demonstration.
The experience of learning about the historical and thriving culture of the Tlingit on the far-away shores of Southeast Alaska, proved to be enlightening for the Austin Peay family and the general public in Middle Tennessee. After attending the collaborative talk “Totem Poles Past and Present: A Tlingit Tradition,” which also ended with a carving demonstration, President Alisa White commented, “Listening to Ashley McClelland and artist Tommy Joseph explain the cultural significance of totem poles took me back to my time living in Fairbanks, Alaska, where I was privileged to attend a totem pole raising…I am so happy that Austin Peay recognizes the value of sharing historic and culturally-specific art traditions and brings these types of experiences to our students. It was a special treat to see Mr. Joseph demonstrate his carving techniques and tools.” Austin Peay would like to say “Gunalchéesh” (thank you in Tlingit) to Tommy Joseph and Ashley McClelland for the wonderful experience.
– By Tamara Smithers, APSU assistant professor of art