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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The politics of possession: Louis Shotridge and the Tlingit collections of the University of Pennsylvania Museum Milburn, Maureen Elizabeth


For twenty years, from 1912-1932, Louis Shotridge (Stoowukáa V), a Tlingit nobleman of the Chilkat Kaagwaantaan clan, was employed by the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia as field collector, curator, and exhibit preparator. In this position, Shotridge was given full responsibility for the selection and acquisition of a collection of Northwest Coast objects. During this time, Shotridge grew to perceive his collections and their attendant documentation as a testament to Tlingit social structures and ancestral histories as well as the moral and ethical values of the Tlingit clans and the legitimating identities of clan leaders. While trained by Franz Boas in ethnographic method, Shotridge remained grounded in existing Tlingit social systems, combined with then-current Native American idealism and political objectives. Thus while he traveled through Tlingit territory collecting objects and recording their clan histories, he was also active in the Alaska Native Brotherhood. In his lifetime, Shotridge was respected both by Tlingit peoples and by the anthropological community. Yet more recently, anthropological and popular writers have vilified Shotridge as a traitor, making him emblematic of a continuing colonial discourse constructed to preserve boundaries which recognize only the "pure products" of the "primitive" Native American. Instead of continuing such dichotomous constructions, this thesis more carefully evaluates the circumstances under which objects were acquired and recontextualized within a Western institutional museum setting in the early part of this century. Rather than glossing over questions of hybridity, this thesis is particularly concerned with the ways certain individuals penetrate societal boundaries, under what circumstances, to what purposes and within what contexts such associations are initiated, sanctioned, legitimated or contested. By discussing and contextualizing Shotridge's life and ethnographic activity, this thesis argues for a broader understanding of Native American political circumstances, values, and struggles within a framework of post-colonial relations. Consideration of these various perspectives provides a clearer view of historical representation and ownership of objects, issues which continue to inform contemporary concerns regarding possession and the meaning of objects within both anthropology museum and tribal contexts.

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