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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Assimilation or resistance? : the production and consumption of Tlingit beadwork Smetzer, Megan Alice


The extensive art historical and anthropological literature addressing indigenous Northwest Coast artistic production has, at its center, a "significant silence." Though produced, consumed and valued, in a wide range of cultural contexts, for more than one hundred years, Tlingit beadwork has never been comprehensively analyzed. I engage with, and begin to fill, this significant lacuna in scholarship through the compilation into a catalogue of nearly eleven hundred beaded objects in widely dispersed museum collections, including regalia and other items made for Tlingit use, and souvenirs; the use of theoretical frameworks not previously applied to the Northwest Coast; the critical examination of historic texts and images; and, most importantly, conversations with Tlingit headers and elders. Euro-American constructions of authenticity, tradition, the hierarchy between fine and applied art, as well as notions of hybridity and commoditization created the circumstances for beadwork's marginalization. Drawing on the work of Ruth Phillips, Nicholas Thomas and James Clifford, I argue that beadwork should be considered both as the material embodiment of the complicated and uneven relationships among and between Tlingit communities and others, and also as a means for disrupting and altering the contexts within which it operates. In order to comprehend the complex ways in which beadwork has circulated, I utilize a case study approach. I investigate the transcultural meanings of beaded regalia and photographs at the 1904 Sitka potlatch; I examine beaded souvenirs made for late Victorian era tourists; I analyze the mid-twentieth century history of the Alaska Native Arts and Crafts Cooperative (ANAC) and the experiences of the nearly 500 Tlingit women who sold beadwork through ANAC; and, I illustrate the multiple roles played by beadwork in terms of Alaskan politics, museum display, and issues of identity at Celebration, an increasingly important gathering of indigenous people. These four case studies, the extensive catalogue, and the stories told by contemporary Tlingit people, indicate the continuing significance of Tlingit beadwork, as well as the innovation and creativity of those who have made and used it. This thesis contributes to the crucial repositioning of Tlingit visual and material culture at the intersection of art historical and anthropological literatures.

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