Researchers from the Smithsonian Institution are in Sitka.
The group works at the National Museum of the American Indian. The collection, located near Washington, D.C., includes countless items from Alaska.
Staff members at the museum are well acquainted with those items. But they don’t often get to see where the items began. To do that, they turned to Sitka resident and renowned Tlingit weaver Teri Rofkar.
“We’re just walking up the road, guys, and we’re going to be looking on the uphill side,” Rofkar says to the group. “We’re looking for a fern that’s reaching out from the cliffs, from between the rocks.”
The group trudges up Blue Lake Road, looking for the maidenhair fern.
“It’s a fern that, for years, me and my self-teaching … I got the wrong fern forever. I kept getting the wrong ferns,” she said. “If you start looking around, there’s a lot of different ferns here.”
Eventually, Rofkar had to ask a friend for help. She recounted the conversation:
“I said, well, you know, Mary, I’m having difficulty getting those ferns. ‘Aw geez, I’ve got a bunch in my yard. Just come on over.’ And I said, well, where do you get them in the wild? ‘Honey! Have you been up to the dam at Blue Lake? Right at the base of the dam there’s lots of them.’”
This group does not need to hike all the way to Blue Lake. The ferns soon appear, popping out of the rock face next to the road.
“See those black stems?” Rofkar says. “All right, boys and girls. You see them when you’re in looking at the baskets. It’s that brilliant brown shiny color. That’s some maidenhair fern there.”
The stems of maidenhair ferns are used in traditional basket weaving. These researchers from Washington, D.C., have likely seen thousands of the stems before, but in finished baskets that make up part of a museum’s collection, not as individual components in the wild.
“We can only do so much to understand the nature of these pieces,” said Kelly McHugh, an objects conservator at the National Museum of the American Indian. “Coming here gives us the context that we’re missing. And it’s a context that we’re missing so we can better and more responsibly care for the collection.”
The group arrived in Sitka on Friday night. By Saturday afternoon, when we walked up Blue Lake Road together, they had moved into lodging on the Sheldon Jackson campus, met with Native elders who had attended school there, visited Fortress of the Bear, and gone searching for ferns. Still ahead on the agenda was a kayaking trip, a meeting with carver Tommy Joseph at Sitka National Historical Park, and more.
“We’re overwhelmed,” she said.”We’ve been here for just a day, really. And being welcomed at the airport with the dance group, and having the elders there, and knowing what that means, is incredibly impactful for us.”
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“Chaas’ Kowuu Tlaa. T’akdeintaan. I am a Raven from the Snail house.”
That’s Teri Rofkar, introducing herself by her Tlingit name. She says she wants to build bridges between those who preserve older Native art and objects, and those who are practicing the art.
“Because I think what’s happened is our old objects in the museums, while they represent a historical place, we’re still creating those pieces,” Rofkar said. “Now it’s time to start documenting and creating a repository of what’s happening today.”
This group is in Sitka with help from several granting agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the Cargill Foundation. Rofkar says having them on the ground where they can see and touch and smell things, and take pictures, and record sounds, makes a big difference. She calls it place-based learning.
“It’s really hard for me to just keep my mouth shut and allow the place to have a first-person experience with them,” she said. “Because I want to say, ‘Oh, wait a minute! Did you see this?!’ So that part’s probably the hardest for me, to just shut up and allow the place to do its job.”
If McHugh, from the Smithsonian, is any indication, the place did its job. She says this trip will give them a new perspective when they head back to Washington.
“I feel like we treat the collection with respect, but I think it’s going to be approaching it in a way that we’ll have a greater understanding of who made these pieces, why they made them,” she said.
The Smithsonian conservators will give a public presentation at the Sheldon Jackson Museum on Tuesday from 5 to 6 p.m.