Tlingit Helmet

The Tlingit warriors who captured and destroyed the Russian fort Archangel Michael in 1802 wore helmets "shaped in imitation of ferocious animals with gleaming teeth and of monstrous beings" (Kyril Khlebnikov, quoted in Miller and Miller 1967:140). When Alexander Baranoff (supported by the guns of the Neva) retook Sitka in 1804, he captured some of those helmets and sent them back to Russia with the Neva's commander, Urey Lisianky. They are among the many old Tlingit helmets in the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in Leningrad today. The killer whale helmet in the Burke Museum is from that period and could even have been worn in the 1802 battle since, according to Russian accounts, the plan for a general uprising was made at Angoon, the Hootsnuwoo village. In addition to those in Russia, there are a number of helmets with the tradition of having been worn in that historic battle; at least one of them is also from Angoon (Holm 1983a; no. 49). Tlingit Helmet
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The warriors who wore these ferocious helmets and elaborate wooden slat armor were noblemen. When widespread use of firearms made wooden armor impractical, the helmets were retained as crest hats, to be worn as emblems of family greatness. They can be distinguished from other wooden clan hats by their greater thickness and by the lack of a broad rim. To make more resistant to splitting from the blow of a war club, they were often carved of wood with a twisted, burly grain. Some of them were covered tightly with heavy rawhide, sometimes with the hair left on. Heavy buckskin ties, run through holes drilled in the rim, served to anchor the helmet in place. A thick face guard of bent wood circles the warrior's head just below the helmet, leaving only a narrow gap for vision. Helmets almost always depict powerful or terrifying animals or men; much of their usefulness must have been psychological.

Emmons collected this helmet at Angoon from the Wushkiton, a Wolf clan with the Killer Whale crest. He helmet depicts the fierce hunter of seals in admirable Tlingit fashion. The streamlined head with broad, red lips rimming two rows of gleaming opercula teeth juts upward, as killer whales do to survey their surroundings. The whale has just captured a seal, clamped crosswise in its great jaws. The snout stripe, round eyes, and dorsal fin complete the killer whale identity. White pectoral fins and red tail in bold, minimal formlines wrap the sides and back of the helmet. The subtly raised median ridge, running over the snout from lip to dorsal fin, is a feature of many Tlingit carvings. It is aesthetically satisfying and may have no other significance.


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