Skip to Main Content

News Room: Announcements

Sheldon Jackson Museum August 2022 Artifact of the Month is a Wall Pocket

by LAM Webmaster on 2022-08-03T14:03:00-08:00 in Artifact of the Month, Sheldon Jackson Museum | 0 Comments

red cloth background with yellow, white, and blue beaded designsThe Sheldon Jackson Museum’s August Artifact of the Month is a 19th century wall pocket (SJ-I-A-168). There is little provenance on the wall pocket or its maker, and it has extensive damage. Yet we can appreciate the cultural significance of the designs found on this beautiful textile and the history of Tlingit beadwork, beaders, and wall pockets that it illuminates.

Tlingit women began making wall pockets during the Victorian era. Although wall pockets were a new kind of textile and “container,” they were also a continuation of Tlingit cultural practices, including basketry. One Tlingit basket form that was somewhat similar in shape was a flat, pocket-like basket woven out of spruce root used to store spoons made from mountain goat horns.

Both wall pockets and basketry with false embroidery showcased exterior designs that hid evidence of hand stitching from view. In false embroidery, patterns are formed with dyed roots, grasses, and ferns and sewn atop the spruce root exterior. Since the designs are not sewn through, the stitching is invisible inside. Stitching from beadwork on wall pockets is similarly hidden by a calico backing. Some wall pockets also featured beaded designs reminiscent of patterns found in spruce root basketry.    

Tlingit families frequently made and gave wall pockets as gifts and used them to hold important documents (Smetzer, 5). Initially, they were made from hide and fur. Front panels were cut from sealskin or the dewclaw portion of a deer leg or the feathered breast of ducks or eagles. Later, the introduction of cloth led to the use of wool in making wall pockets and their application in potlatches and ceremonies as payment to ceremony hosts and opposite moiety for services. By the 1880s, cloth was tightly woven into ceremonial practices.

Wall pockets featured varying degrees of beading and embellishment. Sometimes simple beaded lines adorned edges or pocket openings. More elaborate wall pockets might have multiple pockets, like the August artifact of the month. The design might also include the beaded name of the town that the maker was from or other seed beadwork. Seed bead patterns developed from the long-standing practice of incorporating materials and ideas from other Indigenous groups and from newcomers and settlers in the region.

While the practice of seed beadwork originated from interior trading partners, Tlingit women developed their own beaded designs. These designs were inspired by the natural environment around them as well as motifs on sewing machines, furniture, china, and other goods brought by traders and settlers. Floral and foliate designs were, and remain, especially prominent among the Tlingit. The foliate design pattern called geesh (seaweed or kelp) in Tlingit is shown in each quadrant of the August artifact of the month, highlighting the great importance that seaweed has traditionally held among the Tlingit people.

A natural resource indelibly connected to health and physical and spiritual wellbeing, a plant symbolically and literally connected to the land, it is easy to understand the importance of seaweed and its prominence as a design in beaded items including wall pockets.[i] According to Megan Smetzer, bead patterns such as the seaweed pattern, applied to souvenirs and regalia became a tangible, yet subtle means for Tlingit women to assert long-standing specific connections to the land through development of motifs that had local meanings. Another design inspired by nature and used in Tlingit beading is the meander line. This is comprised of a single or double row of beads connecting larger seaweed motifs to one another and is often found along the bottom panel of woolen tunics. The line represents the pattern left on beach by water of a receding tide and the intertidal zone - a place crucial to Tlingit health and the site of abundant food resources including shellfish, crustaceans, and several kinds of seaweed. Although not shown in this wall pocket, the meander line design, like the seaweed design, speaks to the importance of place and Tlingit traditions, lifeways, and connection to the land.

According to Gover’s Glass Beads of Alaska, trade beads likely entered Tlingit territory through Indigenous trade routes from the east before direct European contact, but beading practices changed and spread in the early 19th century as the fur trade brought an abundance of trade beads, buttons, and cloth.[ii]  The earliest written reference to seed beadwork in Alaska was likely made by Emil Teichmann and written around this time of change. In his book, Journey to Alaska, describing his 1868 Southeast travels, Teichmann wrote about seeing a small pouch “embroidered with beads.” Historical photos and artifacts in museum collections dating back to the 1860s and 70s attest to the fact that items embroidered with seed beads were to be found throughout Lingit Aani (Tlingit land) in this period. Tlingit women, around this time, were also creating new forms such as the octopus bag, sewn from introduced material (wool).

By the late 19th century, the Tlingit were using newly embellished, beaded objects in traditional cultural practices. Beading’s incorporation into cultural practices likely increased due to “destabilization of Tlingit hierarchies from epidemic diseases, conversion to Christianity, and the pervasiveness of the cash economy.”(Smetzer, 24). By this time, some Tlingit who were born socially lower in rank had managed to amass a small amount of wealth from working in canneries, selling curios or doing guide work. With this new wealth, some Tlingit began to use beadwork, previously an out-of-reach status symbol, to further themselves socially within their communities.

To some extent, because beadwork was women’s work, because it was more “contemporary” than other available examples of material culture, and because it was perceived as “inauthentic,” by non-Natives, beaded items were largely overlooked by 19th century collectors, ethnographers, and tourists and outsiders who had recently settled in Alaska. Even Lt. George Thornton Emmons who wrote extensively on the Tlingit people and intensely collected pieces for the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum, neglected to write about Tlingit women’s sewing and beadwork.[iii]  Tourists and newcomers to Alaska may not have desired fabric souvenirs because textile production was one of the first occupations to be mechanized.[iv] The lack of non-Native interest meant beaded textiles could be practiced with little scrutiny by those who sought to assimilate Alaska Natives. This oversight by settlers, tourists, and collectors combined with the increase in availability, and rise in value attributed to wool by Tlingit people, consequentially, led to beadwork’s increasing incorporation into regalia and at.oow.

The Sheldon Jackson Museum August artifact of the month will be exhibited until August 31. The public can see the August artifact of the month as well as other wall pockets and fine examples of Tlingit beadwork during hours of operation – currently Monday through Sunday between 9 am and 4:30 pm. General admission is currently $9, $8 for seniors, and free for those 18 and under or members of either the Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum or Friends of the Alaska State Museum.

Media Contact:

Patience Frederiksen
Director, Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums


Delaguna, Frederica. Under Mount Saint Elias: The History and Culture of the Yakutat Tlingit.  Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1972

Smetzer, Megan. Painful Beauty. Seattle, WA. University of Washington Press, 2021

[i] Seaweed, when eaten, has a myriad of health benefits. It is an excellent source of iodine, a vital mineral for thyroid health, improves gut and heart health, can stabilize blood sugar levels, and contains a variety of vitamins and natural anti-oxidants.

[ii] The earliest glass beads in Alaska documented in writing were of a pale blue glass like those seen by Captain Cook in Prince William Sound in 1778. ‘Smoke [colored] beads’, as they were called, were very precious, and originally, according to Frederica deLaguna, “could be worn only by owners of slaves.”

[iii] Based off of a note in the American Museum of Natural History Archives, he had planned sections on Bead Work and Porcupine Quill Work, but the sections were never completed.

[iv] Although Tlingit gift souvenirs made from commercial cloth would not have fit into a tourist’s preconceived notions about the authentic and the handmade, though the use of seed beads in interesting patterns would have appealed to people, and Tlingit women capitalized on that interest.

 Add a Comment



Enter your e-mail address to receive notifications of new posts by e-mail.


  Return to Blog
This post is closed for further discussion.