Alaska Department of Education & Early Development
Alaska State Libraries, Archives & Museums
For Immediate Release
March 7, 2022
The Sheldon Jackson Museum March Artifacts of the Month are two Tlingit red corner bentwood boxes (INT-195 and INT-342 A,B). Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum purchased the bentwood boxes locally in Sitka for the Hands-On Collection. The larger box was acquired in 1987. There is little background information on it. The smaller of the two is a reproduction bentwood box made by Terry Lavallee of Bluster Bay Woodworks (no longer in operation). Both boxes are valuable teaching tools for school groups visiting the museum and Alaskan students and teachers utilizing the Hands-On Collection virtually or via Hands-On orders.
Northwest Coast peoples have made and used Bentwood boxes since time immemorial for a multitude of purposes including storage, packing, carrying, cooking, and burials. They varied in size and shape from large, elaborately painted boxes, used for special purposes and ceremonial occasions, to smaller, simpler boxes. These utilitarian boxes, like the two March Artifacts of the Month, were often left unpainted or painted with red corner geometric designs. They might be used to store food, such as dried fish, fish eggs, dried berry cakes, dried seaweeds, seal or eulachon oil; to store tools or household items; or during long canoe journeys, as a combination seat and storage box for carrying trade goods, food, or water.
Bentwood boxes traditionally served Northwest Coast peoples even in death. After a person’s passing, some Northwest Coast peoples in earlier times would place the deceased inside them. The head of the deceased was placed at the corner where the steam-bent plank was joined so their soul could escape through the crack. The boxes were then placed inside grave houses or on top of a platform of planks or inside a mortuary pole.
To make a bentwood box, a single plank of cedar (often red cedar) was traditionally adzed to the proper thickness and steamed. The box maker would dig three narrow pits and place small, heated stones in them. Then they would add boards, placing each kerf over the pit, and seaweed on the reverse side, followed by another layer of hot stones, more seaweed, and finally water. As steam permeated the wood, the thinned areas of the board softened. The box maker, working quickly, would remove the board and carefully bend the plank at the kerf in the three targeted places, standing on the board and pulling it upward with his hands. If the wood was not sufficiently steamed, it would not bend properly and was liable to crack. Once bent as desired, the ends of the plank were joined, forming the fourth corner. Wooden pegs or spruce root stitching and in later years, iron nails were used for joining. A bottom, and sometimes a lid, was added, and the finished box was adorned with carved or painted designs or red corners or left plain. Some fancier boxes were inlaid with opercula.
The Sheldon Jackson Museum March Artifacts of the Month will be exhibited until March 31. The museum has several bentwood boxes in its hands-on collection and fifteen bentwood boxes in its permanent collection. Many of the bentwood boxes may be seen at the museum during hours of operation – currently Tuesday-Saturday, 10 am-4 pm. Winter admission is $7, $6 for seniors, and free for 18 and under or members of Friends of the Sheldon Jackson Museum or Friends of the Alaska State Museum.
Director, Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums
Steward, Hillary. Cedar: Tree of Life to the Northwest Coast Indians. Seattle, University of Washington Press, 1984.
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