Tlingit ‘peace’ headpiece now in Juneau museum

By Mike Dunham
Anchorage, Alaska (AP) September 2010

Back in 1972, during a trip to Puget Sound, Nathan Jackson of Haines found himself expected to perform a Tlingit dance. But he didn’t have regalia with him, including a proper head dress. That detail turned out not to be a problem as Jackson, an expert carver, quickly whittled out the frontlet for a headpiece and – voila! – the show went on.

The details of the dance, or even the event, are long forgotten. But people remembered the headpiece. It showed a fairly normal Northwest Indian human figure -- something that would have been at home in the antiquities department of a major museum.

Except for the figure’s fingers. They were flashing the “peace sign” associated at the time with both hippies and President Richard Nixon.

Jackson sold the quirky carving not long after making it, however. Its whereabouts were unknown, but its reputation endured. In a 1995 interview with the Daily News, Peter Corey, longtime curator of the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, lamented that he hadn’t snatched it up when he had the chance. As a younger generation of workers came into the state museum network, he recounted the tale and urged them to keep their eyes open for it.

In the decades that followed his dance, Jackson emerged as one of Alaska’s most important artists, a master of the Tlingit style, with totems and panels on display in venues from Alaska to Washington, D.C., and in Europe.

He’s received the National Heritage Fellowship “Living Cultural Treasure” designation, the Rasmuson Foundation’s Distinguished Artist Award and other major accolades. You can find his work on classic totems at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage, on manhole covers in Seattle and all over Ketchikan, where he now lives.

But he had no idea what had become of the “peace piece” that had grown into a legend.

Fast forward to 2005. Steve Henrikson, curator of collections at the Alaska State Museum in Juneau takes up the story:

“I was invited to the home of a local attorney who was selling off parts of his Alaska Native arts collection, and among a number of really nice items was this plaque, of the type made for Tlingit head dresses – the shake.ut type, with the sea lion whiskers on top and ermine fur trailer.”

But what caught his attention were the hands with fingers in a “V” configuration. Henrikson, who had heard about the piece from Corey, immediately recognized it.

“It was difficult to contain my excitement when I saw the peace signs. The attorney said that he had run across Nathan at the post office and he saw the carving that Nathan was carrying in a paper bag, and bought it on the spot.”

The museum scrambled to acquire it and add it to their collection, which has other examples of Jackson’s early work.

This summer it has been on display at the Juneau museum as part of an exhibit of recent acquisitions, which will remain on view through Oct. 16.

“When I was writing the label, it occurred to me that I didn’t really know what ‘message’ Nathan was trying to send,” Henrikson said. “Was it an anti-war statement? Dorica, Nathan’s wife, told me that Nathan is very apolitical and it is more of a Nathan-esque, tongue-in-cheek homage to President Nixon’s ‘Victory Salute.’ Nixon was just getting embroiled in Watergate at the time, which might explain why the little wooden guy looks so nervous.”

But it’s also true that the laid-back “Peace, dude” gesture was widely used as a common greeting at the time, which makes the carving as much of an historical artifact as an artistic curiosity.

“It really does speak to the period,” said Henrikson. “And it really captures Nathan’s sly sense of humor.”