The Salmon Basket & Cannery Label

By: and Erica Dienes

November 9, 2018

This salmon basket from the land of the Tlingit and Yakutat people is a useful piece of art, woven from spruce root, grass, and maidenhair fern in a twined fashion, and originally made to carry lightweight materials. It shows minimal evidence of wear. In size and shape and weaving patterns, it closely resembles other baskets from the region, but its decoration is remarkable. Most northwest coast art renders animals and fish in abstract forms. [1] This basket is one of the only known instances where a Tlingit weaver depicted salmon in a realistic manner in their basketry art.

Salmon basket NA8989 with associated cannery label. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The cannery label—which came into collections as a separate item—depicts the same realistic salmon image as the basket. William Wierzbowski, a Keeper within the American Section of the Penn Museum, notes that Teri Rofkar, a Tlingit basket maker, was able to make the connection about ten years ago.[2] The close relation between the two images (they are almost identical) raises an interesting question. Was the weaver inspired by the cannery label?

Northwest coast spruce root baskets with more typically abstract rather than figurative designs in the collections of the Penn Museum. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

Pacific Northwest and Alaskan Native peoples have a deep connection with the sea and with the resources it provides for them. Salmon are more than just a food source; they are also regarded as neighbors and non-human kin.[3] Was there a shift in ritual and religious ceremonies when white settlers began having a much heavier presence in the region? The basket could represent a time when Alaskan and Pacific Northwest Indians began working in salmon canneries.[4] Once Native people started this kind of work, did their view of the sea and relation to salmon change? The label presents an interesting contrasting element that creates confusion; because of the religious nature salmon often plays in these communities, who connected the cannery label and the basket and especially the stereotypical depiction of Natives on the cannery label?

In faint pencil on the documentation card, one can see a small word written: “whales?” The mislabeling of the salmon images as possibly whales creates an interesting dichotomy between assumptions by collectors, and indications in the ritual and religious pieces of art created by Native peoples. Objects often lose connections with their histories when they are taken away from their lands and peoples. Narratives can change as objects are passed through cultural boundaries, exchanged by different hands, and transported far away. Along the way, new narratives are created for these objects to fulfill the wants and desires of the new holder.

The salmon basket came into the Penn Museum in 1918 as part of an extensive collection of baskets, blankets, and other items acquired by Richard Waln-Meirs. Much of the collection is comprised of baskets, ranging from Alaska all the way down the Pacific Coast to the northern parts of California. Mr. Richard Waln-Meirs was a successful Philadelphia businessman; the collection was donated to the Museum by his wife after his death. The collector, however, left us almost no information about the people who made these baskets, or the stories behind them. Museum scholar Molly Lee describes a similar example in her article Zest or Zeal: Sheldon Jackson and the Commodification of Alaska Native Art.” Jackson accumulated a large collection of Alaskan art and artifacts, but when he took these items from their homeland, he took with them their ritual and religious stories and significance.[5]

Regarding the salmon basket, the narrative that would explain the logic behind its creation is quite possibly lost. We can guess at connections through stories passed down from collectors and curators, but we may never be able to travel back to ask the weaver. One connection that could be made is the “modern day” context associated with the basket. The jobs that Native people held in the canneries allowed them to provide for their families; the images of Native life on the cannery labels (however stereotypical) created an awareness of Native lands. The salmon basket represents a modern-day element of work and life, while maintaining its cultural roots as a hand-woven basket. Yet, it would be naïve to believe Native peoples were respected in these canneries and were treated as equals, because factory jobs were historically utilized as a tool of assimilation. The canneries that took over a large portion of the region have affected the salmon fisheries well into the present, to the extent that legislation, including Alaska House Bill 199, the Wild Salmon Legacy Act, has been promoted to protect the wild-salmon fisheries of Native peoples.[6]

Erica Dienes with the salmon basket at the Penn Museum. Photo by Margaret Bruchac.

The salmon basket and cannery label highlight a specific dynamic of attempting to recreate history. The salmon basket allows us to easily understand the role it played in society – it functioned as a basket. The label complicates the story, especially when an association is given to the viewer. Was the basket created in order to represent a relationship with the canneries? Or was it created in order to show the deep significance salmon have in society? Is the relationship between the two objects intentional or accidental? As a viewer of the object and as a Native person, I am hesitant to leap to conclusions. The association makes sense and is easy to understand, but the real story, I would guess, runs deeper than a salmon basket.


[1] “The Native Salmon Symbol symbolizes abundance, fertility, prosperity and renewal. For thousands of years the Salmon have been the primary food source for the Northwest Coast Native Americans and are highly respected.” See “The Salmon Symbol.” Spirits of the West Coast Art Gallery website.

[2] Teri Rofkar studied the collection of Tlingit baskets at the Penn Museum through a National Endowment for the Arts funded grant. Her work lives on at the Penn Museum through the research she did with the Museum’s collection of Tlingit baskets. See “Teri Rofkar, Tlingit Basket Weaver,” Penn Museum video.

[3] Benjamin E. Zeller, Religion, Food, and Eating in North America. New York: Columbia University Press, 2014.

[4] “The salmon canning industry has had a powerful impact on the economic and sociological development of Alaska as a territory and as a state.” “Alaska’s Historic Canneries.” Alaska Historical Society, 2017.

[5] Molly Lee,Zest or Zeal: Sheldon Jackson and the Commodification of Alaska Native Art.” In Shepherd Krech III and Barbara Hail, eds., pp. 25-42. Collecting Native America, 1870-1960. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1999.

[6] The “Wild Salmon Legacy Act”/Alaska House Bill 199 is currently stalled in the Fisheries Committee due to contentions between traditional and commercial fishing interests. Laine Welch, “Measure to Protect Salmon Habitat, Update Permitting Laws, Heads to Voters.” Alaska Fish Radio, 10 Oct. 2017.

This object analysis was conducted for the Fall 2018 University of Pennsylvania course “Anthropology of Museums.” Students are examining Native American objects in the American Section of the Penn Museum by combining material analysis (elements, construction, design, condition, etc.) with documentation (texts, photographs, ethnographic data, etc.). Since some objects have minimal provenance data, we seek out similar materials, consult research articles and archives, and consider non-material evidence (oral traditions, ecosystems, museum memories, etc.) that might illuminate these objects. This research is designed to expand our understandings of object lives, using insights and information gathered from inside and outside of the Museum.

For more blogs from the 2018 Anthropology of Museums class, see the following articles, edited by Margaret Bruchac:
• With Erica Dienes. “Choctaw Beaded Sash: Crossing Histories.”
• With Lilianna Gurry. “Moose Hair Embroidered Birchbark Trays: French, Native, or Both.”
• With Lilianna Gurry. “Blackfeet Moccasins: Gifts for Charles Stephens.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Investigating a Pipe Tomahawk.”
• With Kayla A. Holmes. “Tlingit Raven Rattle: Transformative Representations.”
• With Ben Kelser. “The Kaskaskian Beaver Bowl.”
• With Ben Kelser. “Children Among the Caribou: Clothes for a Young Innu.”
• With Leana Reich. “Lady Franklyn’s Quilled Mi’kmaq Box.”
• With Leana Reich. “The Mysterious Beaded Collar.”