Sealaska Heritage Institute acquires bentwood box that challenges Native blood quantum rules

Pictured: “A tú” (Inside a closed container) by Nicholas Galanin.(Photo: Brian Wallace, courtesy Sealaska Heritage Institute)

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Piece made by thought-provoking artist Nicholas Galanin

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Sealaska Heritage Institute

Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) has acquired a piece of art made by the thought-provoking Tlingit/Unangax artist Nicholas Galanin of Sitka.

The piece, purchased with the support of Rasmuson Foundation and Museums Alaska, is a weathered bentwood box titled “A tú” (Inside a closed container) that features a carved wooden safe handle and carved wooden combination dial bearing the number one and fractions counting down to zero instead of numbers counting up by 10. Inside the box is a depiction of a sea otter hide.

“The box represents a container for our culture, knowledge and customs that have weathered time and continue to be carried forward,” Galanin wrote. “Transformed into a kind of safe, the work insists on the value of cultural knowledge and practice. The sculpture bears the impulse to protect what is valuable and threatened through a colonial understanding of wealth as something restricted to a few.”

The combination lock and safe handle are made of un-weathered wood and represent the requirement of blood quantum as a barrier to access. The fractions on the combination dial point to the barring of our descendants from accessing ancestral knowledge, cultural practices and rights based on fraction of certified Indian blood, Galanin wrote.

The sea otter hide depiction challenges federal laws that allow only Natives with one-quarter blood quantum or more to hunt or use marine mammals for food or clothing and arts and crafts. A study published by SHI in 2016 found that the proportion of the Alaska Native population becoming ineligible to hunt marine mammals under current policies is rising at an accelerated rate. The law means that future generations who have grown up identifying as Native will no longer be considered Native enough to engage in traditional hunting.

“A person not considered a large enough fraction of a whole Alaska Native cannot continue this cultural practice, Galanin wrote.

The piece will be a permanent addition to SHI’s ethnographic collection.

About Nicholas Galanin

Multi-disciplinary Artist Nicholas Galanin’s work offers perspective rooted in connection to land and broad engagement with contemporary culture. For over a decade, he's embedded incisive observation into his work, investigating and expanding intersections of culture and concept in form, image and sound. Galanin's works embody critical thought as vessels of knowledge, culture and technology - inherently political, generous, unflinching, and poetic. His practice is expansive, including numerous collaborations with visual and recording artists. He engages past, present and future to expose intentionally obscured collective memory and barriers to the acquisition of knowledge. His work critiques commodification of culture and evidences the damage, while continuing to contribute to the continuum of Tlingit art. Galanin employs materials and processes in ways that expand dialogue on what Indigenous artistic production is, and how culture can be carried. His work in in numerous public and private collections, and is exhibited all over the world; including carving a 40-foot healing totem pole for his Tlingit community in Juneau, participating in the Whitney Biennial and the upcoming Biennale of Sydney. Galanin apprenticed with master carvers, earned his BFA at London Guildhall University, and his MFA at Massey University, he lives and works with his family in Sitka, Alaska.

About Sealaska Heritage Institute

Sealaska Heritage Institute is a private nonprofit founded in 1980 to perpetuate and enhance Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures of Southeast Alaska. Its goal is to promote cultural diversity and cross-cultural understanding through public services and events. SHI also conducts social scientific and public policy research that promotes Alaska Native arts, cultures, history and education statewide. The institute is governed by a Board of Trustees and guided by a Council of Traditional Scholars, a Native Artist Committee and a Southeast Regional Language Committee.

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