A piece of history, culture comes home to Southeast

At least four generations of the Davenport family have grown up with the “Diving Whale” blanket. But, as Amy Davenport told the audience Sept. 14, “There came a time when this blanket needed to come back.” (Photo courtesy James Poulson/Daily Sitka Sentinel)

At least four generations of the Davenport family have grown up with the “Diving Whale” blanket. But, as Amy Davenport told the audience Sept. 14, “There came a time when this blanket needed to come back.” (Photo courtesy James Poulson/Daily Sitka Sentinel)

Tribal leaders from around Southeast Alaska gathered Sept. 14 in Sitka to welcome home a Chilkat robe associated with one of the most famous figures in modern Alaskan history.

The occasion warranted the display of sacred Tlingit culture — clan regalia from all the major houses of the region.

Emcee Chuck Miller of Sitka reminded the large audience at Harrigan Centennial Hall that the use of regalia was far more significant that simply displaying a family’s finery.

“The precious regalia that you see up here, our people call it at.oow. It’s a very sacred item,” he said. “They don’t just get brought out at any time. … But they’re very special, very ancient. Many people would know what coats of arms are — it’s very similar to that part.”

Clan leaders were assisted by their family members in donning the regalia to greet the robe, which is being donated to the state by the Vermont family, which has cared for it for at least four generations.

The exact provenance of the robe is unclear. But as Amy Davenport told the audience, everyone in her family knew it was special.

“It was in my grandmother’s house and we spent our summers there. All of us loved the patterns in the blanket. It just meant something very special to us,” she said. “Then it came to my house, and my daughter grew up with it. But it has been on a journey. My grandmother’s home is in New Jersey, all the way on the other side of this country. I think the blanket was happy there.”

The blanket survived two different fires at her grandmother’s house.

“There came a time when this blanket needed to come back to where it needed to live, and that was Sitka,” she said.

The blanket may have been originally acquired by former U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, who negotiated the transfer of the Alaska Territory from Russia to the United States in 1867.

After his tenure in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet — and surviving an assassination attempt on his own life — Seward traveled to Alaska to see the land and the people that had consumed his professional attention.

Seward collected many artifacts on the journey — the Chilkat robe was likely among them.

No one quite knows how the Davenports obtained the robe, but they’ve been in possession of the robe for about 150 years.

About 10 months ago, Davenport was teaching a legal class in Reno, Nevada, and one of her students was Pete Esquiro, a tribal judge in Sitka.

Esquiro helped connect Davenport with the state-owned Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, which has agreed to accession the robe into its permanent collection.

The ceremony was organized and funded by the Friends of Sheldon Jackson Museum.

Clan leaders who voiced support for the family’s decision to donate it to the state were involved in the extensive planning for the event, according to museum curator Jackie Fernandez-Hamberg,

Many of Davenport’s family were present to see the robe returned.

Editor’s note: The word negotiations was struck from the second to last paragraph. This story has been updated to reflect the change.

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