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The lost art of the Tlingit of Alaska

Identifier: Film Collection no. 206

Scope and Contents

The film was made by Oshin Agathon for the museum a few years before he made The Chisena of Mozambique, also in the collection. It records the lost art of basket weaving of the Tlingit people in southern Alaska. Agathon persevered in his efforts to capture the process on film in spite of discouragement by ethnologists who insisted such a task was impossible. With the help of his friend Hardy Trefzger, a former U.S. Commissioner in Yakutat and fluent in Tlingit, Agathon succeeded. The film was directed by Trefzger and Bernard Birnbaum. Birnbaum also photographed some of the material. Harry L. Shapiro and Bella Weitzner, AMNH anthropologists, acted as scientific advisors. Agathon narrates the film over a sound track of the Yakutat people singing and speaking. The film opens with footage of Tlingit baskets, followed by aerial shots of Cordova on Prince William Sound in southeastern Alaska, the Rocky Mountains and Juneau. The streets and buildings of Juneau are photographed, as well as the totem poles which appoint the city. Aerial views of the Rockies, fjords, and glaciers precede an introduction to the town of Yakutat, through pictures of Mt. Saint Elias, small unpainted wooden houses, the cannery, and inhabitants. Trefzger's extensive basket collection is shown, and then the search begins to find someone who remembers how to weave. A woman is found who agrees to do a demonstration, but she reneges the next day, due to local pressure. Because Trefzger once cared for Annie Johnson's son, Annie, a Tlingit, courageously agrees to demonstrate basket weaving. Annie travels by boat to Kantak Island (most of this island disappeared in an earthquake that same year) to collect the roots she will use; the sandy ground on the island permits uniform root development. The Sitka spruce roots are shallow, but grow 30 to 50 feet out from the trunk. After several hours Annie has collected enough root bundles, then roasts the bundles and strips the bark by pulling the roots through a notched hole in a piece of wood. The roots are then soaked for several days, and split into fine layers (the middle pulpy layer is discarded). The resulting strips are smoothed out with a mussel shell that by tradition must be obtained at night from the bottom of the sea. Dyes made from alder bark and blueberries are readied. The weaving process now begins, but is not recorded in its entirety, because Annie's rheumatism prevented her from going on. The multiple uses of baskets, from storing kelp to carrying wild celery, are demonstrated. A scene of the Yakutat fishing for halibut is followed by another at Annie's home on Kantak Island. Annie and her husband cook a fish steak by placing the raw fish in a basket, covering it with hot stones and seawater, and covering the basket with a seal skin, thus steaming the fish. Annie then displays moccassins that she had embroidered. Shots of Enchantment Bay are followed by displays of Tlingit art (baskets, wood carvings, and masks) and a view of the Central Park West facade of the museum.


  • 1957

Language of Materials


Conditions Governing Access

Not available through interlibrary loan. Contact AMNH Library Special Collections for terms of access.


1 Videocassette (44 minutes) : U-Matic : sound, color ; 3/4 in.

Physical Characteristics and Technical Requirements

3/4 in., U-Matic, viewing copy


Original format: 3/4 in. videocassette.



Oshin Agathon, producer, writer and photographer; Hardy Trefzger, director, field supervisor, interpreter and adviser; Bernard Birnbaum, director, photographer and editor; Carolyn Mayer, script adaptation; Annie Johnson and George Johnson, actors; Harold E. Anthony, museum supervisor; Harry L. Shapiro and Bella Weitzner, scientific advisers; Yakutat Indians, sound.

The lost art of the Tlingit of Alaska, 1957
Iris Lee
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Script of description
Code for undetermined script
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Repository Details

Part of the Museum Archives at the Gottesman Research Library Repository

American Museum of Natural History
200 Central Park West
New York NY 10024 USA
(212) 769-5420