THE MARTIN COLLECTION
Between 1926-1935 the Rev. Augustus B. ("A. B." or "Gus") and Bessie Martin lived and taught in the Yup'ik Eskimo village of Kwigillingok on the lower Kuskokwim coast, seventy miles downriver from Bethel, Alaska. A Moravian mission had been established at Kwigillingok over a decade before by the Rev. Ferdinand Drebert. Like Drebert, the Martins learned the Yup'ik language in order to communicate with their parishioners and students, some of whom still fondly remember these early elitnauristat (teachers). The late Frank Andrew recalled their tolerance for the strong smells of seal oil and fermented fish that accompanied students into the classroom. Chuckling, he also remembered what Bessie Martin told her pupils on discovering that one of them had head lice: "When the bell rang in the morning, we went inside and sat, and before we began, she told us that when she went out that morning and looked toward the village of Anuurarmiut, a louse was flying toward [our village]. And when it arrived, it went inside one of the houses. She had apparently found lice on one of the school children. She said it had entered that person's home."
Gus Martin arrived in southwest Alaska with two primary objectives--to improve communication and transportation in the region. He accomplished the first by setting up and operating a small radio station. To improve transportation--then primarily by dog sled and boat--Martin helped construct a number of snow planes. These 1930s versions of a snow machine were homemade contraptions composed of old airplane and automobile parts. Martin built his second plane at Kwigillingok from a Model A Ford engine which he modified for aircraft use, and it was used for some years at the Moravian Children's home near Kwethluk.
Like most teachers at the time, the Martins acquired a considerable collection of objects made by their Yup'ik neighbors. Some were probably gifts, while others may have been purchased as "curios" to bring home to friends and family when they left Alaska. The collection consists of hunting and household tools, children's toys, and several pieces of ceremonial regalia.
The hunting tools include a spear thrower, harpoon and harpoon socket pieces, snow goggles, a visor, and two bentwood hunting hats. Although not a large collection, this group includes examples of a number of the most important tools that a hunter would need to succeed on the Bering Sea coast.
The collection also has some interesting household items, including a number of bentwood bowls and a small, wooden tobacco box.
To a Western eye, the most attractive items may be the ivory storyknives that the Martins brought home. Each knife was probably carved for a much-loved child by her father or uncle. Young people used these knives to draw stylized figures in the snow or mud, as they told each other stories. Many display a circle-and-dot design, designated in Yup'ik as ellanguaq (pretend or model universe).
The Martins also collected one dance mask, one drum, and two sets of wooden dance fans (sans the caribou beard hairs which originally graced their borders). Yup'ik dancing ceased on the lower coast during the Martins tenure, and these remnants represent the end of an era.
The small but comprehensive nature of their collection suggests that the Martins may have used it as an "educational kit" when sharing stories of their years in Kwigillingok. No one piece is exceptional, but as a whole the collection gives a clear view into the Yup'ik way of life in the 1930s. Combined with elders' recollections of these objects in use, it could be of extraordinary value (eg. Fienup-Riordan 2005).
The largest category in the collection is a group of tourist items, probably made for sale rather than everyday use. They include grass baskets and mats as well as a variety of ivory objects, including bracelets and napkin rings, jewelry, letter openers, a folding pocket knife, and a knife-fork-and-spoon set.
Gus Martin also took numerous photographs of village life, which add greatly to the visual history of the region, already well represented in the work of Reverend Drebert, Hans Himmelheber, and Leuman Waugh [Fienup-Riordan 1991 (ed.), 2000, 2005 (ed.)].
11 May 2006
Post Lot Text
See illustration of four.