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Ask MOA: What Is This Dish?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case is about a 19th-century beaver dish owned by the inquirer’s grandfather.

Question from inquirer:

“My grandfather was an engineer and worked in British Columbia in about 1890. This beaver dish was acquired at that time. No notes anywhere as to where and how he acquired it. Thanks for any help you can offer.”

Answer from Karen Duffek:

Thanks for your interesting query! That is a charming and nicely carved and painted Northwest Coast dish—the beaver looks animated as it grasps the stick in its front paws. It’s great to even have the small amount of contextual information that you included: to know that it was acquired around 1890 in BC is already a useful clue. Recognizing it as a carving from the northern Northwest Coast, it looks to me like an item made by an experienced carver for sale in the early tourist trade. Your dish is modeled on older feast dishes carved in the form of animals, where the body forms the cavity for the bowl.

For historical carvings from the northern Northwest Coast it is often difficult to know more specifically where a piece originated; the carving and painting styles of different First Nations have many similarities, and objects circulated throughout the region. This bowl has attributes that are shared, for example, by carving styles of the Haida, Tsimshian, and Tlingit. I had a look to see if I could find comparable pieces in museum collections (via our online Reciprocal Research Network, a portal into about 30 museum collections of Northwest Coast objects and belongings). I didn’t find anything that looked exactly like your dish. But then, just a few days later, I was visiting a local collector—and there on his shelf I saw a bowl almost identical to yours. The collector had some provenance on his bowl: it was made around 1880 and is of Tlingit origin from Sitka, Alaska. He had a copy of a reference from the Harriman Expedition of 1899, with a drawing of the dish (see illustration, below). So, a Tlingit maker from Sitka seems likely for your piece, as well.

Reference from Harriman Expedition of 1899, with image of beaver dish on the bottom left. Photo by Karen Duffek.

There was a lot of object trading and selling taking place in Alaska and on the BC coast in the latter decades of the 1800s—there were even steamboats of tourists heading up to Alaska. Indigenous women and men were experienced and inventive entrepreneurs who adapted their skills to create works in basketry and carving to supply those new markets. The pieces they made for sale often show great knowledge and artistry, and many of these items have been passed down in families or donated to museums around the world.