Sealaska Heritage Institute
A Sealaska shareholder has donated an old ceremonial fire bowl that dates to circa late 1800s to Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) for its ethnographic collection.
Fire bowls, called gankas’íx’i (dishes over the fire) in Tlingit, historically were used to transport food to the spirit world and to ancestors during ceremonies, such as Forty Day Parties and ku.éex’, sometimes known as potlatches or memorial parties.
Brian Wallace of Juneau donated the piece to SHI, saying “it is a priceless relic that needs a secure home.”
“At Sealaska Heritage it will be safe. It will be retired from public use, but it will have an active retirement as an object of study by scholars and students of Tlingit culture,” said Wallace, noting that it is a tangible piece of history that connects him to his ancestors.
It’s the first authentic fire bowl SHI has received, said SHI President Rosita Worl.
“We are excited to have this gankas’íx’i, which has been used in our sacred ceremonies for more than a century,” Worl said. “Fire bowls play a significant role in our mortuary rites, as they are the method by which we evoke and feed the spirits of our ancestors.”
The bowl appears to be of the “Late Victorian flow blue” style, according to research by Wallace. The bowl has been in his family for generations and likely was first used in the late 1800s or early 1900s, as its first documented caretaker was Wallace’s great grandmother, who died in the early 1930s.
The fire bowl’s first documented caretaker was Wallace’s great grandmother, pictured here in the front row wearing a plaid shirt and standing near a dog. Photo taken circa late 1890s, courtesy of the Alaska Historical Library
Wallace said it was brought out during Kaagwaantaan and likely Kiks.ádi memorial parties. He recalls it was used at his aunt Phillis Verrelmann’s ku.éex’ in 1972 and that the last time it came out in public for a ceremony was during his grandmother Margaret Cropley’s ku.éex’ in 1981.
The bowl’s other caretakers included Wallace’s late grandmother Margaret Cropley and his late mother Dorothy Wallace.
Historical and Current Use of Fire Bowls
Fire bowls are used in ceremonies such as the Forty Day Party and ku.éex’. The Forty Day Party marks the departure of the soul or spirit of the deceased from the living to the spirit world. The spirit of the deceased is thought to remain with the family for forty days after his/her death. In some households, a place is set at the table for the deceased for forty days. More often, food is put into a fire, which is called gankas’íx’i (dishes over the fire), to transfer the food to the departed and to the ancestors.
The ku.éex’ is the final memorial ceremony that is held a year or so after the death of a clan member. At ku.éex’, clans remove grief through mourning songs, speeches and a ritual called “The Last Cry.” The ceremony then transforms into a joyful and happy period. The happy and feasting times begin with the fire bowl. Members of the guest clan hold up the fire bowl, and the host calls the names of their ancestors which is then repeated by the Naa Kaìani and guests. This rite serves to call the spirits of the ancestors to the feast. This is followed by the distribution of fire bowls to members of the guest clan later in the ceremony. Some clans continue the ancient practice of throwing food into the fire to transport the food to the spirit world and to the ancestors. The individual fire bowls are labeled with the names of designated guests, and they are given in the memory of the host’s deceased relatives. The belief is that when the guests are eating food from the fire bowl that the food is also transferred to the spirit world and to the ancestors.
Wallace’s aunt Phillis Verrelmann’s 1972ku.éex’, where the donated fire bowl was brought out. Photo courtesy: Brian Wallace
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.