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Bentwood Boxes of the Northwest Coast peoples

Bentwood boxes, precious to the Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian people, are skillfully crafted from three pieces of wood. These boxes, used for storing food, clan items, or daily essentials, require precise carving and bending. The boxes, often adorned with clan crests or personal designs, are cherished heirlooms passed down through generations. Created by Smarthistory.

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  • starky sapling style avatar for user Kam✨
    The Bentwood boxes look wonderful. I can tell they were precious to the people who made and owned them. How long did it take to make one Bentwood box?
    (2 votes)
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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Teresa] We're in the Totem Heritage Center and we're looking at three bentwood boxes, - [Lauren] The bentwood boxes for people amongst Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian is something precious to us. And it's a special skill that goes into making bentwood boxes. What we put inside the boxes could be food that we gather throughout the year, like seaweed, dry fish, dried hooligans, also be clan items or regalia. It could be blankets that we use on a daily basis. There could be at.oowu to something that is special to the clan. The box itself is made of three pieces of wood. One is the bottom part of the box. The second being the top lid. And the third piece is all the sides of the box. And that's all made from one flat board. - [Teresa] We can see that expertise and the time that it would've taken to carve something like this, look at how even each of the sides are. And if we're looking inside, we can see the evenness of the grain of the wood. To be able to cut into the tree originally to make it this precise, would have been extraordinarily time-consuming. - [Lauren] They would take the wood and cut it with the grain very precisely to make sure it's all even. Then when they have the board laying flat, they would cut three different grooves into the board that would help with the bending process. Once they have the wood cut, then they'd have to moisten it down and very carefully at the precise moment, start bending the box because if they start bending it too fast or too soon, it could crack and break the board. If they go too slow, it could damage and break it as well. Once they have all the sides closed in, they would connect the two ends with either sinew or pegs. Nowadays they might put nails and pegs, but they would use the sinew to make sure it's nice and tight. If you're able to look down inside the box, you can see the thickness to make sure it's very even, it's nice and sturdy. When we brought these boxes in from storage and we're able to put them on display, I could actually smell the seaweed coming out of one of the boxes. This family stored seaweed inside of the bentwood box. One of the other bentwood boxes, I could smell dry fish. All the oils from the dry fish had a special color inside of the box. Being from Old Kasaan, over in Prince of Wales, estimated to be decades old. When the family moved to New Kasaan, these boxes were brought with them. They're definitely a well over 75 to estimated 100 years old when I was visiting one of the owners of the box. - [Lauren] On two of the sides of each of these boxes, we see different designs. - [Teresa] The designs would all vary on the family that owns the boxes, so they could put their clan crest on the box. You might find one design that wraps all the way around it, or one design that might fit on one side or two sides. Along with the lid. Also the designs change and fluctuate to the individual that's ordered the box or making the box. A lid might be anywhere between two to three inches tall. All the way up to, this one here in front of us is about four to six inches deep, and it's specially made to cover the box. So it catches it perfectly, so it doesn't slide around. - [Teresa] The lid has also been adorned with shells in three parallel lines. And I wanna go back to the functions of these boxes. These were intended to be moved. - [Lauren] The different sizes of boxes can come anywhere between one foot square and one foot high, all the way up to... some that I've personally seen estimated about three feet by four feet. And they all come in different sizes and designs and embellishments that they want to create their box with. So you might see not just shelves, like you see here, but you might see the abalone shells, copper that's embedded on it. It's all up to the individual that is making it their own. So it's not just lasting for the year, but something that they cherish and they hand down from one generation to the next. (upbeat music)