Gift thought to be largest collection of photos made by a Tlingit
Aug. 24, 2020
(Photos) (About Cyril George) (Blog)
The family of the late Tlingit traditional scholar and master storyteller Cyril George, Sr., has donated a vast photo collection to Sealaska Heritage Institute (SHI) that documents 75 years of Alaska Native life and history.
Most of the images were taken by Cyril, a prolific photographer for most of his life.
The gift includes an estimated 4,000 images, and it is thought to be the largest collection of photographs made by a Tlingit person. The donation was made official at a transfer ceremony last week at SHI’s clan house, where his granddaughter, Lillian Woodbury, spoke on behalf of Cyril’s family.
“Cyril had a love of people and enjoyed capturing special moments. Had a knack for it. He was a natural. That love has carried over onto me and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Woodbury said.
“We recently learned how big the collection was and that it spanned over 75 years. What a gift for not just ourselves but for others as well. His passion will live on and benefit generations to come.”
SHI President Rosita Worl echoed that statement during the ceremony.
“Our people will be thanking Cyril George for recording our history through photographs for many, many generations,” Worl said. “Cyril George is going to live on through the centuries. He will be with us through his work.”
The donation was facilitated by Kathy Kolkhorst Ruddy, a longtime friend of the family and the attorney who executed Cyril’s estate. Most of the photos depict people, boats, meetings and basketball games, and the collection includes many images that document meetings of the Alaska Native Brotherhood, through which people championed Native civil rights, she said.
The collection, which dates to the 1920s, remained small over the years, then “exploded” from the 1960s through the 1990s, she said. It took five years to settle the estate, said Kolkhorst Ruddy, who called the photo collection the jewel of Cyril’s Western possessions.
“The gem of the estate was Cyril’s 75 years of photos,” she said at the transfer ceremony.
The family chose to donate the collection to SHI because the institute’s state-of-the-art facility meets the highest standard for care of archives and collections.
About five years ago, the photos were laid out at the annual Sharing Our Knowledge conference, where hundreds of people helped to identify the individuals depicted in the images, Kolkhorst Ruddy said. That work will greatly enhance the public’s ability to find photos of specific people.
Staff is currently cataloging the collection, which will be made available to the public.
About Cyril George
Cyril George, Sr., was a Raven and a leader in the Deisheetaan (Beaver) clan of Angoon. His Tlingit name was Ḵaalḵáawu. Cyril was a Tlingit Elder with a vast knowledge of language and culture. He was one of our most cherished historians, deeply trained in Tlingit ways of being and knowing by his family and his community. He was one of the world’s notable and important Indigenous storytellers of our time.
Cyril was a high liner–a very successful seiner, halibut and herring fisherman. He also served his community on the Angoon City Council and as mayor. He was on the first board of directors of Sealaska, the regional Native corporation for Southeast, from 1972 to 1974, and served as a member of the board for Kootsnoowoo, Inc., Angoon’s village corporation.
Cyril attended Sheldon Jackson high school and college in Sitka, where he became a machinist and learned to build boats. He was on the crew from Sheldon Jackson that built the vessel Princeton Hall, a replacement boat for the school. Their previous boat, the Princeton, sank outside of Auke Bay in 1939. However, the Princeton Hall was seized by the U.S. Navy in 1941 after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, just days from the boat’s official launch.
Longtime friend Kathy Kolkhorst Ruddy recalled Cyril describing that moment, as the Navy towed the Princeton Hall away.
“The Navy seized the boat, and students at Sheldon Jackson were crying because they had no boat,” Kolkhorst Ruddy recalled Cyril’s account. “They spent two years building that boat.”
The boat was purchased in the early 1980s by Kolkhorst Ruddy and her husband, Bill, and it was through the Princeton Hall that they met Cyril, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 92.
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 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.
CONTACT: Kathy Dye, Media Specialist, 907.321.4636, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Caption: SHI President Rosita Worl and Cyril George’s daughter, Roberta Jack, sign a deed of gift at a transfer ceremony last week with the photo collection visible in the background, photo by Lyndsey Brollini, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage; one of thousands of photos from the collection; Cyril George at Sealaska Heritage recording stories in 2013, photo by Christy Eriksen, courtesy of Sealaska Heritage. For high-resolution images, contact email@example.com.