27. Chinese coins on Tlingit armour

In August, a colleague sent me this photograph from the Canadian War Museum, in Ottawa, with the question “Is it a well-known thing?”

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Tlingit Armour – This leather shirt is covered in rows of Chinese coins, which provide protection while displaying status. Most Pacific coast armour was made from several layers of bear, elk, or sea lion skins, supplemented by wooden breastplates and wooden helmets and visors. (Tlingit Armoured Shirt, British Columbia, CMC VII-A-346)(copied from the museum label)

For an introduction to Tlingit armour, see Gary Ashkenazy’s post Body Armor Made of Old Chinese Coins on his website Primaltrek (Feb 2013).

There are collections of helmets, neck braces and body wear of the Tlingit in museums around the world. Here are a couple of pieces of Tlingit armour on display:

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American Museum of Natural History (New York)  (Source: AMNH website)

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Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University (source: PMAE website) — this is temporary exhibition Arts of War: Artistry in Weapons across Cultures at the museum until October 18

I’ve also put some images on Pinterest.

Tommy Joseph, a master carver of Sitka, Alaska, has been visiting collections around the world, learning about the Tlingit collections and making new pieces. He created the exhibition Rainforest Warriors: Tlingit Armour by Tommy Joseph at the State Museum, Alaska, in 2013.

He also gave a TEDxSitka talk – Constructing Tlingit Armor: Tommy Joseph at TEDxSitka – in 2013, talking about the background to his exhibition (the talk lasts 11.51 minutes – the coin armour is at 7.09, 8.20, 9.09 and 10.34, but I’d suggest you start at the beginning because it’s interesting).

The intro to his talk on Youtube reads: Tommy Joseph is of the Eagle Moiety, Kaagwaantaan Clan. He has been actively engaged in Northwest Coast carving since the 1980s as an instructor, interpreter demonstrator and as a commissioned artist. He has produced a wide range of artwork including 35-foot totems, smaller house posts, intricately carved and inlaid masks and a wide range of bentwood containers. He also has replicated Tlingit ceremonial at.oow (treasured objects) and armor. Since the early 1990s, he has been in charge of the carving shop at the Southeast Alaska Indian Cultural Center in Sitka, demonstrating and interpreting Northwest Coast art for the many thousands of tourists who visit during the summer months. Recently he opened the Raindance Gallery in Sitka.

He also has an official website (apparently not updated since 2009), and is currently an Adjunct, Northwest Coast Arts, at the University of Alaska Southeast (more here).

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8 comments

  1. The use of Chinese coins in this region seems to relate to its coastal area being on the route of the returning Manila galleons plying their trade from Mexico to the Philippines. It looks like a ship on this route landed and traded Chinese coins into the region, or the coins were looted from a wrecked Spanish ship. The suits I have examined through photographs only showed pre- Qian Long coins. The coins all seem to be early eighteenth century or earlier, suggesting the date of this trade. So the coins seem to be unralted to the later import of Chinese coins through the arrival of Chinese labour for railways and mining in the nineteenth century.

      1. As far as I found information about these coin armours, members of the Tlinglit tribe were bartering the furs for the coins. They were acquiring bronze/brass cash coins and silver coins (European type) from European and American merchants. Chinese cash coins were used as decorative and in some cases (probably) protective part of their vestments. Silver coins were remanufactured into bracelets. Ethnologists think that these vestments didn’t act as armour, they were used to underline owner’s wealth and dignity. On the other hand Russian sources from 1792 which describe the life of tsar’s settlers in North America inform that newcomers had to face aboriginal people, who many times wore coin jackets while fighting in the battles. It is worth to add that Tlingits in 18th century were local power. They specialized in trade and in war.
        Five years ago I found some photos of those garments and then I identified coins of: Shizu (1644-1661), Shengzu (1661-1722) and Shizong (1722-1735). I wrote also two posts about that on my blog (one in 2012 and the second one last year).

      2. Thanks. The terminal date of 1735 seems very important and indicated their arrival in North America before that date, as the coins of the next reign 1736-1796 are extremely common. Their absence from later imports would be very unlikely. In this region Spanish ships are the most likely source.
        Joe

    1. Thank you for posting links to my blog and posts. If I get more information about those interesting garments I will let know here. I will try to find out if the qian long tong bao were present too. As Joe said their absence would have been impossible in case they had been imported in later time too. Russian source from 1792 mentions coin armours so I think Tlingits were still gaining Chinese coins in later period (I mean after 1735). Anyway I will try to find some evidence.
      Regards.

  2. Please see: Numismatic Archaeology of North America, by Marjorie H. Akin, Kevin Akin, and James C. Bard, 2015. Chinese coins have been found in Native American burials, sometimes used as decorations. At least one ship wrecked on the Pacific coast carrying Chinese cash as ballast (to be sold in Europe or elsewhere for scrap).

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