Our indexer, Alex has finished describing the Chief Peter John Collection which we have put online in Alaska’s Digital Archives. Here’s what he has to say:
Indexing photos can be a strange, sometimes incongruous experience. Certain collections offer surprisingly intimate insights into the lives of people you’ve never met and know next to nothing about. As a Nevadan, and having moved to Alaska only recently, I know precious little about Alaska’s native peoples. Until a few months ago, I’d never heard of Chief Peter John. Even now, after indexing some +700 photos of his life, I still know precious little. After all, here is a man who, on June 28th, 1914—the day Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo—was living the subsistence lifestyle of an Athabascan in Minto, Alaska. How much could I really know?
Even for someone better acquainted with Alaska and its peoples, the photographs of the Chief Peter John Collection offer an intimate but necessarily limited look at a man whose life was long and rich, by any measure. He was born in 1900 and died in 2003. He served as Tanana Chiefs Conference Traditional Chief from 1992 to 2003 Though a few photos depict Peter John earlier in life, most focus on his later years, some even dealing with his burial and funeral potlatch, as in “Chief Peter John’s funeral potlatch, Minto.”
This, to me, is one of the most powerful photos in the collection. The depth of emotion on display here is irrepressible. It leaps out and grabs you. On the one hand, I’ve never been to a potlatch—much less the funeral potlatch of a Traditional Chief—but to look at this photo, to see the movement, the open mouths, the drumstick poised to strike the drum, is to glean some of the heat and sound from the real thing. And this is precisely what I mean when I talk about the incongruous experience of indexing. The appearance of familiarity within the unfamiliar. The realization that Peter John liked to drink Coke, a realization I came to after seeing him with cans of it, in photograph after photograph. To know such a seemingly innocuous detail is, I think, a kind of intimacy.
And then there’s the matter of Elsie, Peter’s wife. He must have loved her deeply. I know because, even in photos taken several years after her death, he can still be seen wearing the blue cap that commemorates her life.
An intimacy, indeed.