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Indigenous Peoples of California: Ethnographic Collections of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, Russian Academy of Sciences


Indigenous Peoples of California: Ethnographic Collections of the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography, Russian Academy of Sciences

Project on publication of the Museum’s California collections. In 2015 the Museum has begun preparing for publication of a complete catalogue of California Indian artifacts. The book will be a new volume in the “Catalogue of the Kunstkamera Collections” series. Over the past few years, within this series complete catalogues of Tlingit, Alutiiq (Sugpiaq) and Aleut cultural items have been published.

The project aim is to provide scientists and the general public, both in Russia and abroad, with research-based information on California collections held by the Museum. As a result, a richly illustrated catalogue will be published in the printed edition, and its digital version will be placed on the Museum’s website.

Within the framework of the project, attribution and digitization of California Indian artifacts will be done. In 2016–2017 it is planned to reveal and investigate archive documents of the collectors associated with specific items. This makes it possible to define more precisely ethnic affiliation of the artifacts and to clarify history of their incorporation into the Museum’s collection. 

The project is implemented under the support of the US Government and the US Consulate General in St. Petersburg, thanks to which the visits of the representatives of California's indigenous peoples and American researchers were organized to the Museum to explore the collection.

Composition of the collection and history of its formation. Native California is a region of very high ethnolinguistic diversity. There are approximately 100 Indian tribes here, which spoke or still speak languages belong to several language families. The Museum’s collection includes artifacts of 15 ethnic groups. Materials on some of them are very fragmentary. There are only a few items of the Yurok and Wiyot living in northwestern California, and of the Chumash people of southern California. The bulk of the collection comes from north and central parts of the region. This is artifacts of the Pomo (including the Kashaya), Miwok, Patwin (including the Suisunes), Ohlone (also known as the Costanoan), Maidu, and Northern Yokuts. The most valuable part of the collection are Patwin ritual costumes made of condor and raven feathers, and several dozen baskets, mainly of the Kashaya and their neighbours. The majority of these baskets was used to serve at ceremonial feasts. They are well-preserved and show high quality of workmanship. There are also two cloaks of feathers, head ornaments, belts, bracelets, hunting tools, and household implements in the collection. It is worth noting the set of a stone grater, pestle, and a basket without bottom, that was designed for grinding acorns and is probably unique and the only surviving specimen of this kind in the world.

The richness of the Museum’s California collections is explained by the fact that in 1812 the Russian settlement Fort Ross was established in the land of the Kashaya, and a wharf for unloading ships of the Russian-American Company was at Bodega Bay, i.e. in the area inhabited by the Miwok. The South Pomo who lived in the Russian River basin were also in the zone of ​​economic and cultural influence of Fort Ross. Artifacts of the Ohlone Indians were purchased by Russian sailors during long-term moorings within the port of San Francisco.

The Museum’s collection of Indian artifacts from north-central California is the earliest one in the world. Its formation started already at the beginning of the 19th century. The artifacts were brought by members of first Russian circumnavigations. Such admirals, captains and midshipmen as Yuri F. Lisyansky (1773–1837), Vasily M. Golovnin (1776–1831), Mikhail N. Vasiliev (1777–1847), Ludwig August von Hagemeister (1780–1833), Andrey P. Lazarev (1787–1849), Mikhail P. Lazarev (1788–1851), Stepan P. Khrushchev (1790–1865), and Dmitri I. Zavalishin (1804–1892) have added glorious pages in the history of the Russian Navy and Russian science.

A rich collection of California Indian artifacts was collected by Ilya G. Voznesensky (1816–1871). He was a naturalist, custodian of the Zoological Museum of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, member of the Russian Geographical Society (since 1852), and one of the founders of the Russian Entomological Society (1859). In 1839 Voznesensky was sent by the Academy to Russian America to gather collections for the Zoological Museum, Botanical Museum, and Ethnographic Museum, and spent 10 years in America.

The uniqueness of the California collections consists also in the fact that they comprise artifacts of the ethnic groups that are now extinct (including the Suisunes, Ohlone, and Coast Miwok). In European and American collections, material culture of these peoples is represented by single objects.

Today, nearly 400 artifacts of the California Indians are held by the Museum. Since the ethnic affiliation of some items is still not clear, it is yet not possible to give a more precise number.

One of the sections of the North American permanent exhibition is dedicated to California Indian cultures. The artifacts displayed there form approximately 15 % of the Museum’s California objects. Among them are the unique ritual costumes made of feathers and mentioned before. Each year, over half a million visitors of the Museum familiarize themselves with these Indian artifacts on display.

Cooperation in the area of collections study. A priority of the Museum is the study of collections and publication of their catalogues together with representatives of the ethnic groups whose culture the collections represent. During the last few years, the Museum several times had the honor to host delegations of the Kashaya and Miwok Indians, as well as specialists involved in the study of traditional culture of Native California. Staff members showed them not only the permanent exhibition, but also artifacts from the Museum storeroom. In 2012, in the course of the Fort Ross bicentennial celebration, members of the American delegation for the first time got the opportunity to familiarize themselves with more than 400 California Indian artifacts held by the Museum. The guests were so impressed that they asked to organize the second, longer, excursion, which took place two years later.

In 2014, during a visit to St. Petersburg, representatives of indigenous peoples of California not only saw the artifacts, but also told of the meaning these objects had in their culture, and likewise of their probable use. The Museum’s experts had a unique opportunity to work together with Native Americans in the study of the collections.

Project participants:

  • Yulia A. Kupina, Cand. Sc., Deputy Director of the MAE RAS
  • Yuri E. Berezkin, Doct. Sc., Head of the Department of America
  • Sergey A. Korsun, Cand. Sc., Senior Research Fellow of the Department of America
  • Lyubov M. Dmitrienko, Assistant of the Department of America
  • Sophia N. Girenko, Сurator of American collections
  • Alfiya Yu. Saifieva, Сurator of American collections
  • Ekaterina B. Tolmacheva, Cand. Sc., Head of the Laboratory of Audiovisual Anthropology
  • Stanislav B. Shapiro, Photographer

 Russian version  >>






Ritual cloak made of raven’s feathers
Central California. Miwok (?)
Collector: I.G. Voznesensky. 1841.
MAE № 570-1.


Female necklace
Central California. Ohlone (?)
Collector: apparently V.M. Golovin. 1818.
MAE № 570-23


Ritual basket for cooking
Central California. Southern Pomo.
Collector: I.G. Voznesensky. 1841.
MAE № 570-78


Ritual basket
Central California. Ohlone.
First half of 19th century.
MAE № 570-100


Ritual cloak
Plains Miwok (?)
Collector: I.G. Voznesensky. 1841.
MAE № 2520-8