- Associated Press - Saturday, February 6, 2016

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) - On any given day, Alaska State Museum Curator of Collections Steve Henrikson traverses 4,000 years of history. There’s Alaska Native history, culture and art. There are migrations. Russians. Modern artists. Wars. Statehood. There’s even NASA. And with 115 years of collections, “there’s enough depth there that things that have been in the collection many, many years have come in and never really been researched that much,” he said.

This year, Henrikson, who’s been with the museum more than two decades, is the recipient of a 2016 Governor’s Award for the Humanities.

University of Alaska Southeast professor and writer Ernestine Hayes recommended Henrikson for the Governor’s award after working with him for a few years, and seeing what he’s done at the college, around Juneau, and in his own writing. He’s knowledgeable, thorough, and gracious, too, she said.

In almost three total decades of work recording and preserving Alaskan history, art and culture, he’s also accumulated quite a few interesting stories about the objects in the museum - and the detective work a hidden history can require.

A few years ago, one of those objects was a football-shaped, rusty, dirty piece of metal on a back shelf, not filed with a reference number like most items.

“I always wondered what it was,” he said.

It was when he was reading some 1920s correspondence from Father Andrew Kashevaroff, the museum’s first curator, to the Secretary of the Navy - Kashevaroff died soon afterward, which was why the object went unfiled - that Henrickson realized the shell was found in Angoon.

“It went from being a rusty piece of iron to being an exhibit from the bombardment of Angoon, in 1882,” he said.

The shell was still live, too, with a fuse, gunpowder, and crystallized nitroglycerin visible inside.

Henrikson called JPD, hoping they might be able to render it safe without destroying it.

An officer came, put it in a briefcase, and they put it somewhere safe until the Army’s EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) squad could come deal with it.

“They handed it back to me in pretty much the same state” (but without explosives,) he said. “It’s great to have that kind of stuff in the collection, because it’s like the physical evidence of history . There are revisionist historians out there that say things like ‘This didn’t happen.’ Well, how do you explain (the shell)?”

The museum also has a shell from the bombardment of Kake.

“It was policy at the time to have gunboat diplomacy to show Alaska Natives who was in charge,” he said. “They would bombard Alaska Natives just as a reminder. Just by doing research on our own collection, we’re able to find some really great information.”

It’s also happened, though, that items in the collection have gone missing.

Back in the 1970s, the museum had a branch in Anchorage where it kept its aircraft. That branch burned down after someone started a fire. Moon rocks NASA gifted each state from the Apollo 11 landing survived, as documented in the record - then went missing.

“Twenty years later, this guy contacted us saying that he had it, and he wanted to sell it to the museum,” Henrikson said.

That guy was Coleman Anderson, a former skipper on the boat “Western Viking,” featured on the TV show The Deadliest Catch. According to past newspaper articles, Anderson claimed he found the rocks while Dumpster diving after the fire.

The FBI, NASA’s Office of the Inspector General and the Alaska Attorney General’s office all got involved.

Initially, Henrikson remembers, Anderson wanted a finder’s fee. He also claimed the rocks had been damaged and he had restored them, Henrikson said.

“He saw pretty quickly we weren’t going to pay his finder’s fee. So he told us he took it out of the country so we couldn’t try and seize it,” he said.

They told him that in order to authenticate it, however, he had to take it to the Johnson Space Center.

“When we got it, it was clearly untouched from the fire,” Henrikson said. “There was nothing wrong with it at all . and once he caught wind of (Homeland Security’s involvement), he totally collapsed. So we got the moon rock back, and felt really proud that we were able to do it . If we say we’re going to keep something in the permanent collection, that’s what needs to happen.”

Henrikson specializes in Tlingit art, culture and history, and war helmets in particular.

He’s working on a book about Tlingit war helmets. He’s finished the research, but anticipates writing it after he retires. He’s also writing a book on the history of the Alaska State Museum.

He first moved to Alaska in 1987 as a curator at the National Park in Sitka. It was a few years later that he was hired as curator of collections, in Juneau, and a few years after that he was adopted by Angoon’s Killer Whale clan at a potlatch in Klukwan and given the name Eech T’ei, which means “Behind the Reef,” he said.

“You spend the rest of your life living up to the name that you’ve been given. I try to do that,” he said.

A final story has to do with history that was in danger of being lost.

Retired fishery biologist Paul Kissner was out fishing on Montana Creek in the mid-1990s and saw, eroding out of the streambed, what looked like a pre-contact Tlingit fish weir.

Henrikson and anthropologist Wallace “Wally” Olson got their waders on, went out there, and saw that was indeed what it was - a pre-contact fish trap, still with its original spruce root lashing. As the stream ate away at the bank, the roots looked fresh. But within 30 seconds of the air hitting them, they turned dark.

They sandbagged the area, got some money, and did “a full blown archaeological excavation.” They saved 75 percent of the original trap, measuring 4 feet in diameter and 10 or 11 feet long.

“It turned out to be a major part of my life being in on the discovery of it, the excavation, and the conservation process involved,” he said.

They had to keep the trap wet as they excavated it, and then soaked it in wax so it could eventually dry out, but not disintegrate.

For years, Henrikson’s wife, weaver Janice Criswell, saved spruce roots, bigger than the ones she normally used for her weaving, until they had enough for a replica, which they built.

“We’d like to do another one and see how it works,” he said. “Only by trial and error would we be able to figure it out. Even something as basic as which way it was pointed in the stream.”

And so the work of reconstructing, interpreting, and sharing history continues.

“I think that the amount of work and the quality of work that (Henrikson) does is not as widely recognized as it could be, in part because of the nature of his position and in part because he’s a humble man,” Hayes said. “You can tell that he loves what he does.”

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Information from: Juneau (Alaska) Empire, https://www.juneauempire.com

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