Land Otter

Land Otter Man (NA8500)

Tlingit, from Sitka, Alaska

Red cedar, blue abalone, human hair, metal

Length: 38 in

Collected by Louis Shotridge in 1918

University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology



Louis Shotridge, a Tlingit nobleman and Penn Museum Assistant Curator, acquired this war canoe figurehead from his maternal grandfather’s family[1]. According to oral history, the canoe was commissioned by a young warrior who needed to make a grand entrance at a potlatch. A clan elder named the canoe “Land Otter-Man” because its owner was bold, agile, and lucky in battle like a land otter, and also related to members of the Land Otter House[2]. Land otter men were souls of drowned humans who lived in an underwater land otter village and transformed into otters themselves, fearsome were-beasts and Tlingit shamans’ most powerful spirit-helpers[3]. This figurehead was designed to be intimidating, with glinting shell eyes, a bright red mouth, and potent symbolism.

In 1918, the figurehead was “dark with age” and the only surviving piece of the canoe[4]. Shotridge claims it never went into battle, but it bears marks of use[5]. The front paws sport rusting nails and holes that once attached the carving to something, probably the canoe, while the dark top layer has worn off the back paws and buttocks. Splitting wood at three of the four leg joints was repaired long ago with wooden pegs and metal fasteners, now rusting. Many tufts of human hair have broken or fallen out. The nose, the furthest protruding part, is chipped as if it bumped into something. Shotridge does not discuss what happened to the Land Otter-Man between its first potlatch and when he collected it, but the object itself tells part of the story.


Wall Text: Canoes

Canoes were essential to life in the nineteenth-century Northwest Coast. Settlements lay along the water, and boats were the primary means of transportation between these communities surrounded by mountains and dense forests. Fishing canoes allowed people to subsist on marine resources. Warriors in war canoes raided villages and fought battles at sea. Northwest Coast peoples adapted canoe shapes and styles to different purposes and environments[6].

Specialists carved canoes from a single piece of cedar. They first shaped the outside of the vessel, then let the wood mature over the winter, and hollowed it out to even thickness in the spring. The master carver softened the sides and bent them outward by filling the canoe with water and boiling it with red-hot rocks. He lightly burned the outside to harden the wood, and finished it by rubbing it smooth[7].

Canoes were status markers and esteemed possessions. Potlatch hosts demonstrated wealth by giving away or destroying canoes[8]. Canoes reflected upon their owners, and were given names related to the owners’ personal qualities or family connections. Some were decorated, and the figureheads of war canoes were designed to reflect the unpleasantness of battle[9]. Northwest Coast canoes were important in many aspects of personal and community life.




Jonaitis, Aldona. Art of the Northwest Coast. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006.

Kaplan, Susan A., Kristin J. Barsness, and Adria H. Katz, eds. Raven’s journey: the world of Alaska’s native people. Philadelphia: University Museum Press, 1986.

Shotridge, Louis V. “Land Otter-Man.” The Museum Journal 13, no. 1 (1922): 55-59.

Stewart, Hilary. Cedar: tree of life to the northwest coast Indians. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984.


[1] Susan A. Kaplan, Kristin J. Barsness, and Adria H. Katz. Raven’s journey: the world of Alaska’s native people. (Philadelphia: University Museum Press, 1986), 203.

[2] Louis V. Shotridge, “Land Otter-Man,” The Museum Journal 13, no. 1 (1922): 55-58.

[3] Aldona Jonaitis. Art of the Northwest Coast. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2006), 130.

[4] Shotridge, “Land Otter-Man,” 55.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hilary Stewart. Cedar: tree of life to the northwest coast Indians. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1984), 48.

[7] Ibid, 52-55.

[8] Ibid, 49.

[9] Shotridge, “Land Otter-Man,” 57.


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