A treasured collection comes to Nome’s museum
Tom and Ellen Lopp spent ten years in Wales, from 1892 to 1902, as teachers and missionaries and during that time they acquired a large number of carvings, household items and other bits and pieces of local life. They cherished their collection enough that after moving to Seattle, where they spent the remainder of their lives, they kept the things together and shared them with their children. “They thought that it spoke of their time in Wales,” said Carrie M. McLain Memorial Museum director Dr. Amy Chan.
The descendants of Tom and Ellen Lopp recently decided to donate the entire collection to the museum and a dozen of them came to Nome with the artifacts last week and met with museum staff. “There are over 200 items that are being donated by three descendants of the Lopp family,” said Dr. Chan. “They’re all first cousins, two sisters and then Anne, the third one. The collection is comprised of a diversity of material, cultural items primarily from Wales, but from the surrounding communities as well. The collection is unique because it was assembled right at the turn of the 20th century. The Lopps were here from 1892 to 1902. You see this transition from a reliance on traditional tools and hunting implements to a transition incorporating more modern materials, manufactured items.”
Along with the actual objects comes a very large body of written documentation of the Lopps’ life in Wales and other parts of Northwest Alaska. Ellen Lopp wrote a letter each day. During the winter none of the letters would be posted until the revenue cutter Bear arrived after break-up. But her well-written tales of the life in Wales add much to the material objects. Also there are two books about the Lopps, both thoroughly researched and documented. One is “In A Far Country” by John Taliaferro. It tells the tale of Lopp and a group of Native reindeer herders driving four hundred reindeer from the area around Wales to Barrow to save several hundred whalers whose ships were trapped in the ice. Another book is “Ice Window: Letters from a Bering Strait Village 1898-1902” by Kathleen Lopp-Smith.
“In the museum world it is the ideal situation,” said Dr. Chan. “There is written documentation to support these objects. We know the specific village they came from, Wales. And we have that time frame, 1890 to 1892. We have all their written letters, their photographs, diaries. All of that helps to contextualize the collection and enrich it. And it helps the museum share information about the collection, which is wonderful.”
“Our goals for the collection include connecting the objects with the community. What we’d like to see is a collaborative project with the community of Wales, working with ivory carvers from Wales, reindeer herders who are still there, crafting a project working with the community or with the school to develop something that can be of benefit to the community members. So even if the objects are here in Nome we can do a visual repatriation, a visual repatriation, back to the community. And bring some of the community members in because of our close proximity. There are a lot of possibilities with the collection and we’re super excited to be working on these different projects,” she said.
Tom Lopp, born and raised in the Midwest, traveled to Wales to teach at a mission school in 1890. Two years later Ellen Louise Kittredge journeyed to Wales for the same reason. The two fell in love and were married, eventually having nine children together. The Lopps learned the Inupiaq language and taught English to their students. Mr. Lopp was concerned about food sources the Natives depended on becoming scarce with hunting pressure from the white newcomers to the region. He advocated introducing reindeer herding and collaborated with Sheldon Jackson in bringing the “tame caribou” to Alaska. In 1893 Lopp was named superintendent of the newly created reindeer station at Port Clarence.
After returning to the Lower 48 in 1892 he became Superintendent of government schools, Native section, and also of reindeer for the northern district of Alaska. From 1910 to 1923 he was Chief of the Alaska division of the U.S. Bureau of Education. And from 1923 to 1925 he was Superintendent of Education of Natives of Alaska.
How was it the descendants of the Lopps decided to donate the collection to the Nome Museum? “All we have are these little parts and pieces and to try and divvy it up among our children breaks it down too much,” said Margie Anderson, one of the granddaughters of the Lopps. “The next generation wouldn’t even know what it’s all about. We all decided together that we’d like to give it to one place where everyone can enjoy it.”