Digging up the past

Local museum filled with personal treasures

Mary Lou Bottorff's museum is alive.


Unlike other museums, the items in Bottorff's collection aren't untouchable and locked up tight under glass in a sterile environment.

The items breathe and live out in the open, on counters, on shelves and in places where one can get closer to its history and meaning.

The arraignment is in no particular order, except in Bottorff's mind.

But nothing is unfamiliar to the 71-year-old Inupiaq Alaska Native. It's a shop of memories - a collection of personal and family history proudly displayed.

"Everything has a story," she said standing near the doorway of the museum located at mile 14.5 of Kalifornsky Beach Road.

"I can tell you where I got the piece, who gave it to me, how much I paid for it," she said. "I just have everything here in my mind."

Bottorff started the museum about five years back and moved it to the K-Beach area about three years ago. After retiring from her post as director of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe's housing program, she said she had a simple reason for pulling the items from her crawl space, dusting them off and opening her doors to strangers.

"I wanted to do something to keep busy," she said. "I don't spend too much time here, only when I get a call."

Many of the items on display at the museum were either made or worn by Bottorff or a family member or purchased and passed down through the years taking on a highly personal significance.

"I see it as all kinds of good stuff when I walk in here," she said. "It just makes me feel happy in here because there's my mom's parka, my old mukluks are there, I can just feel everything in here. My husband's bronze star is over there. It is not like walking into drudgery or anything, you are walking into, ‘Holy cow, I forgot that was hanging there.'"

Bottorff's family is from Little Diomede Island and her grandmother was from Siberia. She was born, however, in Shovel Creek near Nome.

On the back wall of the museum is a photo of a gathering of women, two of whom were her mother's midwives.

"They said people flocked around because I looked like baby Jesus I was so white," she said with a laugh. "They'd never seen a white baby before."

There are walrus tusks mounted near the ceiling and handmade spears hanging from shelves. Century-old showshoes rest in another location.

"This used to be my old belt when I was young," she said, motioning toward the wall. "When I was tiny, you know."

Discs from whales' spines are scattered around, often decorated with other items from the ocean like crab shells and other, newer bones.

"They are probably 200 to 300 years old," she said rubbing her hands over the disc's surface. "That was used for their plates, their cutting boards because they had nothing flat. When you live north there are no trees."

Other artifacts, like spear tips, stone knives and other instruments made from bones and ivory, are contained in shadowboxes or places on shelves. Their use is evidenced by the worn and soiled color of the ivory and its imperfections.

But used is good, she contends.

Other items are donated, like the model kayak and a fossilized mammoth tooth.

"They didn't know what to do with it and they said, ‘Here's two pieces, have it,'" she said of the heavy tooth.

A small model dog sled made out of a jawbone, baleen and sinew with the teeth still in place rests in a display case next to an old, Russian-made brick found near the Russian River.

Some items are more serious, like the stone bludgeon with a sharpened end used for sacrifices.

Others are more comical.

"Those are 100 years old from the old miners when they used to throw their bottles in the Bering Sea," she said pointing to a large jar filled with smooth chunks of beach glass. "It is all sanded down from rolling in the sand and water."

Some items show a way of life that's now only largely remembered, like the native version of the decidedly European ball and cup game. In this version, however, the participant would hold a sliver of a bone and aim it into an only-slightly-larger-sized hole carved in a large, heavy bone.

"See where it hits your knuckle?" she said with a laugh. "It comes crashing in on you and that's how they toughen their hands. This is very old and stained from touching it so much. ... If you are a hunter, you have to be tough, you can't just go out there with your North Face jacket on. There's all kinds of things you have to do to be a strong man."

Objects of craft, new and old, are mixed in with those used for subsistence.

There are the "dancing dolls" Bottorff makes out of reindeer and caribou horns as a hobby, sometimes selling the creations to pay the museum's bills.

"I have no income for this place, for the rent," she said. "It comes out of my pocket or the little donation box that doesn't collect too much donation."

The soccer ball made of walrus skin that belonged to her mother is placed near a pair of moose hide gloves.

"An old lady up in Nome made this pair and she calls them her ‘cowboy gloves,'" Bottorff said. "Fancy seal skin on there and fancy beadwork."

A sperm whale tooth.

Traditional Tlingit and Yupik masks.

Family photos, some much older than others.

Bolas used for hunting birds.

A mammoth's tusk slowly falling apart.

The oldest item is a walrus ivory doll found on an island near St. Lawrence Island that she had carbon dated 40 years ago to be 2,300 years old.

About 25 years ago, Bottorff started writing a book to try and document each item, how old it is, what it is used for, what it's made from and why it's important to her.

"It's still sitting here," she said thumbing through a few of the pages. "Maybe someday I'll get this thing done."

The book-to-be shares the same name as the museum - The Roots Digger. The moniker is also significant to Bottorff, she said.

"Somehow I came across that name," she said. "Root digger means digging up the past. This is all past. There's lots of past in here."

The Roots Digger Museum is located at mile 14.5 on Kalifornsky Beach Road. It is currently open by appointment only. Call 398-3306.

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.