The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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From time to time small native villages are seen on the islands and the mainland, all typical of the people, and quite picturesque in their dirtiness and peculiar construction. Some of their cabins are built of boards, but mostly they are rude, bark-covered logs. In front of these dwellings stand totem-poles, presenting hideous faces carved upon them in bold relief, together with uncouth figures of birds, beasts, and fishes. A portion of these tall posts are weather-beaten and neglected, significantly tottering on their foundations, green with mould, unconsciously foreshadowing the fate of the aboriginal race. Groups of natives in bright-colored blankets, with scarlet and yellow handkerchiefs on their heads, come into view, watching us curiously as we glide over the smooth water, while bevies of half-naked children are seen shifting hither and thither in clamorous excitement. What wonderfully bright, black eyes these children have! Some of the women are gathering kelp, for the shores are lined with edible alg?, possessing not only fine nutritious qualities, but being also a recognized tonic, with excellent medicinal properties. This sea-product is collected in the most favorable season of the year, and after being pressed into convenient sized and esculent cakes is stored for future use. The native hamlets are always built near to the shore, accessibility to the water being the first consideration, because from that source comes nine tenths of their subsistence. To clear the forest and secure open fields presupposes more thrift and application than these natives possess; but it would unveil some of the richest soil in the world. These Alaskans have no idea of sewerage, or the proper disposal of domestic refuse. All accumulations of this sort are thrown just outside the doors of their dwellings, to the right and left, anywhere in fact which is handiest. The stench which surrounds their cabins, under these circumstances, is almost unbearable by civilized people, and must be very unwholesome. These natives have broad faces, small, pig-like eyes, and high cheek bones, not very nice to look upon, yet not without a certain expression of real intelligence gleaming through the accumulated dirt.
“What is needed here,” said a humorous observer to us, “is the mission teacher with his Bible, spelling-book, and – soap!”
The women cut their hair short on the forehead, nearly even with the eyebrows, causing one to surmise that these Thlinkits – a generic name given to the tribes in this vicinity – must have set the fashion of “banging” the hair, which is so popular among civilized belles. Just so the Japanese women originated the hideous fashion of the “bustle.” The author saw this awkward and unbecoming appendage worn upon the backs of the women of Yokohama, Tokio, and Nagasaki three years before it appeared upon the streets of Boston and New York. And now we hear of the “clinging” style of drapery, in which underskirts even are discarded, called the Grecian or classic style.Alas! will nothing but extremes satisfy the importunate demands of fashion? Heaven send that we do not import another fashion from Alaska or the South Seas, namely tattooing. It is quite common here, among young girls of about twelve years of age, whose cheeks and chins are often thus disfigured by irregular lines. The more the natives associate with the whites, however, the more rarely this tattooing is resorted to, and it may be said, as a fashion, to be going out in Alaska, though it is undoubtedly one of the most widely diffused practices of savage life, from the Arctic to the Antarctic circle.
The Alaskans have an original way of producing this indelible marking, the color being fixed by drawing a thread under the skin, whereas the usual mode among various savages is by pricking it in with a needle. The favorite colors are red and blue. We were told that common women were permitted to adorn their chins with but one vertical line in the centre, and one parallel to it on either side, while a woman of the better or wealthier class is allowed two vertical lines from each corner of the mouth. The New Zealand Maori women tattoo their chins in a very similar manner, keeping the rest of the face in a natural condition.
We had threaded the intricate labyrinth of islands, bays, and channels, guarded by miles upon miles of sentinel peaks, nearly all day, on one occasion, under a depressing fog and rain, when suddenly a bold headland was rounded, which had seemed for hours to completely bar our way, and we passed out from under the shadow of the frowning cliffs and the gloom of the dark fathomless waters just as the sun burst forth, warm, bright, and resistless, while the view expanded before us nearly to the horizon. The mist, like shrouded ghosts, stole silently away, vanishing behind the rocks and cliffs. Every dewy drop of moisture, on ship and shore, glittered like diamonds in the dazzling rays of the new-born light, changing the verdant islands into a glory of color, and the whole view to one of majestic loveliness, through which we glided as smoothly as though in a gondola upon the Grand Canal at Venice.
When approaching a landing or anchorage, a signal gun is fired from the forecastle of the ship, creating a series of echoes deep, sonorous, and startling, but especially remarkable for the number of times the sound is repeated. One single gun becomes multiplied to a whole broadside. The report is taken up again and again by other localities, and thus is conveyed for miles away, finally sinking to a whisper, as it were, among the foot-hills of the giant elevations.
The most impressive scenes realized by the traveler are those of moonlight and midnight. How a love of the stars and the sea grows upon one, and life has so few moments of perfect contentment! What melody and magic permeate the pure, placid atmosphere, bounded by the sapphire sea and the azure sky! How tender and beautiful is the utter stillness of the hour! Such scenes of gladness make the heart almost afraid, – afraid lest there should be some keen sorrow lurking in ambush to awaken us from pleasant dreams to the stern, disenchanting experiences of real life.
The aborigines of Alaska are slow in their movements, and in this respect resemble the Lapps of Scandinavia, having also a drawling manner of speech entirely in consonance with their bodily movements. They are as inveterate gamblers as the Chinese, often passing whole days and nights absorbed in the occupation, the result of which is in no way contingent upon intelligence or skill, until finally one of the party walks off winner of all the stakes. Their principal gambling game is played with a handful of small sticks of different colors, which are called by various names, such as the crab, the whale, the duck, and so on. The player shuffles all the sticks together, then counting out a certain number he places them under cover of bunches of moss. The object seems to be to guess in which pile is the whale, and in which the crab, or the duck. Individuals often lose at this seemingly trifling game all their worldly possessions. We were told of instances where, spurred on by excitement, a native risks his wife and children, and if he loses, they become the recognized property of the winner, nor would any one think of interfering with such a settlement. These extreme cases, of course, are rare.
It is impossible to see the aborigines eagerly absorbed in the game without recalling Dr. Johnson’s characteristic definition of gambling, namely, “A mode of transferring property without producing any intermediate good.”
Inside of the rude native houses one finds many hideous carvings, representing impossible animals and strange objects of all sorts, after the style of the totem-poles, of which we shall have occasion to speak. Many of their small domestic utensils are made from the horns of the mountain goats, and are also curiously carved with nightmare objects, as evil to look upon as African idols. Yet some of these articles show considerable skill and infinite patience in execution. We have seen specimens that it was difficult to believe were executed by the hand of an uncultured savage. Before the Russians introduced iron and steel knives, the aborigines seem to have carved only with copper and stone implements, producing remarkable results under the circumstances. The young women wear silver bracelets, pounded out of American dollar pieces, some of which are an inch broad, and are covered elaborately after civilized models, others bear native heraldic devices of birds, beasts, and fishes, which are said to represent the arms of the wearer’s family, it being customary for each tribe and person to adopt some distinctive seal or crest. They much prefer silver ornaments to those of gold or other material; though they are not slow to realize intrinsic values, probably they choose the less expensive metal because it is Alaska fashion.
In spite of all the missionary effort which is made to enlighten these natives, they are still slaves to the most debasing superstitions. Scarcely a month passes in which the civil authorities are not called upon to interfere with the people for cruelty. We were told of one instance which lately occurred at Juneau. A native was seriously ill, and the medicine-man, having failed to relieve him by his noisy incantations, charged an old member of the tribe with having bewitched the invalid. He was consequently seized, tied up, and whipped until nearly insensible, being left for three days without food. By chance the authorities heard of the case and released the old man. The two principal natives who had been guilty of the maltreatment were tried and fined twenty dollars each. The very next day the old man was missing, and it was found that he had again been tied up and whipped. The two culprits admitted repeating their cruelty, saying they had paid for the right to whip out the witch from the old man, and it must be done before the invalid would recover. These ignorant creatures entertained no malice towards the old native; it was only a matter of duty, as they thought, to exorcise the evil one which had possessed the invalid. This is a fair sample of the superstition of the average Alaskans.
When a member of the family dies, the body is not removed for final disposal by the door which the living are accustomed to use, but a plank is torn from the side or back of the dwelling, through which the corpse is passed, after which the place is at once carefully made whole. This, they say, is to prevent the spirit of the defunct from finding its way back again, and thus bringing ill luck upon the living. A still more superstitious and savage custom prevails among some of these ignorant natives.
If a person dies in a cabin, it is held that the place becomes sacred to his spirit, and therefore is unfit for the living. To avoid this difficulty the dying are passed out of the domicile through some temporary hole into the open air to breathe their last, so that neither the house nor the threshold may be sacrificed to the spirit of the dead. Slaves, besides poor widows and orphans, when they die, are often disposed of in the most summary and unfeeling manner, being exposed in the woods, or cast into the sea as food for the fishes. In this connection we remember that the highly civilized and rich Parsees of Bombay do not hesitate to give the dead bodies of their cherished ones to the vultures, in those terrible Towers of Silence on Malabar Hill.
The ceremonies which follow all funerals among these aborigines are peculiar affairs, and for the carrying out of which each person saves more or less of his worldly effects to leave after death. As soon as the body of the deceased is disposed of, then commences what is here called a “potlatch,” signifying a “big feast,” conducted very much after the style of the New Zealanders on a similar occasion. Everybody is invited and a free spread or feast provided, the same being kept up for several days and nights, so long, indeed, as the purchasing power lasts. Whiskey is freely dispensed, when it can be had, but if not obtainable, as it is a contraband article, then “hoochenoo,” made from flour and molasses well fermented, takes its place, being equally intoxicating and maddening. Dancing, wailing, singing, fighting, and grave indecencies follow each other, until the means to keep up the potlatch left by the deceased are exhausted, and his surviving family oftentimes impoverished.
Cremation is the Thlinkit’s favorite mode of disposing of his dead. The bodies of slaves and “witches” are disposed of with great secrecy. They are not considered worth burial, and are sometimes cast into the sea, but water burial is infrequent. The bodies of chiefs lie in state several days; the people observe certain rites; then the body is cremated and the ashes are encased in the base of a totem erected to his memory. Shamans (doctors) are never cremated. After lying in state four days, one day in each corner of the cabin, the body is taken out of the house through the smokestack, or some opening other than the door, and conveyed some distance to a deadhouse built for this particular occupant. There in its last resting-place the body is seated in an upright position. The paraphernalia of his rank and office, some blankets and household effects to add to his comfort in the spirit-land, are entombed with the remains.
Another occasion for indulging in the potlatch is when some one is desirous of securing extraordinary influence in his tribe, generally a chief seeking to establish superior position or popularity over some rival. Natives have been known to save their means for years, augmenting them by industry and self-denial, in order finally to give a grand and unequaled feast of this character. When the time arrives not only are all the host’s own tribe invited, but those of the next nearest tribes not akin to his own. Such a festival often lasts for a whole week, until the last blanket of the giver is sacrificed. These strange festivals, we were told, are fast passing into disuse, at least among those tribes brought most in contact with the whites, though on a smaller scale they do still exist all over the southern region of Alaska.
There is, perhaps, no positive evidence that cannibalism ever prevailed among the Indians of this region, yet it is gravely hinted that it did on the occasion of these funeral potlatches years ago. To sacrifice the life of one or more of the slaves of the deceased we know was common, and if their bodies were not barbecued and eaten, then these natives of the North Pacific were entirely different in this respect from those who lived in the South Pacific. The medicine-men, even to-day, devour portions of corpses, believing that they acquire control of the spirit of the deceased thereby, and gain influence over demon spirits in the other sphere. Such practices are, however, rare, though Mr. Duncan of Metla-katla tells us he has witnessed the repulsive performance. The places near each hamlet where the dead are finally placed often number many more graves, or square boxes containing the bodies, than there are present inhabitants in the settlement. All this region was formerly many times more populous than it is to-day. Here, as in Africa, New Zealand, California, and Australia, where the white man appears permanently, the black man slowly but surely vanishes. The progress of civilization, as we call it, is fatal to native, savage races all over the world. Catlin, who lived among and wrote so well about our Western Indians, summed up the matter thus: “White man – whiskey – tomahawks – scalping-knives – guns, powder and ball – smallpox, debauchery – extermination.” But it is not alone gunpowder, rum, and lasciviousness which are the active agents to this end; there is also a subtle influence which is not clearly understood, and which it is difficult to define, but which is as potent, if not more so, than the agencies above suggested. The destiny which heaven decrees for a people will surely come to them. This has been clearly exemplified in the instance of the North American Indians, as well as among the South Sea Islanders in Australia and the Hawaiian Islands. Of an entire and intelligent people, the aborigines who once occupied Tasmania, there is not to-day a living representative! The land is solely possessed and occupied by white Europeans, before whom the natives have steadily vanished like dew before the sun.
Mr. Frederick Whymper, who wrote about the Northwest some twenty years ago, speaking upon this subject, refers to the experience of a Mr. Sproat, a resident of the region near Puget Sound, who employed large numbers of natives as well as whites in manufacturing lumber. Mr. Sproat conducted his large business and the place where it was established on temperance principles; no violence or oppression of any sort was permitted towards the natives. They were in fact better fed, better clothed, and better taught than they had ever been before. It was only after a considerable time that any symptom of a change was observed among the Indians. By and by a listlessness seemed to creep over them, and they “brooded over silent thoughts.” At first they were surprised and bewildered by the presence of the white men, and the machinery and steam vessels which they brought with them. They seemed slowly to acquire a distrust of themselves, and abandoned their old practices and tribal habits, until at last it was discovered that a higher death-rate was prevailing among them. “No one molested them,” says Mr. Sproat; “they had ample sustenance and shelter for the support of life, yet the people decayed. The steady brightness of civilized life seemed to dim and extinguish the flickering light of savageism, as the rays of the sun put out a common fire.”
Upon the same subject and people, H. W. Elliott says: “These savages were created for the wild surroundings of their existence; expressly fitted for it, and they live happily in it; change the order of their life, and at once they disappear, as do the indigenous herbs and game before the cultivation of the soil and the domestication of animals.” We shall not comment upon these remarks, though to us it is an extremely interesting subject; the reader must draw his own inference.
The men of these native tribes are strong and vigorous; the women are, however, forced to perform most of the domestic labor, and all of the drudgery, yet it was observed that they held the purse strings. That is to say, a native buck always defers to his wife in any matter of trade as to the price either to ask or to pay. The women of Alaska are certainly in a better condition and are better treated than those belonging to any of our Western Indian tribes, with whom we are acquainted. Though they are called upon to do much menial work, they do not seem to be actually abused. The male Alaskan performs a certain liberal share of domestic duties, but not so with the Indian of our Western reservations. The latter makes his wife a beast of burden. They are generally clothed in the garments of civilization, though of coarse material and of the cheapest manufacture. The ready-made clothing store has reached even the islands of the North Pacific. Polygamy is common among the aborigines, chastity is little heeded, and young girls are sold by their mothers for a few blankets, she and not the father having the acknowledged right of disposing of them. Dr. Sheldon Jackson writes most feelingly as follows: “Despised by their fathers, sold by their mothers, imposed upon by their brothers, and ill-treated by their husbands, cast out in their widowhood, living lives of toil and low sensual pleasure, untaught and uncared for, with no true enjoyment in this world and no hope for the world to come, crushed by a cruel heathenism, it is no wonder that many of them end their misery and wretchedness by suicide.”
It was found on inquiry that the ratio of births among the Alaskan shore tribes was considerably greater than among civilized communities, but the death-rate is, on the other hand, excessive. The wretched ignorance of the mothers as to the observance of the simplest sanitary laws, as well as the gross exposure of their infants, is the principal cause of this needless mortality.
The aborigines, where not brought in contact with the government schools and missionaries, still retain their system of fetich worship, being very much under control of their medicine-men, who pretend to influence the demons of the spirit world, so feared by the average savage. Their moral degradation is extreme, and their practices in too many instances are terrible to relate. Slaves are sacrificed, as already stated, at the owner’s death, that they may go before and prepare for his arrival in the future state. Vile witchcraft is still believed in among most of the tribes, and murderous consequences follow in many cases. All kinds of barbarity are inflicted upon women, children, and slaves. We are told by Dr. Sheldon Jackson that it was surprising to see how quickly these savage practices yielded to the power of Christian teachings, and how rapidly they faded away before the influence of association with a few intelligent, conscientious white teachers. What these people need is education and Christian influence, which will work a great and rapid reform among them in a single generation.
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