The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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The canoes of the tribes about the Alexander Archipelago are dug out of well-chosen cedar logs, and are given the really fine lines for which they are remarkable by means of hot water and steam, together with the use of cunningly devised braces and clamps. The wood being once thoroughly dried in the desired shape, will retain it. Wondering how the exquisite smoothness was produced in forming their boats without a carpenter’s plane, it was found by inquiry that the natives dry the coarse skin of the dogfish and use it as we do sandpaper. The time spent upon the construction and ornamentation of these canoes is apparently of no consideration to the native, and the market value of the best will average one hundred dollars. It is the Alaskan’s most necessary and most prized piece of property. Some which we saw were eighty feet in length, and capable of holding one hundred men. It must be remembered that almost the entire population live on the coast or river banks in a country where there are no roads. These canoes have no seats in them; the rower places himself on the bottom, and thus situated uses his paddles with great dexterity. They are quite unmanageable by a white man who is not accustomed to them, as much so at least as a birch canoe, such as the Eastern Indians build on the coast of Maine. But the Alaskan boat is far superior to the birch-bark canoe in every respect. We saw one paddled by a boy at Pyramid Harbor, neat and new, which the lad, say twelve years of age, had dug out of a spruce log with his own hands, quite unaided. Its lines were admirable, and the finish was excellent. When the sun beats down upon these boats, the owner splashes water upon the sides about him to prevent their warping, and for this purpose carries a thin wooden scoop. When not in use they are carefully covered up to shelter them from the sun’s rays. Some tribes use a double paddle, that is, an oar with a blade at each end, which they dip on one side and the other alternately; other tribes use the single-bladed paddle. Each one of the males among the natives has his canoe, for the water is his only highway, and without his boat he would be as helpless as one of our Western Indians on the plains without his pony. When the “dug-outs” are drawn up upon the shore in scores, they present a curious appearance, packed with grass and covered with matting to keep them from being cracked and warped by the sun. The bows and stern of many of them are elaborately carved totem-fashion, and also painted in strange designs with a black pigment. The fore part of the boat rises with an upward sheer, and is higher at the prow than at the stern. There is another form of boat used by the Eskimos and natives of the outlying islands, being a simple frame of wood, covered with sea-lion skin from which the hair has been removed. These boats are covered over the tops as well as the bottoms, being almost level with the sea, leaving only a hole for the occupant to sit in, thus making them absolutely water-tight, a life-boat, in fact, which will float in any water so long as they will hold together.The waves may dash over them but cannot enter them. These skin-covered boats, admirably adapted to their legitimate purpose, are known on the coast as “bidarkas,” in the management of which the natives evince great skill, making long journeys in them, and braving all sorts of weather. Like the Madras surf-boats, no nails are used in their construction, either in the skeleton frame or in putting on the covering, the several parts being lashed and sewed together in the most artistic fashion with sinews and leather thongs, which enables them to bear a greater strain than if they were held together by any other means. The thongs admit of a certain degree of flexibility when it is required, an effect which cannot be got with nail fastenings.
Still sailing northward, large numbers of ebon-hued cormorants are seen feeding on the low, kelp-covered rocks, contrasting with the snowy whiteness of the gulls. Big flocks of snipe, ducks, and other aquatic birds line the water’s edge, or rise in clouds from some sheltered nook to settle again in our wake. Higher up in air a huge bald-headed eagle is in sight nearly all the while, as we sail along the winding watercourse. The eagles of Alaska, unlike those of other sections of the globe, are not a solitary bird, but congregate in considerable numbers, and residents told us they had seen a score of them roasting together on the branches of the same tree, but we must confess to never having seen even two together. Elsewhere the eagle is certainly a bird whose solitary habits are one of its marked characteristics. We observe here and there near native villages, more square boxes and totem-poles indicating the resting-places of the dead. Some tribes continue to burn their dead, and these boxes contain only the ashes, but the missionaries and the whites generally have so opposed the idea of cremation that many of the natives have abandoned it. The burial above-ground in the square boxes referred to is a peculiar idea. These coffins, if they may be so called, are about three feet and a half long by two and a half wide, and are often elaborately carved and painted with grotesque figures. The corpse is disjointed and doubled up in order to get it into this compass, though why this is done when a longer box would so much simplify matters, no one seems to know. We were told that some of the Alaskan tribes used to place their dead in trees, or on the top of four raised poles, a similar practice to that which once prevailed among certain tribes of our Western Indians, but the mode just described is that which most generally prevails. There seems to be some difference of opinion as regards the real significance of the totem-poles. They appear to be designed in part to commemorate certain deeds in the lives of the departed, near whose grave they are reared, as well as to indicate the family arms of those for whom they are erected. Thus, on seeing one special totem-post surmounted by a wolf carved in wood, beneath which a useless gun was lashed, inquiry was made as to its significance, whereupon we were told that the deceased by whose grave it stood had been killed while hunting wolves in the forest. This was certainly a very literal way of recording the fate of the hunter.
Some tribes adopt the crow, some the hawk, and some the bear or the whale, as their distinctive tribal emblem. The poles are carved from bottom to top, averaging thirty or forty feet in height, – though some are nearly a hundred feet high, – and from three to four feet in diameter, the height also signifying the importance of the individual, that is, his social grade or standing in the tribe. Some of the carvings are mythological, for these people have an oral mythology of the most fabulous character, which has been handed down from father to son for many centuries. The carvings on the coffin-boxes, though often elaborate, to a white man’s eye are meaningless. As we have said, when a chief dies, some valuable personal effects are always deposited with his body in the coffin, and one would suppose that such objects were safe from pilfering fingers of even strangers; yet these articles are constantly offered for sale, and are eagerly purchased by curio-hunters who come hither from various parts of this country.
The aborigines of Alaska are divided into various sub-tribes, such as Hooniahs, Tongas, Auks, Kasa-ans, Haidas, Sitkas, Chinooks, Chilcats, and so on.
Ivan Petroff, who was sent by the United States Government to Alaska in 1880, as special agent of the census, divides the native population of the Territory as follows: —
First. – The Innuit or Eskimo race, which predominates in numbers and covers the littoral margin of all Alaska from the British boundary on the Arctic to Norton Sound, the Lower Yukon, and Kuskoquin, Bristol Bay, the Alaska Peninsula, Kodiak Island, mixing in, also, at Prince William Sound.
Second. – The Indians proper spread over the vast interior in the north, reaching down to the seaboard at Cook’s Inlet and the mouth of the Copper River, and lining the coast from Mount St. Elias southward to the boundary and peopling the Alexander Archipelago.
Third. – The Aleutian race, extending from the Shumagin Islands westward to Attoo, – the Ultima Thule of this country, – whom Petroff terms the Christian inhabitants. These last certainly conform most fully to all the outward practices of civilization and universally recognize the Greek Church.
Whence these people originally came is a question which is constantly discussed, but which is still an unsolved problem. Some words in their language seem to indicate a Japanese origin, and some seem clearly to be derived from the Aztec tongue belonging to that peculiar people of the south. Hon. James G. Swain of Port Townsend, who has given years of study to the subject of ethnology as connected with the tribes of the Northwest, states that he found among them a tradition of the Great Spirit similar to that of the Aztecs, and that when he exhibited to members of the Haida tribe sketches of Aztec carvings, they at once recognized and understood them. Copper images and relics found in their possession were identical with exhumed relics brought from Guatemala. These are certainly very significant facts, if not convincing ones. The Alaska natives have some Apache words in their language, which points to a common origin with our North American Indian tribes, but these suggestions are purely speculative. There are able students of ethnology who insist upon the origin of these Alaskans being Asiatic for various good and sufficient reasons, instancing not only their personal appearance, but the similarity of their traditions and customs to those of the people of Asia. To have come thence it is remembered that they had only to cross a narrow piece of water forty miles wide. This passage is frequently made in our times by open boats. At certain seasons of the year, though in so northern a latitude, the strait is by no means rough. Mr. Seward says: “I have mingled freely with the multifarious population, the Tongas, the Stickeens, the Kakes, the Haidas, the Sitkas, the Kontnoos, and the Chilcats. Climate and other circumstances have indeed produced some differences of manners and customs between the Aleuts, the Koloschians, and the interior continental tribes, but all of them are manifestly of Mongol origin. Although they have preserved no common traditions, all alike indulge in tastes, wear a physiognomy, and are imbued with sentiments peculiarly noticed in China and Japan.”
The Eskimos proper differ but little from the southern and inland tribes of Alaska generally; few of them are ever seen south of Norton Sound or the mouths of the Yukon. Their home is in the Arctic portion of the Territory, bordering the Frozen Ocean and Behring Strait. It is obvious that climatic influences create among them different manners and customs, causing also a slightly different physical formation, but otherwise they seem to be of the same race as the people of the Alaska Peninsula, the Aleutian Islands, or indeed of any of the several groups and of the mainland lying to the south. That these Eskimos resemble physically the Norwegian Lapps, to be met with at about the same latitude in the eastern hemisphere, is very obvious to one who has carefully observed both races in their homes. This similarity extends in rather a remarkable degree also to their dress as well as domestic habits.
In the region they occupy, near the source of the Kowak River, which empties into Kotzebue Sound by several mouths after a course of two or three hundred miles, is Jade Mountain, composed, as far as is known, of a light green stone which gives it the name it bears. An exploring party from the United States steamer Corwin brought away one or two hundred pounds of the mineral in the summer of 1884. The hardness and tenacity of these specimens are said to have been remarkable, as well as the exquisite polish which they exhibited when treated by the lapidist. Jade Mountain must be in latitude 68° north, between two and three hundred miles south of the Yukon above the line of Behring Strait. Yet the exploring party found the thermometer to register 90° Fah. in the shade, while their greatest annoyance was caused by the mosquitoes. The Kowak abounds in salmon, pike, and white-fish. “The ‘color’ of gold,” says the printed report of the expedition, “was obtained almost everywhere.” Nearly eighty species of birds were collected, though the party were absent from the Corwin but about seven weeks. The white spruce was found to be the largest and most abundant tree, and the inhabitants all Eskimos.
The remarkable museum of ancient arms, dresses, wooden and skin armor, and domestic utensils exhibited in New York city in 1868 by Mr. Edward G. Fast, and which was collected by him while in the employment of our government among the people of the Northwest, revealed some very important facts as to their history. The collection proved clearly that two or three hundred years ago these natives of Alaska enjoyed a much higher degree of civilization than is exhibited by their descendants to-day. That they have deteriorated in industry, steadiness, and ability generally is obvious. The art of forging must have been known to them in the earlier times, as shown in this collection of admirable weapons, clearly of native manufacture and of most excellent finish. The art of carving was possessed by them in far greater perfection than they exhibit in our day, while the skillfully made dresses of tanned leather worn by the ancient Aleuts nearly equal those in which the warriors were clad who accompanied Cortez and Pizarro when they landed on this continent. Mr. Fast was singularly fortunate in securing whole suits of armor, masks, and war implements for his unique museum of Alaskan antiquities. In association with Russians and Americans for a century, more or less, these aborigines have readily adopted the vices of civilization, so to speak, and have sacrificed most of their own better qualities. Indolence generally has taken the place of the warlike habits and steadiness of purpose which must have characterized them as a people to a large degree before the whites came with firearms and fire-water. How forcibly is the law of mutability impressed upon us! From a state of comparative power and importance, this people has dwindled to a condition simply foreshadowing oblivion.
Rev. W. W. Kirby, a missionary who reached the valley of the Yukon by way of British Columbia, fully describes the Eskimos whom he mingled with in the northwestern part of the Territory. He considers them to be more intelligent than the average Alaska Indians, and far superior to them in physical appearance, the women especially being much fairer and more pleasing to look upon. They are more addicted to the use of tobacco than are these southern tribes, often smoking to great excess, and in the most peculiar manner, swallowing every swiff from their pipes, until they become so poisoned as to fall senseless upon the ground, where they remain in this condition for ten or fifteen minutes. They dress very neatly with deerskins, wearing the hair on the outside. The men have heavy beards, shave the crown of their heads, leaving the sides and back growth to fall freely about the face and neck. Mr. Kirby is obliged to censure the thievish propensities of this people, which was a source of great trouble and considerable loss to him. Speaking of his high northern latitude when among the Eskimos, he says: “As we advanced farther northward, the sun did not leave us at all. Frequently did I see him describe a complete circle in the heavens.”
As far south as Pyramid Harbor, latitude 59° 11? north, the sun does not set in midsummer until about two o’clock in the morning, rising again four hours later. Even during these four sunless hours fine print can be read on the ship’s deck without the aid of any other than the natural light.
Mr. Kirby found the Indians of the Yukon valley to be rather a fierce and turbulent people, more like our Western Indians than any other tribes whom he met. Their country is in and about latitude 65° north, and beginning at the Mackenzie River, in British Columbia, runs through Alaska to Behring Strait. They were formerly very numerous, but have frequently been at war with the Eskimos north of them, and have thus been sadly reduced in numbers, though they are still a strong and powerful people.
There is a singular system of social division recognized among them, termed respectively Chit-sa, Nate-sa, and Tanges-at-sa, faintly representing the idea of aristocracy, the middle class, and the poorer order of our civilization. There is another peculiarity in this connection, it being the rule for a man not to marry in his own, but to take a wife from either of the other classes. Thus a Chit-sa gentleman will marry a Tanges-at-sa peasant without hesitation; the offspring in every case belonging to the class to which the mother is related. This arrangement has had a most beneficial effect in allaying the deadly feuds formerly so frequent among neighboring tribes, and which have been the cause of so reducing their memorial strength by sanguinary conflicts.
We prefer to think it was to see the sun rise that we got up so early on arriving at Fort Wrangel, and not because of the torturing fact that our berth was too short at both ends, and kept us in a chronic state of wakefulness and cramp. The distance passed over in coming hither from Victoria was about eight hundred miles. The place, having about five hundred inhabitants, is advantageously situated on an island at the mouth of the Stickeen River, which rises in British Columbia and has a length of nearly two hundred and fifty miles. There is here an excellent and capacious harbor, surrounded by grand mountains, while lofty snow-crowned summits more inland break the sky-line in nearly all directions, – mountain towering above mountain, until the view is lost among far-away peaks, blue and indistinct. This elevated district contains wild goats, with now and then a grizzly bear, fiercest of his tribe, while in its ravines and valleys the little mule-deer, the brown bear, the fox, the land-otter, the mink, and various other animals abound. As to the small streams and river courses which thread the territory, they are, as all over this country, crowded with fish, the salmon prevailing. The inland haunts within twenty leagues of the coast are little disturbed by the natives. The abundance of halibut, cod, and salmon at their very doors, as it were, is quite sufficient to satisfy the demands of nature, and it is only when tempted by the white man’s gold that the aborigines will leave the coast to go inland in search of pelts and meat, in the form of venison, goat, or bear flesh.
The town, consisting of a hundred houses and more, is spread along the shore at the base of a thickly wooded hill, flanked on either side by a long line of low, square, rough-hewn native cabins. A peep into the interior of these was by no means reassuring. Dirt, degradation, and abundance were combined. The few domestic utensils seen appeared never to have been washed, being thick with grease, while the stench that saluted the olfactories was sickening. There were no chairs, stools, or benches, the men and women sitting upon their haunches, a position which would be a severe trial to a white and afford no rest whatever, but which is the universal mode of sitting adopted by savage races in all parts of the world. The place was named after Baron Wrangel, governor of Russian America at the time when it was first settled, in 1834, being then merely a stockade post. After the United States came into possession of the country it was for a short time occupied by our soldiers, but ere long ceased to be held as a military post, the soldiers being withdrawn altogether from the Territory. It was soon discovered that the natives cared nothing for the soldiers; they could always get away from them in any exigency by means of their canoes; but they had, and still have, a wholesome fear of a revenue cutter or a gunboat, which can destroy one of their villages, if necessary, in a few minutes.
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