The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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A steamer can always move very rapidly from place to place among the islands, making her presence felt without delay, when and where it is most needed. At the outset of our taking possession of Alaska, an example of decision and power was necessary to put the natives in proper awe of the government, and it followed quickly upon an unprovoked outrage committed by the aborigines. One of their villages, not far from Sitka, was promptly shelled and destroyed in half an hour. Since then there has been no trouble of consequence with any of the tribes, who have profound respect for the strong arm, and to speak plainly, like most savage races, for nothing else.
Fort Wrangel has two or three large stores for the sale of goods to the natives, and for the purchase of furs, Indian curiosities, and the like. It is also the headquarters of the gold miners, who gather here when the season is no longer fit for out-of-door work at the placers.
Seeing the natives crowding the stores, it was natural to suppose the traders were driving a good business, but a proprietor explained that these people were slow buyers, making him many calls before purchasing. They look an article over three or four different times before concluding they want it; then its cost is to be considered. The native’s squaw comes and approves or disapproves; the article is discussed with the men’s neighbors, and, finally, his resolution having culminated, he goes away to earn the money with which to make the purchase! “Such customers are very trying to our patience,” remarked the trader, “but after you once understand their peculiarities it is easy enough to get along with them.”
A truly charitable enterprise has been established here; we refer to the Indian Girls’ School and Home, supported by the American Board of Missions, where the pupils are taught industrial duties appertaining to the domestic associations of their sex, as well as the ordinary branches of a common school education. No effort, we were told, is made to enforce any special tenets of faith, but these girls are taught morality, which is practical religion. The example is much needed here, both among these native people and the whites.
To show what strict adherents these Alaskans are to tribal conventionalities, we can do no better than relate a singular occurrence, for the truth of which Dr. Jackson is our authority.
“Near the Hoonah Mission, a short time ago, a deadly tragedy took place. A stalwart native came into the village and imbibed too freely of hoochinoo. Walking along the street he saw a young married girl with whom he was greatly infatuated. The girl was afraid to meet him and turning ran to her house. The man gave pursuit and gained entrance to the house. All the inmates escaped in terror. The desperado boldly continued his hunt for the woman, and the husband of the woman with a few friends took refuge in his own house again. The ravishing fiend returned, and demanding admittance battered in the door with an axe, and as he entered was shot and instantly killed.The friends of the dead man met in council, and according to their custom demanded a life for his life. The husband and protector of his wife’s virtue gave himself into the custody of his enemies and was unceremoniously killed!”
The production of native jewelry is a specialty here, and some of the silver ornaments of Indian manufacture are really very fine, exhibiting great skill and originality, if not refined taste. Their carvings in ivory are exceedingly curious, skillful, and attractive, especially upon walrus teeth, whereon they will imitate precisely any pattern that is given to them, with a patient fidelity equaling the Chinese. The native designs are far the most desirable, however, being not only typical of the people and locality, but original and fitting. The time devoted to a piece of work seems to be of no consideration to a native, and forms no criterion as regards the price demanded for it. From the sale of these fancy articles the aborigines receive annually a considerable sum of money. It is indeed surprising how they can get such results without better tools. With some artistic instruction they would be capable of producing designs and combinations of a choice character, and which would command a market among the most fastidious purchasers. Their present somewhat rude ornaments have attracted so much attention that two or three stores in San Francisco keep a variety of them for sale. But it is the charm of having purchased such souvenirs on the spot which forms half their value.
Speaking of these souvenirs, the author was shown some stone carvings at Victoria, on the passage from Puget Sound northward, which were of native manufacture, and thought to be idols. It was afterwards learned that these were the works of the Haidas of Queen Charlotte Island, about seventy or eighty miles north of Vancouver Island. There is here a slate-stone, quite soft when first quarried, which is easily carved into any design or fanciful figure, but which rapidly hardens on exposure to the air. The stone is oiled when the carving is completed, and this gives it the appearance of age, as well as makes it dark and smooth. The natives of this northwest coast do not worship idols, therefore these are not objects of that character, though they are curious and interesting. It is among these Haidas that the practice of tattooing most prevails, and they still cover their bodies with designs of birds, fishes, and animals, some of which are most hideous caricatures. This tribe is said to be the most addicted to gambling of any on the coast, the demoralizing effect of which is to be seen in various forms among them.
Fort Wrangel has several demon-like totem-poles. There is a sort of fascination attached to these awkward objects which leads one carefully to examine and constantly to talk about them. Before some cabins there are two of the weird things, covered with devices representing both the male and female branches of the family which occupies the cabin. It was found that much more importance was attached to these emblems here than had been manifested farther south. An interested excursionist who came up on our steamer, wishing to possess himself of a totem-pole, found one at last of suitable size for transportation, and tried to purchase it, but discovered that no possible sum which he could offer would be considered as an equivalent for it. All of his subsequent efforts in this line proved equally unsuccessful so far as totem-poles were concerned, and yet we remember that they are to be found in many of our public museums throughout the States, and we have seen large ones lying upon the ground moss covered and neglected. It appeared to be only the rich native who indulged in an individual totem-pole. The cost of one, say forty or fifty feet long, carved after the orthodox fashion, with the free feast given at all such raisings, is said to be over a thousand dollars. The more lavish the expenditure on these occasions, the greater the honor achieved by the host.
There is a successful day-school established here besides the Indian Girls’ Home, which is accomplishing much good in educating the rising generation, and in introducing civilized manners and customs. The children evince a fair degree of natural aptitude, learning easily to read and write, but are a little dull, we were told, in arithmetic. Adult, uneducated natives, however, are quick enough at making all necessary calculations in their trades with the whites, either as purchasers of domestic goods, or in selling their peltries. The Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, Moravians, Quakers, Baptists, and Roman Catholics all have missionary stations in different parts of the country. Schools have also been established for the general instruction of whites and natives at Juneau, Sitka, Wrangel, Jackson, and other localities under direction of our government officials, and proper teachers have been supplied, the whole system being under the supervision of a competent head. Mrs. J. G. Hyde, who teaches school at Juneau, in her last year’s report, says: “Many of the scholars, who, when the term began last September, could not speak a word of English, can now not only speak, but read and write it. They can also spell correctly and are beginning in the first principles of arithmetic. To the casual observer perhaps nothing seems more absurd than the attempt by any process to enlighten the clouded intellect of this benighted people. Indeed, the most squalid street Arabs might be considered a thousand times more desirable as pupils. But a few days’ work among and for them convinces the teacher that she has not a boisterous, uncontrollable lot of children, but as much the opposite as it is possible to imagine. Children who habitually refrain from playing during intermission that they may learn some lesson or how to do some fancy work are not to be classed with the wild, wayward, or vicious. Boys who, when their regular lessons are done, are continually designing and drawing cannot be said to be entirely devoid of talent worthy of cultivation. While the development must be slow in most cases, there are a few who would compare favorably with white children. Their abnormal development of the faculty of form gives them an inestimable advantage over their more favored pale-face brothers in acquiring the art of writing and drawing. Their mind acts very slowly, but they make up in tenacity of purpose what they lack in aptness.”
At Sitka there is an industrial school which is very successful training native boys and girls in mechanical and domestic occupations, and of which we will speak in detail in a further chapter.
The general plan of this school at Wrangel struck us as being the most promising means of improvement that could possibly be devised and carried forward among the aborigines of Alaska. We were informed that fourteen government day schools were in operation in the Territory, under the able supervision of that true philanthropist, Dr. Sheldon Jackson, United States General Agent for Education in the Territory. The natives almost universally welcome and gladly improve the advantages afforded them for instruction, especially as regards their children. Many individual cases with which the author became acquainted were of much more than ordinary interest; indeed, it was quite touching to observe the eagerness of young natives to gain intellectual culture. Surely such incentive is worthy of all encouragement. One could not but contrast the earnestness of these untutored aborigines to make the most of every opportunity for learning with the neglected opportunities of eight tenths of our pampered children of civilization. Here is the true field of missionary work, the work of education.
In the neighborhood of Fort Wrangel plenty of sweet wild flowers were observed in bloom, some especially of Alpine character were very interesting, – “wee, modest, crimson-tipped flowers,” – while the tall blueberry bushes were crowded with wholesome and appetizing fruit, with here and there clusters of the luscious salmon-berry, yellow as gold, and so ripe as to melt in the mouth. At the earliest advent of spring the flowers burst forth in this latitude with surprising forwardness, a phenomenon also observable in northern Sweden and Norway. Such white clover heads are rarely seen anywhere else, large, well spread, and fragrant as pinks. Among the ferns was an abundance of the tiny-leaved maiden’s hair species, with delicate, chocolate stems. The soil also abounds in well-developed grasses, timothy growing here to four feet and over in height, and the nutritious, stocky blue grass even higher. Vegetation during the brief summer season runs riot, and makes the most of its opportunity. Although south of Sitka, Fort Wrangel is colder in winter and warmer in summer, on account of its distance from the influence of the thermal ocean current already described.
Sometimes a purse is made up among the visitors here and offered as a prize to the natives in boat-racing. A number of long canoes, each with an Indian crew of from ten to sixteen, take part in the aquatic struggle, which proves very amusing, not to say exciting. The native boats are flat-bottomed, and glide over the surface of the water with the least possible displacement. An Alaskan is seen at his best when acting as a boatman; he takes instinctively to the paddle from his earliest youth, and is never out of training for boat-service so long as he lives and is able to wield an oar. No university crew could successfully compete with these semi-civilized canoeists. Well-trained naval boat-crews have often been distanced by them.
The avariciousness of the natives is exhibited in their readiness to sell almost anything they possess for money, even to parting with their wives and daughters to the miners for base purposes; though, as we have seen, they do draw the line at totem-poles. It should be understood that these queerly carved posts are emblems mostly of the past; that is to say, although the natives carefully preserve those which now exist, few fresh ones are raised by them. Toy effigies representing these emblems are carved and offered for sale to curio-hunters at nearly all of the villages on the coast, and as a rule are readily disposed of.
There is very little if any use in Alaska for artificial light during the summer season, while nature’s grand luminary is so sleepless; but when these aborigines do require a lamp for a special purpose, they have the most inexpensive and ingenious substitute ever ready at hand. The water supplies them with any quantity of the ulikon or candle-fish, about the size of our largest New England smelts, and which are full of oil. They are small in body, but over ten inches in length. They are prepared by a drying process and are stored away for use, serving both for food and for light. When a match is applied to one end of the dried ulikon, it will burn until the whole is quite consumed, clear and bright to the last, giving a light equal to three or four candles. So rich are these fishes in oil that alcohol will not preserve them, a discovery which was made in preparing specimens for the Smithsonian Institution. When the Indians of the interior visit the coast, as many of them do annually, they are sure to lay in a stock of candle-fish to take back with them for use in the long Arctic night. This fish runs at certain seasons of the year in great schools from the sea, invading the fresh-water rivers near their mouths, when the natives rake them on shore by the bushel and preserve them as described. When boiled they produce an oil which hardens like butter, and which the Alaskans eat as we do that article, with this important difference, that they prefer their oil-butter to be quite rancid before they consider it at its best, while civilized taste requires exactly the opposite condition, namely, perfect freshness. Putrid animal matter would certainly poison a white man, but the Alaskan Indians seem to thrive upon it.
Some inland districts, which are most easily reached from this point, are rich in gold-bearing quartz and placer mines, but especially in the latter. We were credibly informed that over three million dollars’ worth of gold was shipped from here in a period of five years, though no really organized and persistent effort at mining had been made, or rather we should say no modern facilities had been employed in bringing about this result. The machinery for reducing gold-bearing quartz has not yet been carried far inland because of the great difficulty of transportation. Gold quartz ledges are numerous and quite undeveloped in the neighborhood of Wrangel. The well-known Cassiar mines are situated just over the Alaska boundary on the east side in British Columbia, but the gold discoveries in Alaska proper are proving so much more profitable that those of the Cassiar district have ceased to attract the miners. There is a curious fact connected with these deposits of the precious metal in the region approached by the way of Wrangel. In more than one instance, as reported by Captain White of the United States Revenue Service, placer gold, which is usually sought for in the dry beds of river courses and in lowlands, is here found on the tops of mountains a thousand feet high, where the largest nuggets of the precious metal yet found in the Northwest have been obtained. Many of the lumps of pure gold picked up in this region have weighed thirty ounces and over. The idea of finding placer deposits on the tops of mountains is a novelty in gold prospecting.
The Stickeen River, which is the largest in the southern part of the Territory, has its mouth in the harbor of Fort Wrangel, discoloring the waters for a long distance with its chalk-like, frothy flow, a characteristic of all Alaska streams into which the waters of the snowy mountains and glaciers empty. The river is navigable for light-draft stern-wheel steamers to Glenora, a hundred and fifty miles from its mouth. After reaching this place, the way to the Cassiar mines is overland for an equal distance by a difficult mountain trail, it being necessary to transport all provisions and material on the backs of natives, who have learned to demand good pay for this laborious service. The interior upon this route is broken into a succession of sharply-defined mountains, separated by narrow and deep valleys, similar to the islands off the mainland. This is so decided a feature as to lead Mr. George Davidson of the United States Coast Survey to remark: “The topography of the Alexander Archipelago is a type of the interior. A submergence of the mountain region of the mainland would give a similar succession of islands, separated by deep narrow fjords.” The sandy bed and banks of the Stickeen are heavily charged with particles of gold, ten dollars per day each being frequently realized by gangs of men who manipulate the sand only in the most primitive fashion. Numbers of Chinamen availed themselves of this opportunity until they were expelled by both the whites and the natives. The poor “Heathen Chinee” is unwelcome everywhere outside of his own Celestial Empire, and yet close observation shows, as we have already said, that these Asiatics have more good qualities than the average foreigners who seek a home on our shores.
The scenery of the Stickeen River is pronounced by Professor Muir to be superb and grand beyond description. Three hundred glaciers are known to drain into its swift running waters, over one hundred of which are to be seen between Fort Wrangel and Glenora. Near the mouth of the river is the curious ledge of garnet crystals, which furnishes stones of considerable beauty and brilliancy, though not sufficiently clear to be used as gems. Choice pieces are secured by visitors as cabinet specimens, however, and can be had, if desired, by the bushel, at a trifling cost. They occur in a matrix of slate-like formation, some so large as to weigh two or three ounces, and diminishing from that size they are found as small as a pin-head. It requires three days of hard steaming against the current to ascend the river as far as Glenora from the mouth, whereas the same distance returning, down stream, has frequently been made in eight or ten hours. So necessarily rapid is the descent of the Stickeen as to make the downward trip quite hazardous, except in charge of a careful pilot. In the neighborhood of Fort Wrangel there are some very active boiling springs, which the natives utilize, as do the New Zealanders at Ohinemutu, by cooking their food in them.
In the crater of Goreloi, on Burned Island, is a vast boiling spring, or rather a boiling lake, which has never been intelligently described, and which is represented by those who have seen it to be unique. This strange body of water is eighteen miles in circumference. The natives are well supplied with legends relating to these remarkable natural phenomena, including the extinct and active volcanoes. Genii and dreaded spirits are supposed by them to dwell in the extinct volcanoes, and to make their homes in the mountain caves. They believe that good spirits will not harm them, and therefore do not address themselves to such, but the evil ones must by some active means be propitiated, and to them their sole attention is given, or, in other words, their religious ceremonies when analyzed are simply devil worship. All of the tribes, if we except the Aleuts, are held in abject fear by their conjurers or medicine-men, who seemed to us to be the most arrant knaves conceivable, not possessing one genuine quality to sustain their assumptions except that of bold effrontery. This seems particularly strange, as the aborigines of the Northwest are more than ordinarily intelligent, compared with other half-civilized races, both in this and other lands.
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