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Travels in Alaska

by John Muir

Chapter XI

The Country of the Chilcats

On October 30 we visited a camp of Hoonas at the mouth of a salmon-chuck. We had seen some of them before, and they received us kindly. Here we learned that peace reigned in Chilcat. The reports that we had previously heard were, as usual in such cases, wildly exaggerated. The little camp hut of these Indians was crowded with the food-supplies they had gathered--chiefly salmon, dried and tied in bunches of convenient size for handling and transporting to their villages, bags of salmon-roe, boxes of fish-oil, a lot of mountain-goat mutton, and a few porcupines. They presented us with some dried salmon and potatoes, for which we gave them tobacco and rice. About 3 P.M. we reached their village, and in the best house, that of a chief, we found the family busily engaged in making whiskey. The still and mash were speedily removed and hidden away with apparent shame as soon as we came in sight. When we entered and passed the regular greetings, the usual apologies as to being unable to furnish Boston food for us and inquiries whether we could eat Indian food were gravely made. Toward six or seven o'clock Mr. Young explained the object of his visit and held a short service. The chief replied with grave deliberation, saying that he would be heartily glad to have a teacher sent to his poor ignorant people, upon whom he now hoped the light of a better day was beginning to break. Hereafter he would gladly do whatever the white teachers told him to do and would have no will of his own. This under the whiskey circumstances seemed too good to be quite true. He thanked us over and over again for coming so far to see him, and complained that Port Simpson Indians, sent out on a missionary tour by Mr. Crosby, after making a good-luck board for him and nailing it over his door, now wanted to take it away. Mr. Young promised to make him a new one, should this threat be executed, and remarked that since he had offered to do his bidding he hoped he would make no more whiskey. To this the chief replied with fresh complaints concerning the threatened loss of his precious board, saying that he thought the Port Simpson Indians were very mean in seeking to take it away, but that now he would tell them to take it as soon as they liked for he was going to get a better one at Wrangell. But no effort of the missionary could bring him to notice or discuss the whiskey business. The luck board nailed over the door was about two feet long and had the following inscription: "The Lord will bless those who do his will. When you rise in the morning, and when you retire at night, give him thanks. Heccla Hockla Popla."

This chief promised to pray like a white man every morning, and to bury the dead as the whites do. "I often wondered," he said, "where the dead went to. Now I am glad to know"; and at last acknowledged the whiskey, saying he was sorry to have been caught making the bad stuff. The behavior of all, even the little ones circled around the fire, was very good. There was no laughter when the strange singing commenced. They only gazed like curious, intelligent animals. A little daughter of the chief with the glow of the firelight on her eyes made an interesting picture, head held aslant. Another in the group, with upturned eyes, seeming to half understand the strange words about God, might have passed for one of Raphael's angels.

The chief's house was about forty feet square, of the ordinary fort kind, but better built and cleaner than usual. The side-room doors were neatly paneled, though all the lumber had been nibbled into shape with a small narrow Indian adze. We had our tent pitched on a grassy spot near the beach, being afraid of wee beasties; which greatly offended Kadachan and old Toyatte, who said," If this is the way you are to do up at Chilcat, we will be ashamed of you." We promised them to eat Indian food and in every way behave like good Chilcats.

We set out direct for Chilcat in the morning against a brisk head wind. By keeping close inshore and working hard, we made about ten miles by two or three o'clock, when, the tide having turned against us, we could make scarce any headway, and therefore landed in a sheltered cove a few miles up the west side of Lynn Canal. Here I discovered a fine growth of yellow cedar, but none of the trees were very large, the tallest only seventy-five to one hundred feet high. The flat, drooping, plume-like branchlets hang edgewise, giving the trees a thin, open, airy look. Nearly every tree that I saw in a long walk was more or less marked by the knives and axes of the Indians, who use the bark for matting, for covering house-roofs, and making temporary portable huts. For this last purpose sections five or six feet long and two or three wide are pressed flat and secured from warping or splitting by binding them with thin strips of wood at the end. These they carry about with them in their canoes, and in a few minutes they can be put together against slim poles and made into a rainproof hut. Every paddle that I have seen along the coast is made of the light, tough, handsome yellow wood of this tree. It is a tree of moderately rapid growth and usually chooses ground that is rather boggy and mossy. Whether its network of roots makes the bog or not, I am unable as yet to say.

Three glaciers on the opposite side of the canal were in sight, descending nearly to sea-level, and many smaller ones that melt a little below timber-line. While I was sketching these, a canoe hove in sight, coming on at a flying rate of speed before the wind. The owners, eager for news, paid us a visit. They proved to be Hoonas, a man, his wife, and four children, on their way home from Chilcat. The man was sitting in the stern steering and holding a sleeping child in his arms. Another lay asleep at his feet. He told us that Sitka Jack had gone up to the main Chilcat village the day before he left, intending to hold a grand feast and potlatch, and that whiskey up there was flowing like water. The news was rather depressing to Mr. Young and myself, for we feared the effect of the poison on Toyatte's old enemies. At 8.30 P.M. we set out again on the turn of the tide, though the crew did not relish this night work. Naturally enough, they liked to stay in camp when wind and Ode were against us, but did n't care to make up lost time after dark however wooingly wind and tide might flow and blow. Kadachan, John, and Charley rowed, and Toyatte steered and paddled, assisted now and then by me. The wind moderated and almost died away, so that we made about fifteen miles in six hours, when the tide turned and snow began to fall. We ran into a bay nearly opposite Berner's Bay, where three or four families of Chilcats were camped who shouted when they heard us landing and demanded our names. Our men ran to the huts for news before making camp. The Indians proved to be hunters, who said there were plenty of wild sheep on the mountains back a few miles from the head of the bay. This interview was held at three o'clock in the morning, a rather early hour. But Indians never resent any such disturbance provided there is anything worth while to be said or done. By four o'clock we had our tents set, a fire made and some coffee, while the snow as falling fast. Toyatte was out of humor with this night business. He wanted to land an hour or two before we did, and then, when the snow began to fall and we all wanted to find a camping-ground as soon as possible, he steered out into the middle of the canal saying grimly that the tide was good. He turned, however, at our orders, but read us a lecture at the first opportunity, telling us to start early if we were in a hurry, but not to travel in the night like thieves.

After a few hours' sleep, we set off again, with the wind still against us and the sea rough. We were all tired after making only about twelve miles, and camped in a rocky nook where we found a family of Hoonas in their bark hut beside their canoe. They presented us with potatoes and salmon and a big bucketful of berries, salmon-roe, and grease of some sort, probably fish-oil, which the crew consumed with wonderful relish.

A fine breeze was blowing next morning from the south, which would take us to Chilcat in a few hours, but unluckily the day was Sunday and the good wind was refused. Sunday, it seemed to me, could be kept as well by sitting in the canoe and letting the Lord's wind waft us quietly on our way. The day was rainy and the clouds hung low. The trees here are remarkably well developed, tall and straight. I observed three or four hemlocks which had been struck by lightning,--the first I noticed in Alaska. Some of the species on windy outjutting rocks become very picturesque, almost as much so as old oaks, the foliage becoming dense and the branchlets tufted in heavy plume-shaped horizontal masses.

Monday was a fine clear day, but the wind was dead ahead, making hard, dull work with paddles and oars. We passed a long stretch of beautiful marble cliffs enlivened with small merry waterfalls, and toward noon came in sight of the front of the famous Chilcat or Davidson Glacier, a broad white flood reaching out two or three miles into the canal with wonderful effect. I wanted to camp beside it but the head wind tired us out before we got within six or eight miles of it. We camped on the west side of a small rocky island in a narrow cove. When I was looking among the rocks and bushes for a smooth spot for a bed, I found a human skeleton. My Indians seemed not in the least shocked or surprised, explaining that it was only the remains of a Chilcat slave. Indians never bury or burn the bodies of slaves, but just cast them away anywhere. Kind Nature was covering the poor bones with moss and leaves, and I helped in the pitiful work.

The wind was fair and joyful in the morning, and away we glided to the famous glacier. In an hour or so we were directly in front of it and beheld it in all its crystal glory descending from its white mountain fountains and spreading out in an immense fan three or four miles wide against its tree-fringed terminal moraine. But, large as it is, it long ago ceased to discharge bergs.

The Chilcats are the most influential of all the Thlinkit tribes. Whenever on our journey I spoke of the interesting characteristics of other tribes we had visited, my crew would invariably say, "Oh, yes, these are pretty good Indians, but wait till you have seen the Chilcats." We were now only five or six miles distant from their lower village, and my crew requested time to prepare themselves to meet their great rivals. Going ashore on the moraine with their boxes that had not been opened since we left Fort Wrangell, they sat on boulders and cut each other's hair, carefully washed and perfumed themselves and made a complete change in their clothing, even to white shirts, new boots, new hats, and bright neckties. Meanwhile, I scrambled across the broad, brushy, forested moraine, and on my return scarcely recognized my crew in their dress suits. Mr. Young also made some changes in his clothing, while I, having nothing dressy in my bag, adorned my cap with an eagle's feather I found on the moraine, and thus arrayed we set forth to meet the noble Thlinkits.

We were discovered while we were several miles from the village, and as we entered the mouth of the river we were hailed by a messenger from the chief, sent to find out who we were and the objects of our extraordinary visit.

"Who are you?" he shouted in a heavy, far-reaching voice. "What are your names? What do you want? What have you come for?"

On receiving replies, he shouted the information to another messenger, who was posted on the river-bank at a distance of a quarter of a mile or so, and he to another and another in succession, and by this living telephone the news was delivered to the chief as he sat by his fireside. A salute was then fired to welcome us, and a swarm of musket-bullets, flying scarce high enough for comfort, pinged over our heads. As soon as we reached the landing at the village, a dignified young man stepped forward and thus addressed us:--

"My chief sent me to meet you, and to ask if you would do him the honor to lodge in his house during your stay in our village?"

We replied, of course, that we would consider it a great honor to be entertained by so distinguished a chief.

The messenger then ordered a number of slaves, who stood behind him, to draw our canoe out of the water, carry our provisions and bedding into the chief's house, and then carry the canoe back from the river where it would be beyond the reach of floating ice. While we waited, a lot of boys and girls were playing on a meadow near the landing--running races, shooting arrows, and wading in the icy river without showing any knowledge of our presence beyond quick stolen glances. After all was made secure, he conducted us to the house, where we found seats of honor prepared for us.

The old chief sat barefooted by the fireside, clad in a calico shirt and blanket, looking down, and though we shook hands as we passed him he did not look up. After we were seated, he still gazed into the fire without taking the slightest notice of us for about ten or fifteen minutes. The various members of the chief's family, also,--men, women, and children,--went about their usual employment and play as if entirely unconscious that strangers were in the house, it being considered impolite to look at visitors or speak to them before time had been allowed them to collect their thoughts and prepare any message they might have to deliver.

At length, after the politeness period had passed, the chief slowly raised his head and glanced at his visitors, looked down again, and at last said, through our interpreter:--

"I am troubled. It is customary when strangers visit us to offer them food in case they might be hungry, and I was about to do so, when I remembered that the food of you honorable white chiefs is so much better than mine that I am ashamed to offer it."

We, of course, replied that we would consider it a great honor to enjoy the hospitality of so distinguished a chief as he was.

Hearing this, he looked up, saying, "I feel relieved"; or, in John the interpreter's words, "He feels good now, he says he feels good."

He then ordered one of his family to see that the visitors were fed. The young man who was to act as steward took up his position in a corner of the house commanding a view of all that was going on, and ordered the slaves to make haste to prepare a good meal; one to bring a lot of the best potatoes from the cellar and wash them well; another to go out and pick a basketful of fresh berries; another to broil a salmon; while others made a suitable fire, pouring oil on the wet wood to make it blaze. Speedily the feast was prepared and passed around. The first course was potatoes, the second fish-oil and salmon, next berries and rose-hips; then the steward shouted the important news, in a loud voice like a herald addressing an army, "That's all!" and left his post.

Then followed all sorts of questions from the old chief. He wanted to know what Professor Davidson had been trying to do a year or two ago on a mounain-top back of the village, with many strange things looking at the sun when it grew dark in the daytime; and we had to try to explain eclipses. He asked us if we could tell him what made the water rise and fall twice a day, and we tried to explain that the sun and moon attracted the sea by showing how a magnet attracted iron.

Mr. Young, as usual, explained the object of his visit and requested that the people might be called together in the evening to hear his message. Accordingly all were told to wash, put on their best clothing, and come at a certain hour. There was an audience of about two hundred and fifty, to whom Mr. Young I preached. Toyatte led in prayer, while Kadachan and John joined in the singing of several hymns. At the conclusion of the religious exercises the chief made a short address of thanks, and finished with a request for the message of the other chief. I again tried in vain to avoid a speech by telling the interpreter to explain that I was only traveling to see the country, the glaciers, and mountains and forests, etc., but these subjects, strange to say, seemed to be about as interesting as the gospel, and I had to delivery sort of lecture on the fine foodful country God had given them and the brotherhood of man, along the same general lines I had followed at other villages. Some five similar meetings were held here, two of them in the daytime, and we began to feel quite at home in the big block-house with our hospitable and warlike friends.

At the last meeting an old white-haired shaman of grave and venerable aspect, with a high wrinkled forehead, big, strong Roman nose and light-colored skin, slowly and with great dignity arose and spoke for the first time.

"I am an old man," he said, "but I am glad to listen to those strange things you tell, and they may well be true, for what is more wonderful than the flight of birds in the air? I remember the first white man I ever saw. Since that long, long-ago time I have seen many, but never until now have I ever truly known and felt a white man's heart. All the white men I have heretofore met wanted to get something from us. They wanted furs and they wished to pay for them as small a price as possible. They all seemed to be seeking their own good-not our good. I might say that through all my long life I have never until now heard a white man speak. It has always seemed to me while trying to speak to traders and those seeking gold-mines that it was like speaking to a person across a broad stream that was running fast over stones and making so loud a noise that scarce a single word could be heard. But now, for the first time, the Indian and the white man are on the same side of the river, eye to eye, heart to heart. I have always loved my people. I have taught them and ministered to them as well as I could. Hereafter, I will keep silent and listen to the good words of the missionaries, who know God and the places we go to when we die so much better than I do."

At the close of the exercises, after the last sermon had been preached and the last speech of the Indian chief and headmen had been made, a number of the sub-chiefs were talking informally together. Mr. Young, anxious to know what impression he had made on the tribe with reference to mission work, requested John to listen and tell him what was being said.

"They are talking about Mr. Muir's speech," he reported. "They say he knows how to talk and beats the preacher far." Toyatte also, with a teasing smile, said: "Mr. Young, mika tillicum hi yu tola wawa" (your friend leads you far in speaking).

Later, when the sending of a missionary and teacher was being considered, the chief said they wanted me, and, as an inducement, promised that if I would come to them they would always do as I directed, follow my councils, give me as many wives as I liked, build a church and school, and pick all the stones out of the paths and make them smooth for my feet.

They were about to set out on an expedition to the Hootsenoos to collect blankets as indemnity or blood-money for the death of a Chilcat woman from drinking whiskey furnished by one of the Hootsenoo tribe. In case of their refusal to pay, there would be fighting, and one of the chiefs begged that we would pray them good luck, so that no one would be killed. This he asked as a favor, after begging that we would grant permission to go on this expedition, promising that they would avoid bloodshed if possible. He spoke in a very natural and easy tone and manner always serene and so much of a polished diplomat that all polish was hidden. The younger chief stood while speaking, the elder sat on the floor. None of the congregation had a word to say, though they gave approving nods and shrugs.

The house was packed at every meeting, two a day. Some climbed on the roof to listen around the smoke opening. I tried in vain to avoid speechmaking, but, as usual, I had to say something at every meeting. I made five speeches here, all of which seemed to be gladly heard, particularly what I said on the different kinds of white men and their motives, and their own kindness and good manners in making strangers feel at home in their houses.

The chief had a slave, a young and good-looking girl, who waited on him, cooked his food, lighted his pipe for him, etc. Her servitude seemed by no means galling. In the morning, just before we left on the return trip, interpreter John overheard him telling her that after the teacher came from Wrangell, he was going to dress her well and send her to school and use her in every way as if she were his own daughter. Slaves are still owned by the richest of the Thlinkits. Formerly, many of them were sacrificed on great occasions, such as the opening of a new house or the erection of a totem pole. Kadachan ordered John to take a pair of white blankets out of his trunk and wrap them about the chief's shoulders, as he sat by the fire. This gift was presented without ceremony or saying a single word. The chief scarcely noticed the blankets, only taking a corner in his hand, as if testing the quality of the wool. Toyatte had been an inveterate enemy and fighter of the Chilcats, but now, having joined the church, he wished to forget the past and bury all the hard feuds and be universally friendly and peaceful. It was evident, however, that he mistrusted the proud and warlike Chilcats and doubted the acceptance of his friendly advances, and as we approached their village became more and more thoughtful.

"My wife said that my old enemies would be sure to kill me. Well, never mind. I am an old man and may as well die as not." He was troubled with palpitation, and oftentimes, while he suffered, he put his hand over his heart and said, "I hope the Chilcats will shoot me here."

Before venturing up the river to the principal village, located some ten miles up the river, we sent Sitka Charley and one of the young Chilcats as messengers to announce our arrival and inquire whether we would be welcome to visit them, informing the chief that both Kadachan and Toyatte were Mr. Young's friends and mine, that we were "all one meat" and any harm done them would also be done to us.

While our messengers were away, I climbed a pure-white, dome-crowned mountain about fifty-five hundred feet high and gained noble telling views to the northward of the main Chilcat glaciers and the multitude of mighty peaks from which they draw their sources. At a height of three thousand feet I found a mountain hemlock, considerably dwarfed, in company with Sitka spruce and the common hemlock, the tallest about twenty feet high, sixteen inches in diameter. A few stragglers grew considerably higher, say at about four thousand feet. Birch and two-leaf pine were common.

The messengers returned next day, bringing back word that we would all be heartily welcomed excepting Toyatte; that the guns were loaded and ready to be fired to welcome us, but that Toyatte, having insulted a Chilcat chief not long ago in Wrangell, must not come. They also informed us in their message that they were very busy merrymaking with other visitors, Sitka Jack and his friends, but that if we could get up to the village through the running ice on the river, they would all be glad to see us; they had been drinking and Kadachan's father, one of the principal chiefs, said plainly that he had just waked up out of a ten days' sleep. We were anxious to make this visit, but, taking the difficulties and untoward circumstances into account, the danger of being frozen in at so late a time, while Kadachan would not be able to walk back on account of a shot in his foot, the danger also from whiskey, the awakening of old feuds on account of Toyatte's presence, etc., we reluctantly concluded to start back on the home journey at once. This was on Friday and a fair wind was blowing, but our crew, who loved dearly to rest and eat in these big hospitable houses, all said that Monday would be hyas klosh for the starting-day. I insisted, however, on starting Saturday morning, and succeeded in getting away from our friends at ten o'clock. Just as we were leaving, the chief who had entertained us so handsomely requested a written document to show that he had not killed us, so in case we were lost on the way home he could not be held accountable in any way for our death.

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