Across the Shaman’s River is the story of one of Alaska’s last Native American strongholds, a Tlingit community closed off for a century until a fateful encounter between a shaman, a preacher, and John Muir.
Tucked in the corner of Southeast Alaska, the Tlingits had successfully warded off the Anglo influences that had swept into other corners of the territory. This tribe was viewed by European and American outsiders as the last wild tribe and a frustrating impediment to access. Missionaries and prospectors alike had widely failed to bring the Tlingit into their power. Yet, when John Muir arrived in 1879, accompanied by a fiery preacher, it only took a speech about “brotherhood”—and some encouragement from the revered local shaman Skandoo’o—to finally transform these “hostile heathens.”
Using Muir’s original journal entries, as well as historic writings of explorers juxtaposed with insights from contemporary tribal descendants, Across the Shaman’s River reveals how Muir’s famous canoe journey changed the course of history and had profound consequences on the region’s Native Americans.
From a ridgetop above John Muir's last Glacier Bay camp of 1879, a bald eagle launches. Its eight-foot wingspan taut, the adult male slices east over an arm of Muir Glacier (now Muir Inlet) between a pair of seven-thousand-foot rock castles yoked by a frozen cape, then rides a williwaw over Davidson Glacier into the grand canyon of Lynn Canal, the largest fjord in North America. The bird rockets over the fanned toe of Davidson Glacier and next over two miles of seawater to the tip of the peninsula that divides Lynn Canal into two narrow inlets, Chilkat and Chilkoot. Just off land's end, five steppingstone islands drift southward down the middle of the sea-filled canyon. Veering north, the eagle hitches a draft over the Chilkat Peninsula's fifteen-mile-long spine to a summit nearly two thousand feet between sinuous coastlines. The bird slows to scan muskeg meadows for ground squirrels or grouse. An unconcerned porcupine waddles over the saturated moss carpet. Still hungry, the feathered predator descends to the narrow isthmus where the peninsula joins other mountain ranges hunching toward a vast northern Interior. The eagle alights on a limb of an old-growth spruce overlooking a cove that someday will serve as a harbor for the town of Haines, a community that sustains about two thousand humans in the early twenty-first century.
On this slate-sky October day, however, the eagle's stereoscopic gaze scours a crescent beach devoid of humanity and guarded on the uplands by a phalanx of shaggy spruce and hemlock. From the shore, seawater stretches across Chilkoot Inlet three miles east to the Coast Range, a glacier-draped wall abutting eight hundred ragged miles of Pacific edge. The eagle scans the point where the Inlet bifurcates. The eastern branch, a narrow, cliff-sided corridor, leads to the seasonal village of Dyea at the grassy terminus fifteen miles due north; its western finger hooks back to the mouth of the Chilkoot River and the larger village of Lkoot (without a cache). Twice daily, seawater from an ocean a hundred miles away flushes the fjord with twenty-foot tides. North Pacific brine pours into a chasm deeper than the Grand Canyon to mix with the silty discharge of hundreds of glacial streams and waterfalls, producing a pale turquoise dilution that teems with marine populations. The eagle scans the water for supper.
Moon-washed tides propel rafts of bladder wrack, bull kelp, and sea-hair into Lynn Canal, a skein through which herring, needlefish, capelin, sculpin, and smelt burst into iridescent galaxies. In April, a glinting run of eulachon ("hooligan") — a fish so oily it can be set ablaze — wriggle up the Canal pursued by anything big enough to eat them. Sea lions, seals, and sharks chase the greasy morsels by water; clouds of gulls, crows, plovers, godwits, and curlews thicken and dive. Like ornaments on Christmas trees, ravens and eagles adorn the limbs, ready to swoop when food flashes below. Diners scatter in the presence of whales pursuing fish flesh: famished humpbacks just in from Hawaii; and killer whales ravenous for anything that bleeds. Sixty-pound king salmon arrive in May, harbingers of huge runs of sockeye, chum, pink, and coho driven by genetic destiny to spawn and die in the rivers that pour into each inlet tucked in respective corners of the Canal's terminus.
On this gray November day, the eagle is roused only by a halfdozen ravens standing like deacons around a black carcass curled into beach boulders. He plunges from his perch and scatters the protesting ravens by landing on the shoulder of a fermenting harbor seal. With its thick beak, the eagle tears away a few scraps of belly fat, then returns to an upper branch of the big spruce. He needs hardly extend a wing to the afternoon's freshening sou'easter to ascend from the treetop and soar northwest over the narrow isthmus called Deishú and up the Chilkat River valley.
A tailwind propels the eagle over twenty miles of interwoven river channels, dark braids separated by ribs of sand. Near the river mouth, smoke curls from lodge fires in a cluster of log buildings called Yandeist'akyé (Yawn-dace-stuck-yeh) by Tlingit residents. Low water exposes rotting salmon carcasses, but the high-flying predator passes. Even this late in the season, the river boils with fish, hence the human name Jilkáat (salmon cache). A half-mile away, a brown bear and two cubs trot across the valley bottom, unencumbered by the deeper river passages into which they plunge, muzzles pointing skyward as they swim. The eagle flies on.
Moments later, the bird traces a right angle in the valley and plummets toward a broad plain fashioned by the confluence of four streams. From this lofty perspective, dendritic channels unravel, then gather at the narrowing river bend. Closer, a piercing chorus of four thousand fellow eagles becomes audible. The outsized bird alights on an overhanging branch of a big cottonwood to survey the muscular current below, milky with glacial flour, and the delta expanse where the rivers meet. Stationed six or seven to a tree, perched on every driftlog or rootwad, even crouched on stream banks, eagles scan for fish.
The last salmon run of the year draws these bald eagles to a raucous feast at the "Council Grounds." Although freezing temperatures have sealed most northern rivers by November, the Chilkat stays open from warm upwellings flushed by convergent waters. Joining the raptors for the autumnal banquet are wolves, coyotes, marten, wolverines, and the occasional brown bear willing to delay hibernation for a last meal. Resting four miles apart on banks facing the flats, two Tlingit villages attest to the rich resources in this spot. Most people live in Klukwan, sometimes called the "mother village," which, at the time of Muir's 1879 voyage, was one of the largest permanent Native American communities on the continent.
With one shrill, descending whistle, the eagle flaps several long, steady beats across the flats, angles over Klukwan, and rides the thermals upriver twenty miles north to Turtle Rock. Below its wings, the upper Chilkat twists northeast and stair-steps into cloud-hemmed peaks toward its origins in Yukon ice only ten miles from the head of the Yukon River, where water travels two thousand miles to the Bering Sea. Instead of following the stream past the tree line, the bird rises over a pass in the Takshanuk Mountains, angles east, and drops into the head of another river valley hemmed by another granitic range. From its thousand-foot vantage, the eagle scrutinizes the deep forest of the upper Chilkoot watershed as it tumbles through an uninhabited valley to Chilkoot Lake. Opposite its mouth on the south side of the lake, the valley narrows to a few hundred yards where the Chilkoot River leaves the lake for its last mile to the sea.
The powerful bird descends to inspect the river more closely, a misty corridor flanked by old-growth spruce. Just after the river leaves the lake, another Tlingit village hugs the shore. Slab-board platforms, from which villagers spear passing salmon, extend into the river. The eagle glides a half-mile downstream until he spies his mate hunched atop a coho carcass on a grassy bank. The new arrival pipes a shrill acknowledgment and lands on a nearby house-sized rock seamed with moss and blueberry. Bramble around the outsized boulder is pressed flat to the ground, evidence of the scores of humans who recently gathered around Deer Rock for a peacemaking ceremony between former disputants. The eagle sees only the rotting salmon in his mate's talons. He half-unfolds his wings and hops clumsily toward his lifelong companion. She delivers a piercing admonition and returns to her meal. He sulks back to the rock.
In the lazy, late morning that it takes to wing from Glacier Bay to the lower Chilkoot River, the eagle soared over much of a 2.6-million-acre homeland once considered the property of Chilkat and Chilkoot people. They claim it today.
Despite the popular misconception that communal property dominated Native American society, the Tlingits of Southeast Alaska possessed a keen sense of ownership, especially for at.oow (clan treasure), which included artwork, regalia, and weapons as well as landscape — lakes, stream mouths, berry patches, beaches — even stars. As custodians of two coveted passes into interior lands, northern Tlingits historically required that visitors ask permission and likely pay for use of their aaní (territory).
In the centuries before John Muir's visit to Jilkáat aaní (Chilkat country), traditional conflicts usually ignited around rights of entry, resource use, or personal affront. In his 1927 memoir, S. Hall Young, Muir's missionary friend, held that Tlingits derived from ancient Hebrews because of their "ready acceptance of the doctrine of blood-atonement." Tlingit law dictated that wrongs be avenged with swift force, often resulting in prolonged tensions between village and clan groups. In his book, the missionary neglected to note the custom of establishing "peace rocks" where embattled local parties resolved grievances and recommitted themselves to unity. Young offered a more-righteous path to peace: "Boston men" expected Natives to resolve their conflicts in a different, civilized way: signing a paper before armed soldiers, sometimes consummating the exchange with ceremonial alcohol and always ending with prayer.
"ALWAYS BEEN A COMMUNITY"
According to Lukaax.ádi headman Austin Hammond, the story of the northern Tlingit began with the Flood. Hammond wasn't sure when it happened, but he retained key details from repeated tellings by his grandfather, Joe Whiskers of the House That Came Down from the Sky.
An abrupt rise in water level off the tip of Chilkat Peninsula sent fishermen back to Lkoot to warn villagers. The community responded immediately. Men felled trees that they lashed together in huge rafts. Women and children wrapped food and possessions in hides secured to the logs. Barking dogs kept bears from clambering aboard, so wild animals rode out the Flood on other logs.
The water rose over four thousand feet until the rafts reached the rock spires of Kashagnak, a steep mountain whose walls plummet to the western shore of Chilkoot Lake. Villagers tied their canoes to the spires, sometimes called "Noah's Posts," but the flood currents tore them loose. The wayward vessels carried castaways past the Coast Range into the Interior where they were found by the Gunanaa (Different People).
The bands of Athabaskans who roamed the Yukon–Rocky Mountain region assimilated the newcomers, but Tlingit elders warned their children against settling: "This isn't our land. This isn't our land. Don't get crazy here. Our land is way on the other side of the mountain."
When the children were grown, Hammond said, they longed for their homeland, so groups paddled down from the Interior plateaus on the great rivers of the Northwest Coast — the Taku, Stikine, and Nass. Upon reaching the coast, clan groups dispersed throughout the island empire that white men later called Alexander Archipelago. Modern scholars suggest that the mass migration more likely occurred about ten thousand years ago, but most agree on the settlement patterns. Those Tlingits who navigated the Nass River settled in the southern portions of the region, including Tongass (Ketchikan-Saxman), and on Prince of Wales Island at Klawock. Most Stikine (Shtax héen) clansmen congregated at a large village near the mouth of the river, but some ventured as far as Sitka on the outer coast and in the area that eventually became Glacier Bay. Taku people settled closer to their salmon-rich river near present-day Juneau. After venturing down the Nass, the people of Hammond's mother built a village in Duncan Canal, a sheltered inlet that nearly pinches Kupreanof Island in half. They called it Lukaax and themselves the Lukaax.ádi.
Since Tlingits resided near year-round subsistence resources, food tied people together. For purposes related to food and social balance, villages and seasonal camps were established throughout each claimed territory. Domestic conflict is a reason for residents to move away from their aaní, which may have happened with the Lukaax.ádi.
"We were sojourners here," said Hammond — wanderers in search of a home. As they paddled north, the Lukaax.ádi scouted for unoccupied territory but encountered only lands claimed before them, so they moved on. They continued to the head of Lynn Canal, where they discovered in the eastern arm a thriving salmon stream apparently unclaimed by another group. Before long, Tlingits arrived in canoes from a big village up the fjord's western arm. They claimed the river but permitted the Lukaax.ádi to establish a community called Lkoot.
For their village site, the immigrants chose a river bend just below the lake outlet. From there, the river muscles through a mile of old-growth spruce and huge boulders until it spills into Lutak Inlet. Its name derives from the cooling shade of the narrow valley, which made fortified sheds unnecessary to overwinter salmon stores. Expansive and sunny, the river in the western valley was called Jilkáat (with a cache) because food preservation required the protection of log structures. Runoff from six glaciers keep Jilkáat waters opaque. The Lkoot runs clear.
Exactly when the Lukaax.ádi settled at Lkoot is hard to say. Fishtrap remnants found at the Chilkoot River mouth in 2002 were carbon-dated to twenty-one hundred years ago. Some Native peoples, possibly Lkoot, lived there then, but their precise identities remain a mystery.
The narrative in these pages might differ from what Austin Hammond and other elders envisioned in the 1980s when they urged me to "tell the story," but it is one a white student can tell. Other than as contextual reference, I leave the legends and clan stories to their owners. Instead, these chapters view a century of Chilkat-Anglo interface through a rhetorical lens and tell a story of indigenous people using persuasive strategies with white people (especially Muir) and each other, and relate the effects over time. This work borrows from anthropologists, linguists, historians and culture bearers, but aspires neither to retrace their steps nor affirm their theories. Rather, the intent here is to convey the breathtaking story of the northern Tlingit people, who attempted through various persuasive means to sustain a venerable culture while attempting to ride the white wave.
Consider Aristotle's view of rhetoric as the "art" used for "discovering in the particular case the available means of persuasion." The keen observer of humanity understands the process. First, the exigency arises — a moment that demands a response, like threats to life, land, or freedoms. Second, the rhetor considers "the nature of the soul" she wishes to persuade. Third, based on an assessment of the audience, she selects a strategy and conveys messages by verbal and nonverbal means. Since a rhetorical act is "judged by its effect on someone," the outcomes of historic encounters reveal clues to the persuasive powers at play. Moved, swayed, turned, blocked — we often talk about the effects of rhetoric in physical terms. Sometimes violence is mistaken for persuasion. Absent audience choice, violence for its own sake is not rhetorical, but the threat of violence sustains exigencies from which clans or nations may construct entire diplomatic relations.
Chilkat reputation depended on it.
This book also parts with Austin Hammond's perceptions of time. According to anthropologists Frederica de Laguna and Catherine McClellan, the Tlingit mind conceives of time within these frameworks: Early Mythic Time, Raven Myths, Legendary Time, and Historical Time. The first three time frames connect Tlingit people of today with their ancestors — myths set origin themes; Raven grafts the mortal with the divine; clan legends reinforce affiliation. The Tlingit sense of time allows myth to arise even today; old stories are still considered clan property to the modern Tlingit. Those stories are best told by clan members or by those authorized to do so.
These pages focus on northern Tlingit encounters with non-Natives in the decades leading up to and including their meeting with John Muir. A second book will trace the effects of Muir on the next seven generations of Chilkat and Chilkoot people, featuring a longstanding conflict over some of the most-valuable Native artifacts in the United States. Woven into a narrative built from authoritative texts and documents are the voices of contemporary Tlingit elders whose forebears were transformed by the Ice Chief. Although sometimes vague, contradictory, or incomplete, Native oral histories offer cultural insights not available in the diaries and reports of Euro-Americans. Beyond infrequent archeological discoveries on the Northwest Coast, precontact activities are primarily known by legend or hearsay. Anyone seeking clues to the past must consider — or at least listen to — the context of memory. For example, northern Tlingit elders agree that while the Lukaax.ádi were the first permanent inhabitants of Chilkoot and Taiya Inlets in the eastern half of the aaní, they also suggest that the Gaanaxteidí controlled the entire area long before the sojourners' arrival. The "first family" saw the advantage of an alliance, so they formed partnerships with the latecomers. Elders are less certain about the Great Flood, which nineteenth-century biblical scholars claimed occurred around 1650 b.c.
Excerpted from "Across the Shaman's River"
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