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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 3 - Chapter XIII. Alaska Indians


LOOKING back on my Alaska travels, I have always been glad that good luck gave me Mr. Young as a companion, for he brought me into confiding contact with the Thlinkit tribes, so that I learned their customs, what manner of men they were, how they lived and loved, fought and played, their morals, religion, hopes and fears, and superstitions, how they resembled and differed in their characteristics from our own and other races. It was easy to see that they differed greatly from the typical American Indian of the interior of this continent. They were doubtless derived from the Mongol stock. Their down-slanting oval eyes, wide cheek-bones, and rather thick, outstanding upper lips at once suggest their connection with the Chinese or Japanese. I have not seen a single specimen that looks in the least like the best of the Sioux, or indeed of any of the tribes to the east of the Rocky Mountains. They also differ from other North American Indians in being willing to work, when free from the contamination of bad whites. They manage to feed themselves well, build good, substantial houses, bravely fight their enemies, love their wives and children and friends, and cherish a quick sense of honor. The best of them prefer death to dishonor, and sympathize with their neighbors in their misfortunes and sorrows. Thus when a family loses a child by death, neighbors visit them to cheer and console. They gather around the fire and smoke, talk kindly and naturally, telling the sorrowing parents not to grieve too much, reminding them of the better lot of their child in another world and of the troubles and trials the little ones escape by dying young, all this in a perfectly natural, straightforward way, wholly unlike the vacant, silent, hesitating behavior of most civilized friends, who oftentimes in such cases seem nonplussed, awkward, and afraid to speak, however sympathetic.

The Thlinkits are fond and indulgent parents. In all my travels I never heard a cross, fault-finding word, or anything like scolding inflicted on an Indian child, or ever witnessed a single case of spanking, so common in civilized communities. They consider the want of a son to bear their name and keep it alive the saddest and most deplorable ill-fortune imaginable.

The Thlinkit tribes give a hearty welcome to Christian missionaries. In particular they are quick to accept the doctrine of the atonement, because they themselves practice it, although to many of the civilized whites it is a stumbling-block and rock of offense. As an example of their own doctrine of atonement they told Mr. Young and me one evening that twenty or thirty years ago there was a bitter war between their own and the Sitka tribe, great fighters, and pretty evenly matched. After fighting all summer in a desultory, squabbling way, fighting now under cover, now in the open, watching for every chance for a shot, none of the women dared venture to the salmon-streams or berry-fields to procure their winter stock of food. At this crisis one of the Stickeen chiefs came out of his block-house fort into an open space midway between their fortified camps, and shouted that he wished to speak to the leader of the Sitkas.

When the Sitka chief appeared he said:

"My people are hungry. They dare not go to the salmon-streams or berry-fields for winter supplies, and if this war goes on much longer most of my people will die of hunger. We have fought long enough; let us make peace. You brave Sitka warriors go home, and we will go home, and we will all set out to dry salmon and berries before it is too late."

The Sitka chief replied: —

"You may well say let us stop fighting, when you have had the best of it. You have killed ten more of my tribe than we have killed of yours. Give us ten Stickeen men to balance our blood-account; then, and not till then, will we make peace and go home."

"Very well," replied the Stickeen chief, "you know my rank. You know that I am worth ten common men and more. Take me and make peace."

This noble offer was promptly accepted; the Stickeen chief stepped forward and was shot down in sight of the fighting bands. Peace was thus established, and all made haste to their homes and ordinary work. That chief literally gave himself a sacrifice for his people. He died that they might live. Therefore, when missionaries preached the doctrine of atonement, explaining that when all mankind had gone astray, had broken God's laws and deserved to die, God's son came forward, and, like the Stickeen chief, offered himself as a sacrifice to heal the cause of God's wrath and set all the people of the world free, the doctrine was readily accepted.

"Yes, your words are good," they said. The Son of God, the Chief of chiefs, the Maker of all the world, must be worth more than all mankind put, together; therefore, when His blood was shed, the salvation of the world was made sure."

A telling illustration of the ready acceptance of this doctrine was displayed by Shakes, head chief of the Stickeens at Fort Wrangell. A few years before my first visit to the Territory, when the first missionary arrived, he requested Shakes to call his people together to hear the good word he had brought them. Shakes accordingly sent out messengers throughout the village, telling his people to wash their faces, put on their best clothing, and come to his block-house to hear what their visitor had to say. 'When all were assembled, the missionary preached a Christian sermon on the f all of man and the atonement whereby Christ, the Son of God, the Chief of chiefs, had redeemed all mankind, provided that this redemption was voluntarily accepted with repentance of their sins and the keeping of his commandments.

When the missionary had finished his sermon, Chief Shakes slowly arose, and, after thanking the missionary for coming so far to bring them good tidings and taking so much unselfish interest in the welfare of his tribe, he advised his people to accept the new religion, for he felt satisfied that because the white man knew so much more than the Indian, the white man's religion was likely to be better than theirs.

"The white man," said he, "makes great ships. We, like children, can only make canoes. He makes his big ships go with the wind, and he also makes them go with fire. We chop down trees with stone axes; the Boston man with iron axes, which are far better. In everything the ways of the white ,man seem to be better than ours. Compared with the white man we are only blind children, knowing not how best to live either here or in the country we go to after we die. So I wish you to learn this new religion and teach it to your children, that you may all go when you die into that good heaven country of the white man and be happy. But I am too old to learn a new religion, and besides, many of my people who have died were bad and foolish people, and if this word the missionary has brought us is true, and I think it is, many of my people must be in that bad country the missionary calls `Hell,' and I must go there also, for a Stickeen chief never deserts his people in time of trouble. To that bad country, therefore, I will go, and try to cheer my people and help them as best I can to endure their misery."

Toyatte was a famous orator. I was present at the meeting at Fort Wrangell at which he was examined and admitted as a member of the Presbyterian Church. When called upon to answer the questions as to his ideas of God, and the principal doctrines of Christianity, he slowly arose in the crowded audience, while the missionary said, "Toyatte, you do not need to rise. You can answer the questions seated."

To this he paid no attention, but stood several minutes without speaking a word, never for a moment thinking of sitting down like a tired woman while making the most important of all the speeches of his life. He then explained in detail what his mother had taught him as to the character of God, the great Maker of the world; also what the shamans had taught him; the thoughts that often came to his mind when he was alone on hunting expeditions, and what he first thought of the religion which the missionaries had brought them. In all his gestures, and in the language in which he expressed himself, there was a noble simplicity and earnestness and majestic bearing which made the sermons and behavior of the three distinguished divinity doctors present seem commonplace in comparison.

Soon after our return to Fort Wrangell this grand old man was killed in a quarrel in which he had taken no other part than that of peacemaker. A number of the Taku tribe came to Fort Wrangell, camped near the Stickeen village, and made merry, manufacturing and drinking hootchenoo, a vile liquor distilled from a mash made of flour, dried apples, sugar, and molasses, and drunk hot from the still. The manufacture of hootchenoo being illegal, and several of Toyatte's tribe having been appointed deputy constables to prevent it, they went to the Taku camp and destroyed as much of the liquor as they could find. The Takus resisted, and during the quarrel one of the Stickeens struck a Taku in the face — an unpardonable offense. The next day messengers from the Taku camp gave notice to the Stickeens that they must make atonement for that blow, or fight with guns. Mr. Young, of course, was eager to stop the quarrel and so was Toyatte. They advised the Stickeen who had struck the Taku to return to their camp and submit to an equal blow in the face from the Taku. He did so; went to the camp, said he was ready to make atonement, and invited the person whom he had struck to strike him. This the Taku did with so much force that the balance of justice was again disturbed. The attention of the Takus was called to the fact that this atoning blow was far harder than the one to be atoned for, and immediately a sort of general free fist-fight began, and the quarrel was thus increased in bitterness rather than diminished.

Next day the Takus sent word to the Stickeens to get their guns ready, for to-morrow they would come up and fight them, thus boldly declaring war. The Stickeens in great excitement assembled and loaded their guns for the coming strife. Mr. Young ran hither and thither amongst the men of his congregation, forbidding them to fight, reminding them that Christ told them when they were struck to offer the other cheek instead of giving a blow in return, doing everything in his power to still the storm, but all in vain. Toyatte stood outside one of the big block-houses with his men about him, awaiting the onset of the Takus. Mr. Young tried hard to get him away to a place of safety, reminding him that he belonged to his church and no longer had any right to fight. Toyatte calmly replied:

"Mr. Young, Mr. Young, I am not going to fight. You see I have no gun in my hand; but I cannot go inside of the fort to a place of safety like women and children while my young men are exposed to the bullets of their enemies. I must stay with them and share their dangers, but I will not fight. But you, Mr. Young, you must go away; you are a minister and you are an important man. It would not do for you to be exposed to bullets. Go to your home in the fort; pretty soon `hi yu poogh" (much shooting).

At the first fire Toyatte fell, shot through the breast. Thus died for his people the noblest old Roman of them all.

On this first Alaska excursion I saw Toyatte under all circumstances, — in rain and snow, landing at night in dark storms, making fires, building shelters, exposed to all kinds of discomfort, but never under any circumstances did I ever see him do anything, or make a single gesture, that was not dignified, or hear him say a word that might not be uttered anywhere. He often deplored the fact that he had no son to take his name at his death, and expressed himself as very grateful when I told him that his name would not be forgotten, - that I had named one of the Stickeen glaciers for him.


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