The Life of a Chilkat Indian Girl

By: Florence Shotridge

Originally Published in 1913

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With the Chilkats, as with all the peoples of Southeastern Alaska, the training of a child was not a difficult problem. The Indians considered it a natural thing for a child to do what it was told to do. This natural system was the only one employed. In the majority of cases, however, a boy was given to his uncle to bring up. It was believed that if a boy were brought up at home where he is apt to be petted and spoiled more than is good for him, he would not make a strong man. So just as soon as he became a youth he was taken by his uncle to be trained by him.

A small model of a village with five large buildings
Fig. 85.—Model of the central part of the Chilkat village at Klukwan, Alaska.
Image Number: 12591

Besides helping with the daily duties of the home, little boys and girls were given careful oral instructions along their individual lines on morals, on religion, on social and other matters. One important thing against which they were daily cautioned was a too free use of the tongue. With girls, this habit was entirely forbidden.

A young woman reserved in manners, neat in her work and appearance, not talkative or indulging in too much laughter, was said to be well bred and was respected accordingly. So while the girl was yet quite young the mother taught her quietness; even her cries were repressed. If a child exhibited rough manners, she was rebuked by her elder thus: ” Are you a boy, that you should be rough?” Sometimes, to make a stronger impression on her mind, she was led to believe that she would meet with severe corporeal punishment from her big brother or her uncle, never from her father. Such punishments as she was promised however, were very rarely inflicted. Little girls were told to play quietly with their dolls; if they made more noise than was necessary their playthings were taken from them as punishment. Besides play, hand work of a simple form was taught them. During the food-preparing seasons they were taken along and allowed to put up what they wanted in little packets for their own special use; and in the winter-time some of these a child would give to an aged relative. I remember how proud I used to be to give to an aged aunt foods that I had prepared. If a child wanted to earn something she would give part of her stores to a brother or uncle, who would pay twice the value for encouragement.

Thus, beginning at an early age, a child was given an outline of what she was to go through later.

Arriving at puberty, the Indian girl is obliged to cast off every thing pertaining to childhood, and become more reserved in manner, as is befitting her years. She is taken in hand by her mother—if motherless, by the nearest female relative—and put under special training for a period of from four to twelve months, the difference of time depending upon the parents’ social circumstances. This is considered the most important period in a girl’s life, as much of her future welfare depends upon how she is taken care of at this time.

A small room near the parents’ sleeping place is provided for her and her attendant. There are two entrances, one opening into the house, the other to outside; the former is used for girls and women visitors, the latter for going out into the open.

The very first thing that a girl does upon entering is to fast for as many days as was agreed upon by her relatives-the usual number is four—drinking water only, towards evening. During her fast, the first instruction is given her on how to accustom herself to the life she is to go through. After this come the many complicated rules which for an inexperienced girl are rather difficult to understand, but are given to her on appropriate occasions. Her food is carefully selected and prepared. Special attention is given to her manners at all times. In drinking water, a bone tube is supplied her through which to sip it. On receiving a visitor, she may smile but not be the first to speak. Personal care is necessary, and that she must learn. Neatness in everything is practiced. Her experience in handwork when a child helps her to become proficient at this time. After she has acquired neatness in everything, she is given sonic important thing to make, such as a ceremonial costume for a famed dancer, or something for a person holding a high office; this is to have her understand what it is to do things for the public.

On “coming out”, an expression which has a literal significance in the case of the Chilkat girl at this period when she emerges from her seclusion to enter upon the period of womanhood, a cape with hood attached and long fringe sewed to the front of the hood is made for her out of fine skins; this she wears-the fringe covering her face-for a number of days, or until she is used to the public.

As there were no written rules that could be read, studied and memorized, signs and devices of many kinds were made to aid the girl to keep in mind the instructions, and by constantly applying them and referring to them helped her to make the teaching part of herself.

A girl who goes through this training can, when entrusted with anything, whether great or small, be relied upon to see to it properly. She is strongly impressed with the idea that it would be a disgrace if she made a failure.

It is not, as sometimes stated, the general belief of my people that a pubescent girl’s glance will destroy things and turn one substance into another. These sayings were taken from the myths; the Indians use them when called upon to discuss this subject in public. The main reason for emphasizing these observances was to cause the girl’s mind to easily grasp and retain the teachings given to her on attaining womanhood.

After the arrival of the missionaries many people became Christians, while others preferred to keep to the old-fashioned beliefs and ways of living. With the conversion, the ancient customs faded away. Until a few years ago the custom of seclusion of young girls for a prescribed period just prior to entering upon the life of womanhood was strictly observed. It may be doubted whether the missionaries understood its real significance when they opposed the practice. In any case it may now be regarded as practically a thing of the past.

FLORENCE SHOTRIDGE

Cite This Article

Shotridge, Florence. "The Life of a Chilkat Indian Girl." The Museum Journal IV, no. 3 (September, 1913): 101-103. Accessed February 21, 2024. https://www.penn.museum/sites/journal/279/


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