The arts of the Tlingit Indians follow very closely upon tradition, and having recourse to imagination as well as observation, hand down to posterity many rare conceptions. These arts, as I have stated elsewhere, consist of carving, painting and weaving, by which the mythic tales, the prototypes of animals of land, air and water, and the denizens of the unseen world are represented.
To illustrate these arts, I have chosen, for this article, a war knife. This specimen, although not among the most conspicuous of the many important objects exhibited in the Northwest Coast Hall of the University Museum, has its own story and has in fact a special importance. The knife itself, its name, the material in which it is wrought and everything connected with it have many sentimental associations for the Tlingit.
The blade and guard are made of iron and the pommel of ivory. The grip has an iron core covered with mesh made from the hair of the wild goat. Both the iron and the ivory are said to be the same pieces mentioned in the legend given in the following pages. The ivory pommel is carved like a human skull which represents a ghost, the cavities being inlaid with blue iridescent abalone shell that glows with soft hues. The blade is well hardened metal with sharp edges on both sides, wrought out in one piece with one end reduced like a stem or tang which is driven into the ivory pommel. A separate piece of the iron is shaped to fit the handle end to form a guard. The length of the weapon, from tip to the top of the handle, is fifteen and one-half inches.
I obtained this old knife from the last of Thunder Bird House group of the Shungu-kaydi clan of Chilkat. It was the only object which carried with it to the present day a record of the important part which the clan took in establishing a trade connection between the northern Tlingit and the alien tribes of the interior. It was the last link with the past and therefore the last thing with which the clan was willing to part.
Chilkat is not the original home of the Tlingit Indians; they immigrated to this region from the south, and like any immigrants who have found themselves in a strange country, when they came to settle at the head of Lynn Canal, they did not know that the adjacent regions were inhabited. Their inland hunting grounds, for some years were confined to the neighboring mountains, but the interior of the country was shut off by ice, that is by glaciers which filled the canyon passages at the head of the Chilkat River. The geographical knowledge of the people who were found inhabiting the Chilkat region when the Tlingit arrived, did not cover more than a narrow strip of land toward the northern interior.
Being more aggressive and virile in nature, the Tlingit immigrants did not stop to be contented with the limited area that surrounded them. Efforts were made, in the way of expeditions, to become more familiar with the new country, but nothing new or important was discovered until a small party of men, under the leadership of a Shungu-kaydi man by name of Kayi-shawyi (Eagle-head), ventured over what is now known as the Saint Elias Range.
There is no accurate geographical information to be offered to indicate the exact location of the regions referred to in the account of the journey, and we can only guess at localities by computing the time it took to walk from the starting point. The legend shows that after crossing the desert of ice, the party went along the Pacific coast all the way to what is now known as Copper River. This journey on foot, which is said to have taken all of the favorable season, proved a very difficult one. Even at the present time with maps and modern equipment, one is often puzzled as to a safe course over the deserts of ice along the way.
When the explorers returned to Kluckwan, the old native town on the Chilkat River where I was born, only very few of the men survived to receive the honors of discovery and the prospect of acquiring riches. Same lost their lives while crossing the ice and others died of starvation. The survivors on their return told their story and made known the inhabited regions of the west coast. They also brought back iron and ivory, articles previously unknown to the Tlingit people.
In rewriting the account of the journey I have preserved the original form as far as translation from Tlingit to English permits. The language in which these legends are told is what might be called poetic in form and often archaic. It is a form of diction that will sometimes yield in translation to obsolete forms of English.
The story follows.
The Journey Through Chan-you-ka
“It was Foliage-moon [term for the month in which the foliage leaves appear on the trees, or month of May] when Shungu-kaydi laid packs in canoes. Away they poled toward lands unknown. Not many were those braves, twenty, perhaps, they numbered. Among them was Eagle Head. Tla-hini [a branch of Chilkat River] thitherward were turned those canoes. A stream to far inland never a traveler took, for a glacier there, to shut the passage grew.
On and on moved those canoes of cottonwood. Now they punt and now they tow. Through water of ice wade uncovered feet of those brave men of long ago. Cold-cough was not known in those days, whence came the man of today, so tender he be? Regardless of all protection to him cold-cough comes.
“One camp thither Trout Creek was gained [across from where Porcupine now is]. It was here canoes were drawn ashore, and underbrush over they were turned, ‘Perchance we be fortunate to make our return hither.’ Though the trail of sun was yet long, thence and no farther was the journey that day, for always, on such journey, together must be fitted little things, re-tying packs so that better on backs they lay. Staffs too, to the hands were always made. Thus, from the beginning always was there at canoe-landing a camp.
“With the turn the sky like gray, [dawn] through loops of pack-straps faces passed. Heavy they were, those packs of food. Steep it was that Trout Creek Mount. Thitherward that journey moved, without eating for the tongue was yet coated. Different is he the man of this moment. Eat first and his work next, but the man of long ago with him was his work first and with the rise of sun comes his time to eat. Food eaten before the tongue was cleared, they say, was to the stomach unwholesome. It was then the sun was sliding. To the forest border [timber line] the journey climbed. Right was their guess, from this far away were the next trees, hence to camp the journey came.
“Thence, before daylight, again mounted the journey. It was then to the mountain base the sunbeams lowered feet when its summit the journey reached. Fire was dropped [Chilkat term for a brief stop for lunch]. Once man finished eating, on Despondent-man’s Trail [a term applied to a cross trail which, in later years, was often taken as a short cut from the prairie to Chilkat Pass] the journey moved. On and on moved that journey, now good was that new trail and now bad. In hollows there, old snow was slowly melting and retarded that snowshoeless journey.
“Two camps thither no trees were seen, only here a low growth and there some willows [from about the summit of Chilkat pass there is a stretch of rolling land of about forty miles, a divide between the Tlingit forest and the timber line from the interior].
“Maybe it was six camps from home, to the shore of river big that journey came. It is now Alsek people called. Thence, along its shore, down the journey moved. Two camps thitherward it was thought too far townward was that river flow. From drift-piles were dragged together logs and right away together was lashed a raft. It was on it thither side of the river was gained. Thence westward the journey went.
“One camp from that river, and here to ice-face that journey came, northward and southward its end was not visible. Right was their guess; far it was, that growth of ice. Whitherward should the journey go? To salt-water big, man’s mind lay. It was from thence had come a wayfarer, whilom. In way of homeward travelers that stranger had wandered. [It is evident it was this bit of vague information, which, occasionally, had been heard in Chilkat as passed on from no known authority, that convinced these men to be all the more determined in their purpose to penetrate into the unknown country.] Among timber-border of that glacier to camp the journey came. That evening mouths to same direction all pointed [the men agreed on a certain course].
“At the moment Yah-tah [Great Bear] toward daylight turned, upon the glacier that journey moved. In the cool of dawn underfoot of man was firm, but as higher rose the sun that firm surface began to melt, hence to the feet came fear. Ready was the rope of the man of long ago. Strong it was, for it was from the thighskin of goat made. From the leader’s waist it was through all hands stretched.
“Away ahead of man, side by side, stood two mountains. [Evidently, mounts Seattle and Ruhamah.] Betwix these was fair to man’s eyes. Thitherward the faces lay. Eagle Head was leading men. It was slow, they say, for crevices were many. Though to the eyes quite near they were, night fell, yet ahead were those mountains. With the night, once more, tanned skinlike was underfoot and precaution less in each step. Over the ice field lay twilight and clear to man’s eyes was where danger lay. In no mind was a camp to rest, and throughout that night on moved the line.
“In haze of dawn stood those travelers of long ago. Up the face of the mountain on the north side and then up the one on the south side ascended man’s eyes ‘Chan-you-ka’ [Midway of Chan] it was. Henceforth, in our mouths was fixed this name given by those men of long ago. In what tongue was this name given is not known. [Probably the Athapascan name had been applied to these mountains in more ancient time, and the same only made popular since the Tlingit discovery.]
“On went the journey till the mountains with the night were left behind. Toward its slide the sun was falling when to man’s ears came that sound of a great drum. The winds were whist, and through the still of air louder and louder came that thunderlike beating as man traveled on. It was the big salt water, against shore moving its arms [waves]. When man’s ear recognized that sound, to feeling pierced relief and through the limbs went that feeling, hence faster went those steps. Its last steep slide the sun had taken when among the first timber to camp the journey came. No courage left in man to go farther, sleep it was overpowered that courage.
“How much sleep was it taken when to his pack each man squatted and rushed to follow the first to leave camp? Maybe joy was come to feelings. What was there expected by man from whence, to man’s ear, came that sound. Always it is that way, a little change, in hard life, to the feeling is like berries to the mouth, for awhile it is good, but soon that taste melts away. Half way its trail the sun was when to a lake that journey came. Where is this? A lake it was thought, but Yakutat Bay it was to be. Until the tide moved downward it was not known that journey had come to the shore of salt-water. Behind mountain the sun had sunk when to the wave-lip the journey came. Against the shores, up and down, the big salt-water moved its arms. But man’s face-impression there was none. [No sign of habitation.] Where were those feelings of joy? Spruce-pitch-like, slowly, they melted away.
“Thenceforth, those feet too, like feelings, heavy they became. It was at camp, one night, talks against one another were pointed [they disagreed]. What kind of man was he whose feeling homeward turned, and his purpose to abandon? And what kind of man was he whose mind was hard enough to stick on his purpose? So against a talk went another. It is told, Eagle Head, that real man, whiles humming to himself a little tune, pushed and drew an awl at his moccasin patch. Eagle Head’s little humming, it was said, was an omen of wrath in his heart. Homesick children like to my ears ye sound’ slowly he spoke, ‘Pleasure is it for which ye came hither? Turn back on your tracks if ye choose, lest hardship might be your lot. As for me, my feeling is not to turn my face homeward empty handed.’ It was then man realized the shame of discouraged heart. Courage once more pierced the weak hearts. At camp on edge of another glacier [probably Malaspina] it was this talk went on. Few are men at this moment who have hearts strong enough to voice blame. Maybe they too, these few, would have been that way, had they stood face to face with glacier with end unknown.
“It was toward dawn on that glacier the journey moved. More dangerous this was, it was said, for crevices on it were bigger and many. On and on, slowly, moved that journey. No sorrow could have come to the travelers then, had two young men taken more care. Maybe it was from self-guard away wandered their minds these men. Thence two first deaths among them were borne. Good young men, from amongst them were gone. To ice crevices they fell. Always it is that way, much care man may take, yet his time to die ignores that care.
“Who was there to bear blame for those lost lives? The mouth of Eagle Head was then feared for no man dare say what he felt about what happened there. In meditation sat those travelers. Maybe in some minds feeling vacillated and decided now one way, and now the other; but no mind there was strong enough to turn about on the tracks. While with troubled hearts those travelers sat, Eagle Head snatched his pack strap ‘Walk ye on, is it to you a new thing that man should die?’ With this remark on he started to walk. One by one after the leader those men slowly moved. Into feet creeped trouble; yet, in spite of all, never yielded that heart of Eagle Head. How strong must have been the heart of that man. Maybe Horizon-people’s [Europeans] steel it was like; it never bent. One night and two daylights went over that journey to gain thither side of that glacier. Thence, once more, along wave-lip on, that journey moved.
“It was from camp, man along wave-lip walked. Traveler of long ago, unless something there to do, never still in camp. What was it for which he looked? It was to drive away tired feeling that made in man such habit. Not far from camp that man walked. There, across his way, lay a drift log with spurs’ of queer genus. Never had man seen such spurs.’ From his girdle that man of long ago drew his adze. What was there harder than that green stone? Thence, that man of long ago, little did he think of care, with strength he struck that queer growth: ‘dumm’ came forth a sound. What was it that had such sound, and what meant this? The edge of that hard green-stone adze broken off and only a bright spot where it had slipped. My adze, much on you had depended.’ For a moment into his mind pierced trouble, but stronger was the thought of that queer log.
“Maybe then was come to the mind of that man of long ago, at hand lay a superior to his green-stone. For some moments on the queer log looked that man. Then over he rolled it. There stuck out more of those spurs.’ Carefully that man looked and felt, then to the camp and to comrades he told. Right away with him they went thither. To camp that log was carried. First with rocks they pounded. No, those queer spurs’ only bent. ‘What to it will fire do?’ On the fire was laid that queer log and on it lay all eyes. Behold, before man’s eyes that log burned, but what they thought spurs turned only like red hot coals. Thus, in the hands of Tlingit, through a drift log, was borne iron.
“It was then Coho salmon, one by one, swam in streams [late summer] to shore of a river big the journey came. It was, maybe, Copper River now called. Here the mind of man vacillated and decided now to cross and go onward along the shore of big salt water, and now to follow that river big. One camp in one place another follow, and through those days slept Eagle Head. Never from his mouth was heard his feeling, maybe now a little bend in that strong heart. No one there can say what will favor man’s effort.
“How many camps it was in this one place was not told, when smoke was sighted, away toward upstream. ‘Gunanah’ [alien tribe] man said. To make certain no one said. Whoever happened near his pack, to it he squatted and in one accord a run was made toward that smoke. To the eyes, right near was that smoke, but notwithstanding that haste, before it was reached night fell. It was not too dark and eyes could see clearly the way ahead. Where went heavy feelings? Excitement overpowered, and on went hurried feet.
“From behind a point went forth those travelers, and right before eyes lay many fires; a long row of habitation, it looked; perhaps a great town. Maybe opposite nostril was the breeze, hence was never scented all that smoke. Travelers were yet far away when at them dogs began to bark. On opposite side of stream quietly halted those travelers. From amongst that habitation first came forth a voice, Who be ye,’ it meant, perhaps. No one was there to tell what that strange tongue had said. ‘Tlingit [human] we are, it is thy presence we seek.’ They likewise had failed to understand man from another place. While man’s feeling hesitated to wade across, those fires were all extinguished. Alien people, always, like wild animals, they are shy. Through the swish of running stream and night was heard talking; cradle infants too were crying. There was nothing else the travelers could do, but to await daylight. The people they searched were of them afraid.
“Gradually night faded away and on a large camp opened dawn; a long row of houses of brush. Presently, one by one, smoke stood from within each dwelling. Eagle Head it was who came out to stream edge. With motion he talked to the people across and one by one together came those new people. In front of them stood their head man, who likewise talked with motions to the travelers. Few words only the chief passed out and with his finish other talks were mixed. Happy they all seemed. The travelers then were summoned to come.
“Amongst alien tribe thither walked Tlingit. To this day in the same manner we walk thither. In the open those travelers were surrounded and on them lay strange eyes. Maybe curious they were to those eyes. From among that crowd came forth their chief. Likewise Eagle Head went forward to meet him and face to face stood Tlingit and man of alien tribe, and with motion-talk each other they acknowledged. Presently, from his pouch the Tlingit brought to view his dotzi [Fire making apparatus of flint and pyrites]. With it was some tinder of scraped root of the red cedar. Before the eyes of the alien people began to blaze a fire from a spark. For a moment there was silence, and then came confusion of voices. Alien people, they were amazed. After he gave his dotzi that test, Eagle Head placed it in its pouch and then held it toward the alien man. ‘To thine hands I brought this my friend.’ With these words in the hands of alien man was placed that fire-making set. With wooden drill it was they made fire those inland people. In return that chief from his shoulder he lifted his quiver of arrows, and with his bow he gave it to Eagle Head. Thus, with gifts were expressed greetings of Tlingit and alien man.
“No longer was there feeling of suspicion. In advance of feasting there, before those travelers, lined up to dance those alien people, for it is their custom. With dance they greet friendship. Do they make up for dance, as we do? Not at all, those nomads, whoever happened near, some maybe with packs of infants, and as they are, down to dancing they move at the moment song is started. Happy they are, those inland people. Though to them was known all dangers of man, yet among them was calm life. Why Tlingit learn not this good life? How bad must have bee’ our ancestor, his offspring only to other man antagonist be. We were bothered first, perhaps, thence our strike was hard with other man.
“How many were their camps amongst those alien people was not told. All through their stay, of course, went on exchanging of things. Everything from the travelers hands went as gifts, in return for many things the alien people gave. It was at that time to the Tlingit was given walrus tusk [ivory] which, heretofore, like the iron was unknown to them.
“The people found in that camp pointed to still other people [probably Eskimo] living farther on [westward], and meeting point it was where they were found. It was at that time, perhaps, to the Tlingit came knowledge of copper; that is not known to us. It was from that region, in later years, to our hands copper came.
“It was then cottonwood leaves had yellow like turned [autumn] when a cry of warning of the return approach of Chan-you-ka travelers was heard in Kluckwan. Before the town drifted their canoes. When those canoes came to shore there, only a very few of those men came home, the missing had fallen along the way. To some person a son and to other a husband, perhaps, a father too was missing; a moment of sorrow that was, from different sections was heard only cries of sorrow.
“In his canoe stood Eagle Head, never before in his manhood did his voice tremble. Maybe it was from above that to his strong heart entered sorrow, when he pronounced those names, one by one, of the brave men who fell along the way. From the beginning it was that way, through sacrifice only does man acquire something worth while. It was at the cost of brave lives we now have on our hands things that constitute our pride.
“Thence, how long on man’s hands this iron lay is not known. Until Kah-ooshti [a war lord of the Kahguan-taun clan] rose in his uncle’s stead, it was never brought to view, and it was in his hands like war knife it was formed. When first finished it was not as you see it now. Only since grind stone came to our hands its rough surface was made smooth; the ivory head, however, was never changed, it is as was first made.
“It was during Kahguan-taun encounter with Tika-nah [a Tlingit division occupying southwest coast of Prince of Wales Island] that this knife was finished. The man of long ago, always on its right time he did a thing like this, thus it was in war time this knife was awarded. One day from house to house passed a messenger, ‘Kah-ooshti to Finned House calls his clansmen.’
“When all were seated in his council house, before man stood that great warrior, ‘Ye men of Nays-adi, Shungu-kaydi and Kahguan-taun [clans or subdivisions of one side of the tribal division] I desire your support, for without ye what is there can I accomplish! At this moment on ye men I call to confirm desires of those men in whose stead I stand before ye. From that moment it was told me not once did it leave my mind the deed performed by those men who gave their lives in Chan-you-ka journey, in confirmation of the noblest claim. My heart feels good that it is on my hands fallen to bring out the object of man’s mind [referring to intentions of men whom the warrior succeeded]. It was when troubled mind had calmed, Eagle Head, at that time, made a remark, ‘Only our ghosts are returned to you, ye children of Shungu-kaydi,’ thence, man forget not his remark.
“At the end of his speech, from its sheath that great warrior drew forth this knife, Denizen of unseen world.’ It was Kah-ooshti who pronounced the name. With outstretched hands the man held it and called he, ‘Eagle Head, take it, in thy hands shall rest memories of thy brave men.’ From among men came forth Eagle Head. He was much bent, his eyesight too was very short, for age had come over him. ‘Kahguan-taun! Acceptance only, in this old age, can I offer. Now only in dream shall be my post. Had this moment but come while I was young! I take this knife only to pass through these old hands, I trove, to hands of more power.’ In this manner to the hands of Shungu-kaydi passed this knife.”
Thus, it was the remark, made by the courageous adventurer, that inspired the artist who fashioned the name of the war knife on the Pommel, and as near as the Tlingit idea can be interpreted in English, the name of the knife is, The Ghost of Courageous Adventurer.