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I. The Totempolar Region

When one leaves Puget Sound and heads Northwestward toward Alaska, he almost immediately enters a region known for the past 200 years as the "Northwest Coast." It comprises all of coastal British Columbia and the Alaskan "Panhandle" or, in other words, Southeastern Alaska.

This area, roughly a thousand miles long, is fringed by countless timbered islands, large and small. The mainland as well as the major islands is deeply indented by bays, fiords, sounds and inlets until there is an area navigable from the seacoast a hundred miles inland. (See also map of Totempolar region folded inside back cover of this book.)[Alaskool note: Map is a large file. Please allow time for it to load in your browser. Clicking on the map will open an even larger file that shows more detail.]

This incredibly beautiful land of virgin timber, rock-walled fiords, roaring cataracts and majestic glaciers might well be called the "Totempolar Region," for here is the home and birthplace of those most interesting graven cedar monuments erected by a primitive people in a bygone age.

Due to the presence of a warm oriental ocean current which filters among the islands, the climate is milder than one would expect so far north. Winter temperatures have a mean of thirty-three degrees in the vicinity of Sitka and a summer maximum of eighty-seven degrees. Warm air of the Japanese current striking the cold air of the coastal range gives rise to excessive humidity and is responsible for the almost jungle-like forest where mosses hang in festoons from the trees and ferns grow with tropical luxuriance. The same condition is responsible for the heavy summer rains and fogs and the rains and snow of winter.

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Model "Kiksadi" totempole made by author’s class at Wrangell Institute for presentation to President Roosevelt. Pole was flown out on first trip of the "Alaska Clipper" in 1940, now reposes in Hyde Park Museum. [Photo by Author]

The forests, which are largely of Douglas fir at the southern end, become, as one reaches Alaska, composed largely of hemlock, spruce and cedar with a small percentage of pine and alder, and with cottonwood, alder and willow in the river valleys. The underbrush consists of varieties of salmonberry, currant and blueberries, with the ever-present devil’s club described by early explorers as a "cactus."

Wildflowers appear in great profusion, a few of which are the iris, wild rose, orchid, violet, harebell, columbine, shooting star, paint brush and geranium.

Land fauna consists of brown, black and grizzly bears; wolves, deer and small furbearers such as the mink, marten, beaver, muskrat, land otter and weasel. There are also red and flying squirrels; porcupines and marmots. On the mainland one finds mountain sheep and goats among the crags and moose in the larger river valleys. Game birds consist of several varieties of grouse and ptarmigan and the migratory waterfowl such as Canadian geese, mallard ducks and teal. Songbirds like sparrows, swallows, robins, jays, thrushes, warblers and humming-birds are common all summer. Bald eagles, gulls and ravens are the commonest of the winter birds of this region.

The numberless streams and lakes of this region are generally well-stocked with native cutthroat and rainbow trout. Absent are the common panfish such as perch, bass, crappie and catfish. There are no snakes or frogs in the totempolar region although toads and newts are common throughout the entire area. Close to the beaches one encounters few pests such as mosquitos, gnats and flies but at times they become a nuisance along the streams, yet never a plague as in the interior.

Marine fauna consists of hair seals of several varieties, sea lions, whales, killerwhales, the porpoise and, now reappearing, the sea otter. The principal fishes are five varieties of salmon, halibut, cod, herring, pilchard and eulachon. Sharks, which once supplied the natives with their version of "sandpaper," are now taken in great numbers for their livers. Shrimp and crabs are so plentiful as to become the basis of a thriving canning industry and clams are also canned commercially. Scallops and abalones exist but not in commercial quantities. All of these with the possible exception of shrimp were important items in the native diet.

Warm waters are responsible for the presence of several marine animals not generally believed to exist so far north. They are the corals, sponges, gorgonian and sea anemones. Summer brings with it great numbers of jellyfish of various types, as well as sea cucumbers and other odd and interesting sea life.

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Last of the Professional Haida totem-carvers, John Wallace (above) of Hydaburg, demonstrated his art before thousands at world fair, Treasure Island, 1939. He is shown here with his model of a Haida community house which once stood at Klinkwan. [Photo by Author]

The birthplace of the totempole is a sunken land where hilltops become islets, and mountains rise sheer from the water’s edge. Its valleys are bays and inlets, while its farmland is permanently inundated. Hence, agriculture was not practiced by the aboriginal inhabitants unless it was to cultivate small plots of native tobacco. What soil there is, is rich, and berry and root crops do well. The native secured his vegetable food by gathering wild berries, crabapples, roots and bulbs, the inner bark on the hemlock and a variety of seaweed. Since the coming of white men, they have added to their diet home-grown potatoes and turnips which they raise where their tobacco once grew, fertilizing their gardens with seaweed or starfish.

The Inhabitants

When this region was first visited by white men 200 years ago it was inhabited, and still is, by five major linguistic groups, or tribes, all of whom at some time or other, have carved totempoles or allied monuments similar to totempoles. The northernmost of these people were the Tlingits, known to the Russians as "Kolosh." They occupied all of the coastal region from Yakutat and Klukwan to Cape Fox, south of the present town of Ketchikan, with the exception of the southern end of Prince of Wales Island and Dall Island which were occupied by the Haidas some 300 years ago. Besides this area, the Haidas had their main seat in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the British Columbia mainland. The Alaskan branch of the Haida family is generally referred to as "Kaigani."

Opposite the Haida, on the mainland between the Nass and Skeena rivers, lived the Tsimshians. The Nass branch was known as Niska and those living far inland on the Skeena were called Gitksan. South of the Tsimshian dwelt the Kwakiutl who occupied both the mainland and the northeastern part of Vancouver Island. Totempoles of the Kwakiutls may still be seen in place at Alert Bay, a beautiful village on the steamer route to Alaska. A branch of the numerous Salish tribe was located on the Bella Coola River and these people are often referred to as the "Bella Coolas." While associated linguistically with the southern Salish of Washington and Southern British Columbia, these Indians had adopted the culture traits of the Northwest Coast and had become totem carvers.

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Natives of Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island, in 1778. [From a sketch by Webber in Capt. Cook’s Voyages]

Out on the west coast of Vancouver Island were the Nootkas who also were wood carvers and across the strait of Juan de Fuca at Cape Flattery were the Makahs, a branch of the Nootkan stock whose language and culture was similar. They did not carve tall totempoles but did erect carved grave figures in the human form and employed carved houseposts in their dwellings.

While the inhabitants of the Totempolar region spoke a half dozen mutually unintelligible languages, physically they diverged but slightly except in individuals. With the exception of a few Haidas who had red hair, all had coarse, straight black hair, black or brown eyes, a complexion only slightly darker than Europeans. Their stature was somewhat under that of Europeans although they were well-muscled. Legs and arms were relatively short and feet and hands were small.

In describing the inhabitants at Yakutat in 1787, Dixon said in part: "They, in general, are about middle size, their limbs straight and well-shaped, but like the rest of the inhabitants we have seen on the coast, are particularly fond of painting their faces with a variety of colors so that it is no easy matter to discover their real complexion; however, we prevailed on one woman, by persuasion, and a trifling present, to wash her face and hands, and the alteration it made in her appearance absolutely surprised us; her countenance had all the cheerful glow of an English milk-maid; and the healthy red which flushed her cheek, was even beautifully contrasted with the whiteness of her neck; her eyes were black and sparkling; her eye-brows the same colour, and most beautifully arched; her forehead so remarkably clear, that the translucent veins were seen meandering even in their minutest branches—in short, she was what would be reckoned handsome even in England."

A year earlier, in 1786, M. Rollin, Surgeon-major attached to the La Perouse expedition described the Tlingits at Port des Francais (Lituya Bay) as follows: "These people appear to me to have very little similarity to the Californians; they are taller, stouter, of a more agreeable figure, and a great vivacity of expression; they are also much their superiors in courage and sense. They have rather low foreheads, but more open than that of the Southern Americans; their eyes are black and very animated, their eyebrows much fuller; their nose of the usual size and well-formed, except being a little widened at the extremity; their lips thinner, their mouth moderately large, their teeth fine and very even, their chin and ears very regular.

"The women also have an equal advantage over those of the preceding tribes; they have much more mildness in their features and grace in their limbs."

Rollin went on to deplore the use of the labret which rendered the comeliest of women repulsive, stated the general color of the people was olive, that their hair was neither as black or coarse as that of South Americans and that chestnut colored hair was by no means infrequent among them.

Kotzebue, who visited Sitka in 1825, was not so complimentary yet can hardly be relied upon since his description is filled with inaccuracies and exaggerations. For instance, he charged them with "head-flattening," a practice never indulged in by any Alaska natives. In describing the labrets worn in the lips of the Tlingit and Haida women, Kotzebue gave free rein to his vivid imagination: "In running, the lips flap up and down so as to knock sometimes against the chin and sometimes against the nose. Upon the continent, the kaluga (labret) is worn still larger, and the female who can cover her whole face with her under-lip passes for the most perfect beauty."

John Meares described the Nootkas on the west coast of Vancouver Island whom he visited in 1788 as follows: "In their exterior form they have not the symmetry or elegance which is found in many other Indian nations. Their limbs, though stout and athletic, are crooked and ill-shaped; their skin, when cleansed of filth and ochre, is white, and we have seen some of the women, when in a state of cleanliness, which, however, was by no means a common sight, and obtained with difficulty, who not only possessed the fair complexion of Europe, but features that would have attracted notice for their delicacy and beauty, in those parts of the world where the qualities of the human form are best understood… Their hair, like that of the men, is black; their eyes are of the same color; and, in their exterior appearance, they are not to be immediately distinguished from the men. In their characters they are reserved and chaste; and examples of loose and immodest conduct were very rare among them."

Camille de Roquefeuil, a French navigator who visited the Northwest Coast in 1817 with the object of reviving French trade which had been almost annihilated by the Revolution, made many interesting observations of the people of the Northwest Coast. Speaking of the inhabitants of "Nitinat" described as a village on Berkeley Sound several leagues south of Nootka, he said, "We saw several men and a greater number of women, whose complexion differed from white only by a tinge of pale yellow. Some young people, of both sexes, had a colour, and many children would have been thought pretty in Europe. The greater number of the Indians have black hair, the remainder a light red, all wear the hair long, and the women comb it carefully, and divide it over the middle of the forehead. Both sexes dress the same as at Nootka, with this difference, that the women wear under their other garments a kind of apron of bark, not woven, but only fastened to a girdle. We saw many well-made women with good arms, but in general, very ugly hands. On the whole they are better looking than the women of Nootka, though there is something harsher in their countenances, chiefly owing to their narrow foreheads, which are wrinkled at an early age. We saw only three or four who in Europe would have any pretensions to beauty. One of them was the wife of Cia, who had received us hospitably; another, the wife of a great chief, was almost white; she had large black eyes, regular features, a fine countenance, and much propriety and dignity in her manners. The women and girls appeared as modest as those of Nootka, and still more reserved."

The tradition of "red-headed natives in hula skirts" on the Northwest Coast has generally been regarded as referring to the Haidas, among whom there has always been a fair percentage of red-heads, but Roquefeuil places them several hundred miles farther south on Vancouver Island.

Capt. George Dixon visited the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1787 and described the Haidas as follows: "The people in general are about the middle size, their limbs straight, and tolerable well-shaped; many of the older people are rather lean, but I never saw one person who could be called corpulent amongst them; both sexes are remarkably distinguished by high prominent cheek bones and small eyes… In regard to their complexion, it is no easy matter to determine what cast that is; but if I may judge from the few people I saw tolerably clean, these Indians are very little darker than the Europeans in general."

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Chief Shakes VII, last of a long line of Nanyaayi chiefs of the Wrangell and Stikine Tlingits, died January 16, 1944. [Photo by Author, 1940]

He remarked that the hair of both sexes was long and bla-ck, that the young men plucked out their beards but that in advanced years men had beards all over the chin and some had moustaches.

Marchand also described the Haidas of Queen Charlotte Islands whom he visited in 1791. He found them not differing materially in stature from Europeans, better proportioned and better formed than the Sitkans and without the gloomy and wild look of the latter. Their color he found did not differ from that of Frenchmen, and several were less swarthy "than the inhabitants of our country places."

Soap was unknown on this coast at that time yet Surgeon Roblet, who accompanied Marchand, testified that communication with Europeans had already produced remarkable changes, both in the toilet and in their customs.

Speaking of the young Haida women, Roblet said: "They carefully comb their fine locks; they frequently was themselves, and suffer on their bodies no hair on any other part than the head. When their cheeks are cleaned and stripped of the coat which is foreign to them, their natural bloom is discovered; it is not roses scattered on lilies, but still it is roses. The eyes which, for a long time past, were saddened by the color of night spread over the dark faces of the American women of the coast, dwelt with pleasure on the colour of youth. The French began to find them passable; and we imagine that they ended by finding them pretty."

Sir George Simpson, traveling northward in 1842, gave a pretty picture of the Northern Salish whom he saw on the mainland opposite Cape Mudge, Vancouver Island: "In the fleet that swarmed around us we observed two peculiarly neat canoes, with fourteen paddles each; which savoured very strongly of honeymoon. Each carried a young couple, who, both in dress and demeanor, were evidently a newly-married pair. The gentlemen, with their ‘arms around their dearies O’, were lavishing their little attentions on the ladies, to the obvious satisfaction of both parties. The brides were young and pretty, tastefully decked out with beads, bracelets, anklets, and various ornaments in their hair, and, above all, with blankets so sweet, and sound, and clean, that they could not be otherwise than new. The bridegrooms were smart, active, handsome fellows, all as fine as a holiday, and more particularly proud of their turbans of white calico."

Such were the Indians of the Northwest Coast in the Golden Age of the Totempole.

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