The wind of Chilcat River


The wind was fair and joyful in the morning, and away we glided to the

famous glacier. In an hour or so we were directly in front of it and

beheld it in all its crystal glory descending from its white mountain

fountains and spreading out in an immense fan three or four miles wide

against its tree-fringed terminal moraine. But, large as it is, it long

ago ceased to discharge bergs.

The Chilcats are the most influential of all the Thlinkit tribes.

Whenever on our journey I spoke of the interesting characteristics of

other tribes we had visited, my crew would invariably say, “Oh, yes,

these are pretty good Indians, but wait till you have seen the

Chilcats.” We were now only five or six miles distant from their lower

village, and my crew requested time to prepare themselves to meet their

great rivals. Going ashore on the moraine with their boxes that had not

been opened since we left Fort Wrangell, they sat on boulders and cut

each other’s hair, carefully washed and perfumed themselves and made a

complete change in their clothing, even to white shirts, new boots, new

hats, and bright neckties. Meanwhile, I scrambled across the broad,

brushy, forested moraine, and on my return scarcely recognized my crew

in their dress suits. Mr. Young also made some changes in his clothing,

while I, having nothing dressy in my bag, adorned my cap with an

eagle’s feather I found on the moraine, and thus arrayed we set forth

to meet the noble Thlinkits.

We were discovered while we were several miles from the village, and as

we entered the mouth of the river we were hailed by a messenger from

the chief, sent to find out who we were and the objects of our

extraordinary visit.

“Who are you?” he shouted in a heavy, far-reaching voice. “What are

your names? What do you want? What have you come for?”

On receiving replies, he shouted the information to another messenger,

who was posted on the river-bank at a distance of a quarter of a mile

or so, and he to another and another in succession, and by this living

telephone the news was delivered to the chief as he sat by his

fireside. A salute was then fired to welcome us, and a swarm of

musket-bullets, flying scarce high enough for comfort, pinged over our

heads. As soon as we reached the landing at the village, a dignified

young man stepped forward and thus addressed us:—

“My chief sent me to meet you, and to ask if you would do him the honor

to lodge in his house during your stay in our village?”

We replied, of course, that we would consider it a great honor to be

entertained by so distinguished a chief.

The messenger then ordered a number of slaves, who stood behind him, to

draw our canoe out of the water, carry our provisions and bedding into

the chief’s house, and then carry the canoe back from the river where

it would be beyond the reach of floating ice. While we waited, a lot of

boys and girls were playing on a meadow near the landing—running races,

shooting arrows, and wading in the icy river without showing any

knowledge of our presence beyond quick stolen glances. After all was

made secure, he conducted us to the house, where we found seats of

honor prepared for us.

The old chief sat barefooted by the fireside, clad in a calico shirt

and blanket, looking down, and though we shook hands as we passed him

he did not look up. After we were seated, he still gazed into the fire

without taking the slightest notice of us for about ten or fifteen

minutes. The various members of the chief’s family, also,—men, women,

and children,—went about their usual employment and play as if entirely

unconscious that strangers were in the house, it being considered

impolite to look at visitors or speak to them before time had been

allowed them to collect their thoughts and prepare any message they

might have to deliver.

At length, after the politeness period had passed, the chief slowly

raised his head and glanced at his visitors, looked down again, and at

last said, through our interpreter:—

“I am troubled. It is customary when strangers visit us to offer them

food in case they might be hungry, and I was about to do so, when I

remembered that the food of you honorable white chiefs is so much

better than mine that I am ashamed to offer it.”

We, of course, replied that we would consider it a great honor to enjoy

the hospitality of so distinguished a chief as he was.

Hearing this, he looked up, saying, “I feel relieved”; or, in John the

interpreter’s words, “He feels good now, he says he feels good.”

He then ordered one of his family to see that the visitors were fed.

The young man who was to act as steward took up his position in a

corner of the house commanding a view of all that was going on, and

ordered the slaves to make haste to prepare a good meal; one to bring a

lot of the best potatoes from the cellar and wash them well; another to

go out and pick a basketful of fresh berries; another to broil a

salmon; while others made a suitable fire, pouring oil on the wet wood

to make it blaze. Speedily the feast was prepared and passed around.

The first course was potatoes, the second fish-oil and salmon, next

berries and rose-hips; then the steward shouted the important news, in

a loud voice like a herald addressing an army, “That’s all!” and left

his post.

Then followed all sorts of questions from the old chief. He wanted to

know what Professor Davidson had been trying to do a year or two ago on

a mountain-top back of the village, with many strange things looking at

the sun when it grew dark in the daytime; and we had to try to explain

eclipses. He asked us if we could tell him what made the water rise and

fall twice a day, and we tried to explain that the sun and moon

attracted the sea by showing how a magnet attracted iron.

Mr. Young, as usual, explained the object of his visit and requested

that the people might be called together in the evening to hear his

message. Accordingly all were told to wash, put on their best clothing,

and come at a certain hour. There was an audience of about two hundred

and fifty, to whom Mr. Young I preached. Toyatte led in prayer, while

Kadachan and John joined in the singing of several hymns. At the

conclusion of the religious exercises the chief made a short address of

thanks, and finished with a request for the message of the other chief.

I again tried in vain to avoid a speech by telling the interpreter to

explain that I was only traveling to see the country, the glaciers, and

mountains and forests, etc., but these subjects, strange to say, seemed

to be about as interesting as the gospel, and I had to delivery sort of

lecture on the fine foodful country God had given them and the

brotherhood of man, along the same general lines I had followed at

other villages. Some five similar meetings were held here, two of them

in the daytime, and we began to feel quite at home in the big

block-house with our hospitable and warlike friends.

At the last meeting an old white-haired shaman of grave and venerable

aspect, with a high wrinkled forehead, big, strong Roman nose and

light-colored skin, slowly and with great dignity arose and spoke for

the first time.

“I am an old man,” he said, “but I am glad to listen to those strange

things you tell, and they may well be true, for what is more wonderful

than the flight of birds in the air? I remember the first white man I

ever saw. Since that long, long-ago time I have seen many, but never

until now have I ever truly known and felt a white man’s heart. All the

white men I have heretofore met wanted to get something from us. They

wanted furs and they wished to pay for them as small a price as

possible. They all seemed to be seeking their own good—not our good. I

might say that through all my long life I have never until now heard a

white man speak. It has always seemed to me while trying to speak to

traders and those seeking gold-mines that it was like speaking to a

person across a broad stream that was running fast over stones and

making so loud a noise that scarce a single word could be heard. But

now, for the first time, the Indian and the white man are on the same

side of the river, eye to eye, heart to heart. I have always loved my

people. I have taught them and ministered to them as well as I could.

Hereafter, I will keep silent and listen to the good words of the

missionaries, who know God and the places we go to when we die so much

better than I do.”

At the close of the exercises, after the last sermon had been preached

and the last speech of the Indian chief and headmen had been made, a

number of the sub-chiefs were talking informally together. Mr. Young,

anxious to know what impression he had made on the tribe with reference

to mission work, requested John to listen and tell him what was being


“They are talking about Mr. Muir’s speech,” he reported. “They say he

knows how to talk and beats the preacher far.” Toyatte also, with a

teasing smile, said: “Mr. Young, mika tillicum hi yu tola wawa” (your

friend leads you far in speaking).

Later, when the sending of a missionary and teacher was being

considered, the chief said they wanted me, and, as an inducement,

promised that if I would come to them they would always do as I

directed, follow my councils, give me as many wives as I liked, build a

church and school, and pick all the stones out of the paths and make

them smooth for my feet.

They were about to set out on an expedition to the Hootsenoos to

collect blankets as indemnity or blood-money for the death of a Chilcat

woman from drinking whiskey furnished by one of the Hootsenoo tribe. In

case of their refusal to pay, there would be fighting, and one of the

chiefs begged that we would pray them good luck, so that no one would

be killed. This he asked as a favor, after begging that we would grant

permission to go on this expedition, promising that they would avoid

bloodshed if possible. He spoke in a very natural and easy tone and

manner always serene and so much of a polished diplomat that all polish

was hidden. The younger chief stood while speaking, the elder sat on

the floor. None of the congregation had a word to say, though they gave

approving nods and shrugs.

The house was packed at every meeting, two a day. Some climbed on the

roof to listen around the smoke opening. I tried in vain to avoid

speechmaking, but, as usual, I had to say something at every meeting. I

made five speeches here, all of which seemed to be gladly heard,

particularly what I said on the different kinds of white men and their

motives, and their own kindness and good manners in making strangers

feel at home in their houses.

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