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Alaska: Of barbers and gunboats

From the moment the United States purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867 through to the present day, governors of Alaska have had issues with witchcraft. On taking over the vast region the army moved in to impose ‘order’ on indigenous populations that were liberally described as heathens, pagans, and idolaters. The natives had their own judicial and social mechanisms for maintaining law and order, but as with other Native-American peoples these were often at odds with European conceptions ofjustice and morality. In fact the real law-and- order problem concerned the thousands of unruly gold prospectors that headed north, while the soldiers who were meant to be keeping the peace were frequent breakers of it. Still, witchcraft clearly posed a serious problem from the 1870s onwards. Missionaries assumed that it had always been thus, but maybe it was the social and cultural stresses generated by the arrival en masse of the Europeans that exacerbated native fears of a witch epidemic. It has been suggested that this is what happened to the Kaska Indians of British Columbia and the Yukon during the early twentieth century. The Kaska way of life was disrupted by miners making their way to the Klondike goldfields, and concern regarding witches increased with greater contact with the Tlingit peoples to the west amongst whom witchcraft had already assumed epidemic proportions.22

The old naval flagship the USS Jamestown was one of the hubs of American Alaskan administration in the early years. It had been launched in 1844 and first served off the West African coast to suppress the slave trade. In 1867-8 it served as a guard and store ship at Sitka, the capital of the new American territory.23 The land here in the panhandle of Alaska, along the Pacific coast, was populated by the Tlingit people. They had already had decades of semi-colonial rule under the Russian-American Company, which had a commercial monopoly in the territory trading principally in furs. The Russian Orthodox Church had also set up a mission, created parishes, and founded schools. An 1850 Church report was confident that the power of the native medicine doctors was weakening due to such missionary activity. The Russian physicians, who the Tlingit initially suspected of being workers of witchcraft, also reported some success at convincing them that their knowledge was better than that of their medicine men, and that witches were not responsible for diseases.24

Under the captaincy of Lester Beardslee the Jamestown returned again between 1879 and 1881 to protect American interests and preserve the peace after the withdrawal of the army from Alaska. Ten days after arriving in Sitka, Beardslee, who took a keen interest in native customary law, was informed of an elderly native woman who had fled from her people fearing she would be killed as a witch. She was brought to the customs house along with those who had made the threats. The latter were informed in no uncertain terms that they would be hanged if they carried out their intentions. The accusers promised not to harm the woman but requested the captain banish her to another country. Commander Henry Glass, who took over from Beardslee, performed a similar role as judge and jury in May 1881 when another accused witch escaped certain death and fled to the Jamestown. After investigating the case Glass ordered a party to arrest the local medicine man involved and other leading men in the village. The medicine man fled but two chiefs were brought back, and one of them was fined and imprisoned after questioning.25 And so the US Navy joined the fight against the witch believers.

A report drawn up by the Alaskan division of the Bureau of Education in 1897 concerning the station in Hoonah territory, thirty miles west of the modem capital Juneau, noted that in previous years officials had denied the existence of witchcraft fearing that it would put off migrants.26 It was a pointless attempt since from the late 1870s onwards, American newspapers and journals had relished shocking their readers with tales of human sacrifice, polygamy, female slavery, the sinister influence of the medicine men, and the brutal manner in which they dealt with witches. One news item in 1882 ran, ‘It is one of the pleasing customs of our fellow countrymen of Alaska to torture witches’.27 Witchcraft became the symbol of Alaskan moral, spiritual, and intellectual turpitude. Never mind the white folks killing each other across the ‘civilized’ United States.

Much of the information fed to the public derived from Presbyterian missionaries who had pretty much free reign in the territory. In 1882, for instance, the Ohio missionary and teacher Maggie J. Dunbar, who was posted at Fort Wrangell, described in a letter read before the Presbyterian Women’s Board of Missions in St Louis, and then printed in the press, the torturing to death of several children and old men as witches. She told of an orphaned young girl locked up and whipped for having bewitched her aunt.28 Dunbar came to Fort Wrangell, an old Tlingit settlement that became a centre for gold-rush prospectors, at the request of the Presbyterian missionary Sheldon Jackson (1834-1909). He became the First General Agent of Education in Alaska, and never lost an opportunity to highlight the witchcraft ‘problem’ to further his religious, educational, and political aims. The disseminating of lurid tales of tortured and murdered witches both helped bring in donations to the mission, and justified what has been described as the Americanization of Alaska through the schools set up for native children.29

Female missionaries were amongst the most active in Alaska, and there were several converted native women amongst them. At Hoonah two widows, Amanda McFarland and Mary Howell, led the fight against witchcraft in the 1890s. Before that, McFarland, sometimes described as the first white woman in Alaska, had dealt with a number of cases at Fort Wrangell, in Tlingit territory. She wrote a letter from there in 1878, which was printed by Sheldon Jackson,

We have had more witchcraft here, and the effect has been very bad on the minds of the young people. Some of my brightest and best scholars have been led away by it. As we have no kind of law, none of the whites felt that they had any right to interfere. It has frequently been said to me,

‘If you will get a minister here, so that the Indians will see that he is permanent, and one who will make them understand he is determined to break up all such things, it will more than anything else tend to prevent the recurrence of such scenes.30

A Reverend came in the shape of Samuel Fiall Young (1847-1927), who did, indeed, set about tackling the witch believers head on. He reckoned that in the summer of 1878 alone the wave of witch fear amongst the Tlingit in the archipelago around Sitka had led to the deaths of over a hundred suspected witches, with two or three times as many people tortured.31 Before arriving in his new parish he had done some reading on witchcraft, shamans and medicine. They had formerly been remote topics, he reflected, but now became part of his daily experience. On one occasion he called together several chiefs and caused uproar when he announced, ‘I am going to put down all persecution for witchcraft and banish the medicine-men from this town. This is going to be a Christian town, and the law of love shall take the place of the law of hatred and wrong’. At another gathering he admitted that the whites used to hold to such beliefs too, but that was in the past. Now witch persecutors were law breakers, and had to be punished: ‘It is for you to say now which side you are on—whether on the side of the government and law of the Unites States to which you belong, or on the side of murder and superstition and error and savagery’.32

The missionaries, and later the secular authorities, saw themselves in a Manichean struggle with the medicine men. It was they who were responsible for the witchcraft problem. Undermine them, suppress them, and the atrocities committed against accused witches would end. In an interview given in 1927, Hall Young said that the grip of ‘superstition’ over the Alaskans broke once the ‘bushy hair’ of the medicine men had been cropped.33 By this he meant the belief that the power of an ixt was associated with his long, uncut hair. The barber strategy was adopted by the navy early on. During his tenure in Alaska, Glass, of whom one Russian priest observed ‘hunting shamans was his favourite pastime and sport’, sentenced one troublesome ixt to have his hair cut off in public. A decade later the commander of the USS Pinta, William T. Burwell, ordered a similar punishment during a stopover in Shakan, a Henya Tlingit tribal village. An officer, Robert E. Coontz, later US Chief of Naval Operations, recalled:

We erected a small platform on the quarter deck, brought out the barber’s chair, and, while two sturdy bluejackets held him fast, his long, black, flowing hair was removed with the barber’s clippers. The inhabitants thronged on the nearby beach and watched the operation. When shorn of his locks, the power of the witch doctor vanished!34

Chilkat chief Skun-doo-ooh (Skundoo) was another of those who suffered this fate during an eventful career as an ixt. He was said to be the only red-headed native in south-eastern Alaska, and his name meant ‘one is enraged at him’. He was involved in several cases of witch torture, and was considered a major obstacle to missionary success—more of him shortly.35

For decades there was no fully functional judiciary in Alaska.36 It did not have the administrative status to institute a system of courts. During the 1870s and early 1880s settlers tried for capital offences had to be sent down to Oregon, where a supreme court had been founded when it became the thirty-third state in 1859, and with the completion of a grand courthouse in 1875. But the expense and distance made it prohibitive. The respective legal rights of whites and natives in Alaska were also an ongoing matter of debate. As in other areas of the frontier West, miners law filled some of the gap, and in the early 1880s an ad hoc uniformed native police force was created under the auspices of missionaries such as John G. Brady. According to an interview with his children, Brady had once, on being tipped-off by the native police, personally rescued a boy-witch pinned to the shoreline, cutting the bonds before the tide took its victim. The Brady family looked after him for a year before he was sent to school and later began a maritime career.37

The Alaskan Organic Act of 1884 introduced the laws of the State of Oregon, leading to the creation of a district court, and the appointment of a judge, marshal, and attorney. This effectively brought all native peoples under white jurisdiction. Yet, initially, the new judiciary conflicted with the moral law imposed by the missionaries and actually gave natives a better degree of control over their lives. The activities of the Presbyterian mission in Sitka came under legal scrutiny. The first judge of the new district, Judge Samuel Ward McAllister, ruled that the mission schools had no right to enforce native students’ attendance, and that parents could remove their children from the schools as and when they wanted. This had a direct impact on the missionaries’ adoption of those children who fled or were banished because they were thought to be witches. Sheldon Jackson immediately started pulling strings to reverse this and other decisions of the new government. He held up the terrible treatment of child witches as an example. McAllister and others were soon removed from their posts.38

In 1898, as John Green Brady began a term as Governor of Alaska, he wrote that apart from the drinking of rum, witchcraft was ‘the greatest curse of the Alaskan people’.39 The navy had continued to deal with the witchcraft problem wherever and whenever circumstances arose. When, in 1898, Brady inspected the various settlements along the coast in the USS Wheeling, he lectured on the evils of witchcraft belief wherever they docked, reminding his native Alaskan audience through an interpreter that he would not deal with them leniently in such matters in the future. To reinforce the point, the Wheeling’s captain ordered gun practice—the first time in history gun-boat diplomacy had been used against the witchcraft problem.40 Such tactics were hardly effective. Only three years earlier one Illinois newspaper had scoffed at the official denials of the prevalence of medicine men and witchcraft in Alaska, stating that scores had died recently. It noted that the authorities clearly had inadequate resources to deal with the problem and called for an army post to be established to suppress the belief.41

The new Alaskan judiciary had plenty on its plate, including the liquor problem, the practice of slavery amongst the Tlingits, mining disputes, and pervasive violence amongst the white population. It only began to be seriously proactive regarding witch murders during the mid 1890s, under pressure from the American government and missionaries. In 1894 Skun-doo-ooh was sent down to San Quentin prison in California for three years for manslaughter following his involvement in the killing of a woman for witchcraft by binding her to a tree and leaving her to starve to death. His head was shaved in prison, but he returned home to Chilkat with an enhanced reputation. He said he had become a Christian, but appears to have resumed his old activities. In 1902 he was described as ‘a constant terror’ to the Presbyterian missionary in Chilkat, and had recently been involved in the torture of an eleven-year-old native boy, Willie Jackson. Skun- doo-ooh told the brother of a local chief that Jackson had bewitched his family. As a result Jackson was hung up by the toes for several hours and placed in a cellar while the application of further torture was debated. He was rescued by the local missionary and Canadian mounted police, and sent to a school in Sitka.42 It is somewhat ironic that around this time the aged Skun-doo-ooh made some money by posing for studio set ‘ethnographic’ photos of himself in action.43 A few years after his death another ixt began trading on his name. In 1910 this Skun-doo-ooh impersonator was jailed at Skagway for wood stealing and while there he was held down by two white inmates as the jail barber cut off his locks.44

Skun-doo-ooh was not the only luminary to be prosecuted. In 1896 a Hoonah chief from Chichagof Island, some hundred miles south-west of Juneau, was arrested and put on trial for torturing and murdering his nephew for bewitching him.45 Two years later, Judge Johnson, acting under instructions from Washington, addressed the issue of witchcraft before the Alaskan grandjury. Many murders could be traced to witchcraft belief, he said, and ‘it is your duty not to ignore, but to make patient inquiry into the alleged offenses growing out of the practice of witchcraft, and return true bills where evidence so warrants’.46 The authorities now became more proactive, pursuing investigations and not just waiting for victims to turn up on their doorsteps. Shortly after Johnson’s address, the jail in Juneau was reported to be frill of Native Alaskans brought in on charges relating to witchcraft. In February 1900 district marshal Grant travelled to Kake to investigate reports of two witch murders and four impending ones.47 Two years later, the United State Commissioner H.H. Folsom, accompanied by the marshal and attorney, chartered a special steamboat to take them to a Hoonah village forty miles from Juneau to hold an inquest on the remains of two Tlingits who had been starved to death. One of them had been bound to a tree to drive out spirits. Federal officers arrested the entire tribe responsible and charged four with murder.48

A legislative act passed in 1915 allowed native Alaskan settlements with more than forty permanent members over the age of twenty-one to form self-governing organizations overseen by elected councilmen. They were given the power to pass local ordinances as long as they did not conflict with federal or territorial law. One ordinance that these new organizations were expected to enact was against ‘the practice of witchcraft’, by which the authorities meant the activities of the ixt, though the communities probably had a broader definition.49 So the first ordinance passed by the Tlingit village of Kake was, indeed, against witchcraft under penalty of a fine or imprisonment. The ‘problem’ had clearly not been resolved. The same year William Gilbert Beattie, a Presbyterian minister and superintendent of native schools for Alaska, told the district court in Juneau:

The question of witchcraft is one of the most difficult problems we have to handle among the natives. The existence of witches is a certainty with them, and there is absolutely no possibility of convincing them that there are no such things as witches. It isn’t stubbornness on their part. It is simply and sincerely their belief that there are among their tribesmen persons who have power to cast a spell over others of their number.50

His comments were occasioned by having brought several members of the Killisnoo community to Juneau to be questioned by the district attorney regarding a blind man in Killisnoo who claimed to be responsible for all the deaths in the village by his witchcraft. His fifteen-year-old daughter, Mary Moses, or Klantosh to give her Tlingit name, testified to the district attorney James A. Smiser regarding her father’s power, expressing her fear that he might kill her grandmother. Smiser ruminated that that the evidence brought to mind the power of hypnotism, but concluded that as there was no tangible evidence there was no law in place by which he could take action against the man.51

Further arrests were made over the next few years, but the substance of two of the last instances suggests the tide was turning. In 1917 Judge Jennings fined a native woman, a Mrs Hansen, for carving up another woman who had accused her of being a witch. Her husband was sent to jail for three months. He sent Hansen from court with the injunction to spread the word, ‘that there is no witchcraft in Alaska, and when an Indian man or woman stabs another for being called a witch it will mean the penitentiary for 10 years’. This did not prevent the Tlingit Peter Lawrence, from Yakutat, shooting dead Billy James for accusing him of witchcraft in 1919.52 Those accused of witchcraft were now taking the law into their own hands, and the dynamics of accusations were no longer communal but interpersonal.

While abuses against suspected witches continued in the rest of America, they seem to have died out by the 1920s in Tlingit Alaska. Was this due to the success of the missionaries and educationalists—to the Americanization of the Tlingits? It is true that by 1920 all Tlingit communities had become at least nominally Christian. This ‘success’ was not just down to the Presbyterians either. A revitalized Russian Orthodox mission during the late nineteenth century proved successful in attracting Native Alaskans, who were drawn, perhaps, to the ritual aspects of the faith and the priests’ greater willingness to embrace their language. The Salvation Army also moved in with some success. But as this book demonstrates in graphic detail, becoming a school-educated American was no cure for witch belief. And, as ethnographic studies show, the Christian population did not reject the belief in witchcraft. Everything points to the declining influence of the ixt as diminishing the punishment of suspected witches. So in one sense, the missionaries were astute in targeting them as ‘preachers of witchcraft’, but wrong in assuming that belief would swiftly disappear as a consequence. Their demise, furthermore, was not necessarily a direct result of the application of scissors, naval diplomacy, missionaries, and district marshals. The acculturation process that exacerbated their waning influence was more complex than that—as Skun-doo-ooh’s long career in the witch-detection business showed.

Under both the Russians and Americans the ixt had to compete with the challenge to their power from new medicines and theologies.53 There is evidence they attempted to adapt to the latter by adopting or accepting elements of Christian doctrine and practice. One ixt claimed to have received his power from a ‘big Russian’. Europeans also brought with them devastating new diseases such as smallpox against which the ixt demonstrably had no power. Again, some tried to adapt by conjuring up smallpox spirits with whom they could communicate to counter the disease. European doctors brought medicines and vaccine in the case of smallpox that challenged both the ixts diagnoses and methods. The shamanistic elements of the ixts practice and their paraphernalia, such as rattles and masks, impressed less and less, so that by 1920 their status had dwindled to that of fortunetellers and modest spiritual healers. They were no longer the arbiters of life and death.

Finally, there is a missing chapter in the annals of Alaskan witchcraft. What of the no doubt many witch believers amongst the fluctuating white and Chinese labouring population during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century? A few scant references help balance the picture a tiny bit. A Russian diarist writing from Sitka in the 1880s referred to the witchcraft beliefs of his fellow Russian inhabitants as well as the Tlingits.54 Hall Young recalled a Jewish storekeeper in Wrangell who confided in Tlingit customers that he too believed in witchcraft, and that it was not long ago that Americans had tortured and executed witches just as they did. Young believed the storekeeper only sympathized with them to keep their custom.55 There is no reason to take Young’s side of the story: just look at Pennsylvania.

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