A cold night in Juneau, not raining but raw and wet. Several burned-out streetlights downtown didn’t help, nor the Southeast wind buffeting the working lights, expanding and shrinking a spidery web of phone wire shadows crawling on South Franklin Street. Spots of winking light flashed weakly from puddles. The old man couldn’t be far off. Half an hour earlier the butcher closing up 20th Century Grocery Store, said he’d given him a handful of shrimp. So the trail is hot--warm at least. “He go between the places.” Pop said, meaning we would find him in one of the bars on South Franklin. Beyond the lights at the south end of town I parked the truck in the dark and looked back into town toward the storefront marquees. Not much traffic on the sidewalks, and few cars. Coming around to the bed of the pick-up I grabbed a wooden box and set it on the curb. The box made it easier for the old folks to get in and out of the high-suspension Ford, so I always carried it. As I opened the passenger door Pop pushed it wide with his cane, swung his legs around, set his cane tip on the curb and, bracing himself, slid down the short distance to the box. We’d go on foot up Franklin Street searching all the bars along the couple blocks to where Front Street forks off just below the hill, and we’d check the three bars in that block. If we hadn’t found him, he wasn’t downtown. He’d already gotten to the village. I tossed the stepping box back in the truck and caught up with Pop, who was already shambling along half way to Sweeney’s, the first bar.
Pop opened the door with me on his heels and stopped abruptly just inside. As the door slammed shut behind us he banged his cane on the floor three times with authority. Pow! Thump! Thump! All ten or twelve patrons leaned back on the barstools, the farthest down the line leaning back the most, all craning to see who had arrived and what the deal was. The bartender too, rag in hand, paused to stare as the beery laughter and chatter died away to quiet. Our entry wouldn’t have commanded much more attention with highland bagpipers accompanying. One after another Pop studied the flushed, boozy faces contentedly glowing in the back-bar lights. Tseexwáa’s shock of white hair would have been easy to spot. “Not here!” Pop confirmed. We exited.
And so on up South Franklin, stopping at all of them, the Arctic, the Triangle, the Imperial and the others including the Red Dog. At the Red Dog, Pop shuffled though the overlay of sawdust and shavings on the floor, moving from patron to patron to a dimly lit table in a back corner where a white-haired man slouched, facing away from us. Pop tapped him on the shoulder with his cane. The man turned about, recognized Pop, and almost knocking his chair over, stood respectfully. He was Tlingit, but not Tseexwáa. “Hah!”, Pop said while the man hunched and bobbed deferentially. Pop turned to me speaking about the fellow in the third person, as though he were not present, giving me his name and a brief sketch of his tribal connections. “Dat one name so and so, he b’long such and such, way back, Klukwan, Haines, maybe other place….” The man reached out and we shook hands. To be polite I started to say something but Pop intervened. “We go,” He said, and then, as we left the Red Dog he spoke to me confidentially: “It’s no use of being too nice to him. He come from slave.” (Meaning his parents or more likely his grandparents—someone in his ancestry—had been slave to a Tlingit family.)
Few people know that the Civil War directly affected the native people of Alaska, especially the Tlingit, some of whom held slaves, often captured Aleutiq or Athabascan people. There were great differences from the institutionalized commercial system of African slavery in the Old South. In Alaska, for example, captured and enslaved people could sometimes earn their freedom by trapping and fishing. But it was still slavery, and after the U.S. purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1867 the Emancipation Proclamation impacted Southeast Alaska. The slaves had to be set free. I remember Pop asking me.
“Son, who’s the one freed them slaves, Washi’ton, or Linkom?”
(We were sitting in the Purity Bakery having coffee.)
“It was Lincoln, Pop. Abraham Lincoln.”
Pop thought about this for a moment.
“Smart man. How he figure that out?”
Another pause, longer this time. Pop, still mulling things over. Then,
“Still, I think it’s no use to let them slaves go.”
A locally famous likeness of Abraham Lincoln carved on a totem in Tongass Village near Ketchikan, circa 1870s, testified to the importance of the Emancipation Proclamation in this part of the world, a world at that time culturally remote and foreign to actions taken in Washington, DC. Known as the Lincoln Totem, a portion of the original, much weathered and deteriorated from more than half a century in the rain forest, with seedling hemlocks growing out it, was rescued in 1938 just in time from total loss, and is now in the Alaska State Museum, while a replica stands in Saxman Village, Ketchikan.
Turning around we drove back into town to the Valentine Building. This venerable old frontier-commercial style building has wrapped around the shallow angle at the corner of Front and Seward Streets since 1913 and, with its fussy exterior of cornices and filigrees, remains a landmark in town. The entrance, on Seward Street, leads up a flight of well-worn and creaky wooden stairs to the second floor, where, along a high-ceilinged corridor of lawerly-looking offices with glass louvers over five-paneled doors, I had my art studio.
This, unfortunately, is as far as my notes go, at least the ones that have been retrieved. They were written in 1975 and reflect my thinking and first-hand observations at the time, some jotted down on any handy scrap of paper when things were happening, some written later. In the mountain of paper and records brought back to Wisconsin from Alaska, the concluding notes that would tie up the loose threads and finish this narrative lie buried. It’s over fifty year’s worth of Alaska material and was in fairly good order before we moved, but the good order and organization exist no longer.
The material will include a recording of Tseexwáa singing and performing Halibut Spirit Dance, while Pop Dalton drums. Tseexwáa wore a Chilkat robe and a carved headpiece called a Shakee.àt (headdress with carved frontlet above the forehead) crested with sea lion whiskers and yellow-shafted flicker feathers and draped over the back of the head with ermine skins. Had the dance been performed under normal circumstances, with the Wooshkeetaan clan in attendance, this regalia would have displayed the Wooshkeetaan’s halibut motif. In this case, the Chilkat robe belonged to Pop’s clan and bore a Kaagwaantaan crest, and the borrowed Shakee.àt bore another, unrelated crest. Keep in mind that this dance was performed at my behest, with Pop Dalton acting as intermediary, and not in the proper context of a Potlatch or relevant social event. The fact that the crests were wrong for Tseexwáa’s clan was alright for my purpose since I merely wanted to experience the essence of the performance as inspiration for a stone lithograph. Details such as the clan motifs would be corrected in the stone drawing. The witnessing of this performance was unusually privileged; the Halibut Spirit Dance, Cháatl Kuyéik was normally performed behind a Chilkat robe or blanket.
If Pop Dalton were right in thinking that Tseexwáa was the sole surviving Wooshkeetaan holding the memory of the dance, the performance in my studio 43 years ago may have been the last ever, and the recording will be of value to the clan, to whom it will be presented when found.
I’ll conclude the narrative with a photo of Pop Dalton and Tseexwáa preparing to perform the Halibut Spirit Dance, along with photos of a Chilkat robe and a Shakee.àt. There are also additional remarks. While not part of the original 1975 notes, they are related to the subject and may be of interest.
I puzzle how the people of this coast conceived and designed a device to catch halibut. Maybe there was a Tlingit Steve Jobs way back in history working on such problems, but the problem was that halibut were rarely seen. Not wild, un-captured halibut. Salmon, by contrast, are seen during the times of year they arrive in these seas. Glance out over the water and there they are, leaping clear of the surface jump after jump, sometimes five or six in succession by a single fish, sometimes multiple fish in the air. Even if you’ve tuned out Southeast Alaska in favor of clamping your ears in headphones and riveting your eyes to electronic devices, it’s hard to miss salmon. They make their presence known by jumping, and then they gather at the mouths of streams. With a boost from a high tide, they mob these streams, ascending to spawn, essentially climbing onto the continent and delivering themselves within reach of fishermen.
Not halibut. Halibut spawn out of sight on the edge of the continental shelf a third to half a mile deep. Nobody witnesses it. In the summer they move into shallower waters in Southeast to feed but still do not invite capture by jumping or running up streams or presenting themselves in any way. Instead, they spend their well-camouflaged lives out of sight on or near the ocean bottom even when in relatively shallow water. I caught one using a jig of my Uncle Bjarne’s design just off Nikolski Reef on Umnak Island in water only about 15-20 feet deep. But, with fifty years in Alaska and much time in boats, I don’t recall ever spotting a wild halibut at sea or even the carcass on a beach of a halibut that had not first been caught and its skeleton or other parts discarded. It’s not like today, with Scuba gear and underwater cameras enabling us to witness life in the deep. In days gone by, the ocean’s floor seaward of a minus tide run-out was mystery.
This is not to say that people never saw a wild halibut or were unaware of them. For example, there is the Wooshkeetaan story earlier cited of a shark-killed halibut in Amalga Harbor. In addition to sharks, sea lions are predators on halibut, as are orcas, and any of these might have injured a halibut that escaped and later died and washed ashore. A carcass might wash up on a beach if not first consumed by crabs and other sea life. But I think it’s more likely that among the first halibut seen were those caught on other kinds of baited fishing gear without halibut having been specifically targeted, perhaps on bait wrapped around bone elements. With the fortuitous capture and beaching of a monster halibut, effort would certainly be devoted to catching others. Once caught and its size and anatomy observed, more efficient devices like wooden hooks designed for these fish would have been developed and improved over time. This is mere speculation on my part.
It’s probably worth noting also that a big halibut would provide as much or more sustenance than a deer, and so was well worth the effort undertaken to catch one. As was the American bison to tribes of the Great Plains, such are salmon and halibut to the tribes of the Northwest Pacific coast, so critical to sustaining the people that the threads of their inherent natures and qualities are woven into the folklore of the cultures. One aspect of the lore of the halibut, was the unknown, the realm of this species existing as it did in the unfathomable deep. Then too, when a halibut was brought ashore, even after it had been knocked on the head and was presumed dead, its skin, like that of an octopus, could twitch and crawl, compounding its mystery and, perhaps, generating a little discomfort among observers. The nature of the halibut has inspired stories, songs and dance, and such mysteries may have contributed. On the other hand there was, and is, mystery attached to all species. I remember Pop Dalton remarking, “Salmon way smarter’n me. How he find his way ‘round the ocean, Japan and come home? I can’t do it!”
These days of course, with halibut delivered into towns from commercial fishing vessels and sport fishermen catching them with steel hooks, they are commonly seen. Through science, their life cycle is better understood, and many of the unknowns resolved. But there are still surprises: One day a halibut head fell out of the sky and landed on our house! The crash brought Lynn and me running outside, but there was nobody and nothing around and nothing unusual to behold except a big halibut head laying mutely on the roof, blindly staring goggle-eyed. A Steller’s jay arrived and, after scolding us, cocked its head with interest toward the delivery on the roof. What had happened? No raven, crow, gull or any other bird for which fish was on the menu was capable of lifting a halibut head off the beach. Only an eagle had the power and the means. Having frequently witnessed eagles contesting for fish and other morsels, we were able to reconstruct the event. Eagles are tolerably good fishers, though not in the same league as ospreys, but why make the effort to catch a fish when you can scavenge it or steal one from an osprey or another eagle?
Here’s what happened: The head had been discarded on the beach, probably off the Cold Storage dock. Such a morsel did not go long unnoticed with lots of hungry, sharp-eyed eagles around. The first one on the scene swooped down without landing, snatched the head off the beach and, with the prize in its talons worked to gain altitude, meanwhile bee-lining it for the nearest landing where it could have lunch. With nothing closer it headed across the water toward the big spruces behind our place. Another eagle, or likely other eagles, arriving seconds too late to get the head, disputed ownership with much screaming and a hot pursuit. The head may have changed ownership several times. Here’s the reason that the first eagle carrying the fish worked so hard to gain altitude. It doesn’t want any other eagle higher than it. In the same way that a perched eagle has to surrender its perch to a sharp taloned eagle arriving from above, so, in flight, does an eagle carrying a fish have to drop the cargo in order to roll upside down and present its own talons to ward off an attacker swooping down from above. The attacking eagle, or another eagle in pursuit, often grabs the prize before it hits the water or falls into a forest. In this case the contesting eagles reached the area above our house with the aerial melee still in session. The final time the prized head got dropped must have been from considerable altitude. Accelerating at 32 feet/second/second, it whomped onto the roof and bought the occupants out on a run. Perhaps our sudden appearance caused the eagles to think twice about attempting a grab off the house and they scattered. The head remained where it landed. Happily, it missed the glass skylight as otherwise it might have been delivered directly into the kitchen sink.
Mom Dalton—Jessie Starr Dalton—recalled an event from her childhood when she and her friends, playing along the shore at the forest’s edge, noticed movement of a halibut float that the elders had set not far out. As mentioned, these floats are often carved to resemble a cormorant, a bird that has a long neck. The line running down to the hooks is tied to the cormorant’s feet at the opposite end of the float from the head, so with any disturbance on the line from below, the head and neck of the cormorant lifts from the surface. The float also had a line attached leading to shore and across the beach where it was tied to a tree. The kids, thrilled with the prospect of taking on a grown-up’s role in this important development, abandoned their games, untied the line, tried to pull the slack out of it and rewind it around the tree to keep the halibut from dragging hook, line and sinker any farther out to sea. Somehow, in the excited chaos, shouted commands, and conflicting ideas, and the kids managed to get Jessie tangled in the shoreline and tied to the tree trunk.