It should be stated at the outset that my title is misleading. These notes re-captured my attention immediately when I recently happened upon them 43 years after they were written. They may even be important from the perspective of cultural anthropology. The dance was my intended purpose in writing them, but the notes stop short of the denouement suggested by the title. The title remains because the notes to complete the story exist somewhere in the mountain of writings accumulated during my fifty years in Alaska. I hope to finish the story when they are found. For now, I’ve not tried to finish it from memory.
The tape recording I made of Tseexwáa singing and performing the dance, also loose in my papers and records, is another matter. Remarks about that can be found at the end of the narrative.
Meanwhile, there’s much here on halibut, on the making of traditional halibut hooks, on fishing for halibut in Glacier Bay, and twice “abducting” an old man, a respected Tlingit elder, possibly, if Pop Dalton was right, the surviving Wooshkeetaan who knew the words to the dance and the dance. “Pop” in these notes is George Dalton, Sr., the head of the Tlingit family into which I, and later my wife Lynn, were adopted and with whom we participated in family events, potlatches, subsistence hunting, fishing and gathering, and most everything to do with Tlingit culture for over 45 years. He and Mom Dalton passed years ago. The notes stir fond memories of a bygone world and of life in Juneau, Hoonah, and Glacier Bay, Alaska, in the 1960s and 70s.
[Tlingit words are included for the record, using spellings created by linguists where possible. Pronunciation of these words requires a knowledge of the phonemes represented in the spellings. Failing that I’ve spelled them the best I can after listening to Tlingit speakers. Tlingit words are in italics in the following story.]
Pop didn’t build this house. He acquired it in the early 1940s from a defunct cannery in Excursion Inlet where German prisoners of war had been conscripted to dismantle a forward military installation following the Aleutian Campaign. Its wainscoting, wooden floors, wood stove, and other details spoke of the era of early canneries and frame houses in Alaska. It stood on pilings partly in the woods at Excursion, and Pop told me he sat and planned for weeks over how he was going to lower it onto float logs and get across the twenty miles of treacherous tide and wind-driven waters of Icy Strait between Excursion and Hoonah. Gambling on an opportunity of favorable conditions, he left the sheltered inlet with the house on float logs in tow behind his seiner Washington, risking everthing! There must have been heart-stopping moments midway in the Strait, but safely across, he and the house arrived off Hoonah’s Cannery Point to the throb of welcoming drums and the singing and cheers of the villagers. The house was beached at a temporary location and eventually jacked up onto pilings at its final site.
Celebrated highliner fisherman George Dalton Sr.’s name, coupled with that of his vessel inevitably prompted the obvious joke: George Washington! Mom Dalton remembered a time when the Washington, after a fabulous series of successful seines, approached Hoonah so loaded to the gunwales with salmon that bets were being placed on whether or not she could reach the cannery. Even the wake of a carelessly passing vessel might sink her. Fellow fishermen (all knew one another in the small village) came to the rescue. Slowly and cautiously they approached to port and starboard, tied their vessels alongside, and escorted George Washington the last distance to safe harbor.
But coming back to the occasion under discussion, we were on the beach near the house, ahead of a rising tide, pulling in his skiff. Pop, leaning on the skiff for a breather, said, “We let the tide do the res’ of the work.” Within a couple hours the tide would be high, floating the skiff in to where he wanted to work on it. In order to secure the boat meantime, I ducked under the house to grab a length of mooring line, a loop of which snagged on a wooden peg. When I went to free it, something atop a slat between the joists caught my eye: a little piece of weathered carving sticking out. Reaching up, I pulled out museum-worthy artifacts: two old traditional wooden halibut hooks. I knew what they were but had never held one.
The thrill of this discovery gave me in a minor way, a sense of the emotion archaeologist Howard Carter must have felt at the bottom of his excavation peering at artifacts through the first crack knocked into Tutankhamun’s tomb chambers. “What do you see, Carter?” “I see things. Wonderful Things.” Turning the new found treasures over in my hands, I noticed tooth marks along their shafts. These were working hooks, battle tested veterans, chewed and frayed by the teeth of big fish. I recalled having seen a halibut caught on a similar device at Nikolski Harbor on Umnak Island in the eastern Aleutians and was thinking about this when Pop called, “Son, bring a line!” I stuck the hooks back and returned to work. Later, when I mentioned them, Pop said, “Aha! Now you find sumpthin! You got to claim dem! That gonna bring you luck!”
The find prompted me to a deeper investigation of traditional Tlingit halibut hooks. I call them “Tlingit halibut hooks” because that was my direct experience with them, but they weren’t unique to the Tlingit. Hooks of similar design, though with local variations, were made and used by tribes along the Northwest Coast from Oregon to Alaska. They would more accurately be called Northwest Coast Halibut Hooks. In fact their use was not even limited to the Northwest Coast. As mentioned earlier, a few of the devices, although rare in the Aleutian Islands, also show up there, a thousand miles west of Tlingit Anee’ –Tlingit land—recognizably northwest coast in design and shape but with Aleut figures carved in them. They must also have been used by people inhabiting the coast between the Aleutians and Southeast Alaska.
These hooks favor big fish. Small halibut, “chicken” halibut, are not as able physically to be caught in them as large halibut. Hundred pounders and larger halibut called “soakers” or or “barn doors” or “shooters” (so big they have to be shot before safely bringing on board), whose mouths are large enough to take them in, are more often caught. As evidence of their ability to select big fish, Pop told me that years ago, when more of the old wooden hooks were still around, during commercial long lining for halibut in the Gulf of Alaska (long lining employs a main line, or skate, to which shorter lines-gangens-are attached at intervals, each with a baited steel hook) Tlingit fishermen would substitute some of the traditional hooks and then later, when hauling gear aboard, bet on which kind of hook—the old or the new—had caught the next soaker coming up the line, often winning when bone, alder and yellow cedar out performed steel.
I didn’t want to risk losing the old-timer antique hooks from under the Hoonah house on a fishing expedition, so I asked Pop if he would make a new one with which to catch a halibut. (The two hooks found under the Dalton house are now in the Alaska State Museum) He hadn’t made hooks for years, and I think the two I found were the last of them. But that spring on one of his trips into Juneau, Pop began the project. With snow melting but still heavy on the ground in Perseverance Basin, the mountain valley above Juneau, we cut small alders, three to four inches in diameter, on the banks of Gold Creek. We bucked these trunks into 12 and 14-inch lengths and split each in half lengthways to produce the blanks from which one of the hook’s arms would be carved. For the other arm, Pop had a couple chunks of yellow cedar (Alaska cedar which he split with a froe to produce the blanks.