The remarkable Tlingit leader Kaal.áxch and the coming of the Americans
Sealaska Heritage held its first of two November lectures Wednesday in recognition of Native American Heritage Month. Dr. Steve Langdon, professor emeritus at the University of Alaska Anchorage Department of Anthropology, spoke about the powerful Tlingit leader Ḵaal.áx̱ch, who lived in Klukwan at the time of the assertion of jurisdiction by the United States government in 1867, in a presentation titled Ḵaal.áx̱ch’s Endeavors: A Preeminent Jilkáat Tlingit Leader and the Coming of the Americans.
Langdon set the context for his discussion of Ḵaal.áx̱ch with a brief overview of continuing concerns about the ways Alaska Native history is presented.
“My primary focus is on one remarkable individual,” he said. “There were numerous other Tlingit leaders … who actively confronted the US presence and sought through their efforts a relationship of mutual respect based on their recognition of the inherent rights of the Tlingit people in their homeland. My remarks today provide you with some insights about why descendants of Alaska Natives … might see the Tongass Seward Shame Pole as a more relevant expression of their sentiments than the Seward statue here in Juneau.”
Ḵaal.áx̱ch, a member of the Kaagwaantaan Grizzly Bear House in Klukwan, was raised with a Tlingit world-view, which included learning about property rights, sovereignty, and reciprocity in the context of the Tlingit clan system. He absorbed the fundamental lesson that leaders are trustees, responsible for the welfare of their house, clan and relatives. Raised by his uncles, he was trained in the warrior tradition and took part in maintaining the most important economic resource of his tribe, catching and processing eulachon and climbing the steep slopes above the river to acquire mountain goat.
Klukwan, which means “ancient or eternal town,” is located 22 miles up the Chilkat River, away from the coast, a position which protected its residents from bombing by US Navy ships and many other threats, Langdon said.
“This is an important feature of why that homeland endured and was able to be protected against all kinds of incursions through time,” he said.
In 1867 it was the largest Tlingit village in the area, with an estimated 1,500 residents. Two waves of epidemics had reduced the population to 500 by 1880 but it continued to be a powerful cultural and economic base for the Jilkáat Tlingit, one that benefitted from long-established trade routes with interior Athabascans. Trade items included euchalon oil and dried salmon Chilkat blankets, and other manufactures on the Tlingit side, and furs, copper and skins on the Athabascan side.
“The Jilkoot and Jilkáat clans created a powerful wealth-generating system through initiative, establishment of knowledge, organization, and will,” Langdon said. Ḵaal.áx̱ch, in particular, demonstrated a “remarkable entrepreneurial vigor” through which he mobilized the wealth he acquired through trading with the Hudson Bay Company after 1820 to support the construction of new houses, provide the patronage for artisans to create Chilkat blankets, carvings, and other works of art, and make possible a rich ceremonial life for the Chilkat people. In 1852, with his father, he led a party of Tlingit men to protect their trading rights by traveling 320 miles into the interior to destroy a Hudson Bay Company fur trade post built where they met with the Tagish and Tutchone Athabascans. These qualities of character and capability were recognized widely and guided Ḵaal.áx̱ch in seeking to establish diplomatic and trade relationships with the Americans when they arrived.
In his meticulously researched presentation, Langdon walked the audience through Ḵaal.áx̱ch’s interactions with the Americans, before and after October 18, 1867, when the US took possession of Alaska from Russia. On that day, the Tlingit were not invited to the ceremony in Sitka and viewed the proceedings from their canoes, Langdon said. Quoting an account by ethnographer Auriel Krause, Langdon said, “They had only a vague idea of the implications; because of their acquaintance with American whalers, they were not inclined to regard it favorably. They watched the lowering and raising of the flags, listened to the thunder of the canons, and then quietly withdrew.”
US officials, including General Jefferson Davis, acknowledged that the Tlingit believed that they held sovereignty over the territory which the US had claimed. However, those claims were dismissed within an American climate that embraced the idea of manifest destiny.
“The Indians were seen as impediments to be removed so civilization could advance and whites could benefit,” Langdon said. “The resources were considered open for white appropriation.”
William Seward, who met with Ḵaal.áx̱ch in 1869, was among those who dismissed the Tlingit presence in the area as a temporary problem, commenting that same year in Sitka, “(Indian peoples) can neither be preserved as a distinct social community nor incorporated into our society... They will merely serve the turn until civilized white men come.”
Despite this attitude, in the years after the US purchase, Ḵaal.áx̱ch attempted to preserve diplomatic relations with US forces, and the Jilkáat Tlingit were among those who discouraged a violent response to the US presence, Langdon said. Ḵaal.áx̱ch was widely recognized as a powerful leader, meeting with US officials for the first time in 1867, and continuing to advocate for his people until his death in 1889. Ḵaal.áx̱ch also sought assistance from the US Army in re-establishing a positive relationship between the Jilkáat Tlingit and the Stikine Tlingit, seeking “a renewal of the peace and friendship heretofore existing between their people” through innovative means.
Langdon noted that though the US was involved only as an intermediary, the Americans later used similar treaties as a “wedge operation” to insert language about US sovereignty into treaties brought forth by other Tlingits.
Due to time constraints, Langdon was not able to go into detail about the events of Ḵaal.áx̱ch’s later life, but noted that Ḵaal.áx̱ch, a man who “was very interested in building a bridge,” was perhaps lucky to not have witnessed the devastating events of the 1890s and beyond.
“I guess it’s lucky that Ḵaal.áx̱ch did not have to think or feel about these outcomes. In the context of his endeavors he was both a man of great Tlingit classic vigor and an enormous figure in transition, not only in terms of the overall relations but also in the transition of his own people, to find a productive future for the Jilkáat people in the face of the difficulties that confronted them at that time.”
Speaking after Langdon’s presentation, SHI president Rosita Worl expressed her gratitude to Langdon for his research, and, with other members of the audience, presented him with a copper tináa and a cotton blanket with a Chilkat design. Worl is a member of the Shangukeidí Clan from the Kawdliyaayi Hít in Klukwan.
“This is so meaningful to us,” she said. “We feel very strongly about our homeland …We haven’t had a chance to express our true feelings about these issues, and what happened, and what still needs to happen. The work of Dr. Langdon in bringing this lecture here to us is one step in moving forward.”
Langdon has been widely honored for his work on issues impacting Alaska Natives, including, most recently, the Denali Award from the Alaska Federation of Natives. The Denali Award recognizes the contributions of a non-Native person who has demonstrated strong commitment, dedication, and service to the Alaska Native community and to rural Alaska, according to the AFN website. The award is bestowed annually to an individual selected by the AFN Board of Directors for exemplary work that has improved the lives of Alaska Native people.
The video of Langdon’s lecture will be posted on SHI’s website next week.
(Photo by Brian Wallace)