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Reminiscences of Alaska by Capt. Thomas J. Maher, C&GS

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METLAKATLA


While this work was in progress the ship's carpenter and some of the crew were building a boathouse at Metlakatla, an Indian village on Annette Island, which was under the direction of the Reverend William Duncan. Upon completion of the Wrangell Narrows work I proceeded to Metlakatla and reported to Captain Derickson. We remained there for several weeks and had frequent opportunities to meet and become acquainted with Mr. Duncan. He impressed me as being a remarkable man. He was born in England in 1835 and left in 1856 on a British Warship for British Columbia, arriving at Fort Simpson, B.C., in 1857. He decided that before undertaking missionary work he would learn the native's language and become familiar with their customs and habits of thought. He could then lead them through the language in which they thought and be better able to reach them through the native point of view. He established at Metlakatla, B. C. (there were several ways of spelling this name), a village and mission of perhaps 1000 Tsimshean Indians. He believed in teaching fundamentals rather than dogmas. Considering the Indian as a materialist, he proceeded to show him the natural advantages to be gained in adopting Christianity. His methods were highly successful and could be studied with advantage by those about to undertake missionary or educational work in undeveloped lands.

At Metlakatla they built a church, a sawmill and a small soap factory. Being at the mercy of traders, they built and ran their own trading schooner. Duncan was so successful that the Church Missionary Society, London, England, felt that it was time for some bigwig to take over, and they appointed a Bishop to do so. Duncan knew that these natives were fundamentalists and that a Bishop's mitre could not make much of an impression against the elaborate ceremonial outfits of the native chiefs, which Duncan gradually suppressed.

At this time the natives received very little support or consideration in British Columbia for any claims they might have to land titles, and there was ill feeling. The attempted change created chaos. These Indians had been savage fighters and some were in favor of war. Duncan proceeded to Washington to see President Cleveland. He informed me that he was held up there by some flunkies. He created quite a scene and President Cleveland appeared to ascertain the reason for racket. Well, Cleveland welcomed him into his office where Duncan explained the situation. Duncan had quite a talk with the President, whom he considered a very fine man. He obtained a reservation for his Indians on Annette Island, Alaska, a short distance north of the boundary. As Duncan's protests in British Columbia had been of no avail, he and the tribe moved to the Alaskan side, establishing the new Metlakatla, in 1887. Where they landed was nothing but a wilderness, with an extensive marshy area back from the beach. Here they built new homes, not shacks nor wigwams, but houses, also a church remarkable for its size and for its great span, which permitted an unobstructed view of the pulpit from any place within. They built a sawmill operated by waterpower derived from a mountain lake about 800 feet in elevation and distant about one-half mile. the water was conveyed to the mill by a pipe which, to the best of my recollection, was six inches in diameter. Duncan had an excellent fire department and a small engine. The cannery was noted for its cleanliness and I understand the pack brought a premium price. There was also a village band. His school system showed remarkable good judgement. He stressed manual training for the boys. He was most emphatic in expressing his thoughts concerning training for the girls. He believed in fundamentals, - household duties, cooking, sewing, etc., so as to develop good housewives. Higher training without these fundamentals he considered as producing unsatisfactory results. There was no red light district within the reservation and although there was the necessary talent in Alaskan towns, Metlakatla furnished no recruits for the profession.

Under Duncan's direction the natives developed into good carpenters, blacksmiths and mechanics. Several of the natives were excellent silversmiths from whom the wives of service men and other women from Ketchikan obtained fine bracelets and other ornaments. It was customary for the women to furnish the metal. If silver items were desired, silver dollars were furnished. If gold ornaments were wanted they would be made form ten- or twenty-dollar gold pieces, items of currency which history records were in use by ancient Americans prior to the time of the Great White Father. These craftsmen did not serve an apprenticeship in any art school or factory. They possessed a certain talent which developed under Mr. Duncan's tutelage. These natives had a natural bent toward woodworking, as shown by their totem poles, totems in front of their houses and designs on the bows of their boats. Some consider the carvings and totems crude. They were massive but the workmanship was good. Perhaps not comparable with ancient classical art, yet each feature resembled some natural object which conveyed a clear meaning of tribal customs, unlike some of our modernistic art which has reached such a state of perfection as to be beyond the grasp of a political mind of presidential caliber. However, there have been newspaper reports of a modernistic type produced by a chimpanzee which has received favorable comment.

Duncan and a Board of Elders (selected men of the tribe) governed the village.... There were no violations of the law within the jurisdiction of the village, and outsiders who came to bring liquor or otherwise commit evil actions, once caught, never had any desire to return or again experience Duncan's justice. There was a suitable jail above the fire house. My recollection is that there was a structure, about twelve feet on a side, mounted on a platform about five feet high. It was roofed but the sides consisted of bars, an open work pattern. I understand that it was used, occasionally, as a jail. Conditions were most healthful, as there was excellent ventilation from all directions, and the temperature was most uniform, being that of the outside air. During rainy weather, it may have been somewhat damp, but by moving around, the occupant might find reasonably dry spots. In spite of its natural advantages, it never became popular and seldom had a tenant. There was no record of a repeater. Prisoners were transferred weekly to Ketchikan by a local steamer.

Mr. Duncan often referred to past events and once mentioned an exceptionally bad character who was in jail waiting to be transferred on the next boat to Ketchikan. After the departure of the steamer, someone discovered that this man had been left behind and had to remain another week. At the end of this second week he was no longer a "Tough Guy."

On another occasion he spoke of the time when men of evil character landed at the reservation and sold a considerable quantity of liquor to the natives. They got away before being apprehended, so he, with a number of Elders, took after them in a canoe. He said they spent two weeks traveling before they ran these culprits down, and brought them back to the village. Lack of jurisdiction apparently was no hindrance to Duncan. There were no suspended sentences, no bail, no habeas corpus. With Duncan, possession was nine points of the law and the other point didn't amount to much. Legal proceedings were never a force in his jurisdiction. Technicalities never interfered with his convictions or decisions, and a firmly established principle was, "Let no guilty man escape." In his principality pickings for lawyers were very slim. The old gentleman's square countenance and his open-face jail were very discouraging to those protectors of malefactors who needed clients.

Duncan was sturdily built and short of stature, probable 5'5" or 5'6". He had a ruddy complexion, a full round face and remarkable blue eyes. His life was austere. His apparel was simple. His personal quarters were sparsely furnished and his office was generally cold. His personality was quite pleasing. His conversation was always interesting and conveyed the impression of an underlying vein of humor. Even at his advanced age when I frequently saw him, his untiring energy, his tenacity, fixity of purpose, cold logic, keen analytical mind and inflexible will made a marked impression. Here was a man remarkable for his generation; one able to influence natives to give up tribal customs, settle down to good occupations and become good church members. His organization did not walk on the crutches of charitable contributions.

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