A Celebration of Women Writers

"Our Neighbors, The Alaskan Women." by Mrs. Clara A. McDiarmid (1847-1899).
Publication: Eagle, Mary Kavanaugh Oldham, ed. The Congress of Women: Held in the Woman's Building, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, U. S. A., 1893. Chicago, Ill: Monarch Book Company, 1894. pp. 723-726.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

[Page 723] 

OUR NEIGHBORS, THE ALASKAN WOMEN.

By MRS. CLARA A. MCDIARMID.

MRS. CLARA A. MCDIARMID.
For many years, perhaps about six, I had an intense desire to visit Alaska, but not until August, 1891, was I fortunate enough to do so. Donning a warm, short dress, with grip in hand, I made a start for this land of nightless days and midnight rainbows.

Alaska, or Al-ay-ek-sa, the name given by the native islanders to the main land, signifies great country; and great it is, being one-fifth as large as all the other states and territories together. The population in 1891 was about 49,850, of these thirty-five thousand are wholly uncivilized, and seventy-three hundred semi-civilized. We are sending millions of dollars every year to foreign lands, while almost within sound of our own cannon thirty-five thousand barbarians in Alaska alone are waiting for the time when the Christians of their own country and the United States government shall see fit to investigate the needs of their own home circle. There is great diversity of opinion regarding the ancestry of these natives. Some claim they are Mongolian, while the historian Marchland recognizes the pictures, writings and monuments of the Aztecs, and thinks they may be the remnants of tribes driven by Cortez from Mexico. If this be true, the Aztec and Alaskan women differ greatly in domestic habits. The Aztec mother says to her daughter on her bridal day, "That your husband may not take you in dislike adorn yourself, wash yourself, and let your garments be clean;" so all along the streams and the great ditches in Mexico can be seen the natives, men, women and children, bathing the bodies, washing the linen, and drying it on the grassy banks, while the Alaskans cover the body with the oil of the seal and walrus.

All the Alaskan tribes take the name of Siwash, a corruption of the French voyagers, Sauvage; but the tribes are divided into sub-tribes, the Thinklets being the most influential. The Haidas are most ingenious and noted for their fine carvings.

Sailing from Seattle August 31, it was not until the fifth day of our journey that we had the favor of landing at Met-lah-cat-la, where we were first introduced to the civilized native Alaskan woman. We found there a model mission station, the population of nine hundred composed of the mixed tribes, Thinklets, Haidas and Chimsheans. We were cordially received by Mr. Duncan, the superintendent, who has given his heart to this enterprise for many years. This mission is conducted much on the Bellamy plan, and is the most successful of any experiment yet tried among savages. The mission was started with fifty Chimsheans, who signed a temperance pledge, [Page 724]  agreed to give up their medicine men and observe the Sabbath. What is the result of twenty-three years' labor? A nicely laid out village of frame houses, a beautiful church, a schoolhouse, and best of all, an industrial school where the girls are taught all kinds of domestic labor. The missionary's wife was the only white woman in the village. She devoted her whole time to teaching the women how to make their homes comfortable. The women were modest in their dress and very industrious. These Indians have discarded all forms of the Anglican Church and have organized themselves into the Christian Church of Mat-lah-cat-la, pledging themselves to exclusively following the teachings of the Bible without ritual or discipline. I was impressed with the simplicity of this teaching, because I do believe that the teaching of the different creeds to any heathen to be most disastrous. Who knows, they may be the first to tell us what the Bible does teach, for the fifty-eight denominations of the United States have failed so far, else there would be only one united church.

We bade adieu to these kind friends, and on a dark and rainy night we landed at Fort Urangel; however, fortune favored us, the morning dawned bright. We went on shore to pay our first visit to our Alaskan sister in her native element. As far as the eye could see the tall totems loomed up, each telling its own story, intelligible to none but the natives. Only the powerful and wealthy can afford these expensive affairs. They are the actual historians of these very odd people, and show the descent and alliances of the great families. It is gratifying to know that the descent is counted on the female side. The first emblem is the eagle on the mother's side, next the image of a child, a beaver or a frog, as the families have intermarried. Sometimes there are two totems, if the father happens to be a chief. If feuds arise, the husband must fight with the wife's family. Their houses are usually about eighteen or twenty feet square, having one door, and in the center of the room an excavation of perhaps four feet square, which is filled in with stone, on which all the family cooking is done. Two or three families often occupy one house. I saw the men and children huddled in the corners heedless of our presence, while the women were preparing the breakfast. They sit on the floor while they eat with their large spoons made from the horns of the mountain sheep. When one of the family dies the body is never taken out through the door, but a board is taken off the side of the house and the corpse passed through the hole or through the smoke-escape in the roof; this keeps the spirit away. The Indians cremated their dead until the missionaries, I regret to say, taught them burial.

The women make all the bargains, and if you are not informed of their tricks you may be the loser. They will ask two prices for everything, from the fifty cent horn spoon to the bracelet of gold, the price of which is sometimes fifty dollars. The nose ring was common, but I was most curious to know what the button in the chin meant. On the older women it was of ivory or wood, but on the young woman it was small and of highly polished silver, and indicated that she had arrived at the proper age to marry. I think this rather a pretty and modest manner of revealing the state of affairs, and is a vast improvement on the common law of Massachusetts wherein a girl of seven years may become a candidate for matrimony. The law stands very much this way: If a child below the legal age should marry, the marriage is not necessarily invalid, provided either she or he be above the age of seven years. If the parties continue to live together after both have attained legal age, fourteen for boys and twelve for girls, the marriage is thus ratified, but either party may disaffirm it by ceasing to live with the other before that time arrives. This is the common law rule, and is still law where it has not been set aside by statute. No statute in Massachusetts has ever established any other rule, so you see the extremely intellectual on one coast and the barbarous on the other differ widely on these marital questions. The great objection I have to the Massachusetts law is the partiality shown the youth and the disadvantage it places on the sixty thousand unmarried women of mature years. At Fort Urangel, instead of the fashionable door-plate of civilization, if they have a door at all, there is placed over it an inscription. A man of much wealth makes a will and [Page 725]  leaves all to his wife, and the inscription reads thus: "Let all that read know that I am a friend of the whites. Let no one molest this house. In case of my death it belongs to my wife." Another reads: "Jake is a good boy, a working man, a friend of the whites and demands protection."

The Alaskan Indians are migratory in their habits. They spend much time in visiting their tribes and in the fall are off for the salmon-fisheries, or maybe all the family are crowded into the cedar canoe with the blankets and cooking utensil. I say utensil, for the woman has only one large pot for hot water, the meat or fish are put into a woven basket, dropped into the boiling water, thus constituting the meal. The family once loaded into the canoe, they are ready for a journey of two or three months, for it is eleven hundred miles down to the hop fields of Washington or Oregon. We saw hundreds of them wending their way down the channel, hugging the shore, the mother with a pappoose in her arm often helping the master to paddle the canoe. The women and children are paid good wages for picking hops, but the men are addicted to gambling, seldom saving any money, leaving the mother to look after the supplies for the winter.

The tenth day we arrived at Sitka. No place except Muir Glacier created so much interest. It is a gala day always when the semi-monthly steamer arrives there. The whole population turn out and give themselves up to the entertainment of the visitors. The wharf is crowded with a motley throng. The best society Sitka affords may be looking for faces of friends among the arrivals, the humblest seeking a buyer for her wares, and a general confusion prevails while the ship unloads her mail and freight. Scattered along the streets for a few blocks, women were sitting on the ground, beside them the stock in trade of all kinds–horn spoons and silver spoons, wooden totem-polls and faun-skins. They were typical epitomes of the fashions. One young woman had on a pair of rubber boots, a gentleman's linen shirt open in the back, and a red plush skirt. She looked a grotesque figure, indeed, as she sat on a log and drank her coffee from a blue china cup. Some of the women are quite good looking, but most of them are very homely, and, when in mourning, are positively hideous. In mourning they smear the face with soot mixed with grease, leaving only the eyes visible.

The Sitkan Indians and those at Juneau are the best educated of any of the tribes. Their houses are modern cottages of frame or hewn logs, with doors and windows. I noticed many were numbered. They are comfortably furnished, especially that of the chief. We were greatly disappointed in not seeing Princess Thom, the greatest personage of all the tribes, the chiefs and medicine men all yielding to her authority. She has a very comfortable house, is rich in blankets and bracelets, wearing thirty gold bracelets, each made of a twenty-dollar gold piece. Her wealth is estimated at $10,000. This princess is about forty years old, is said to have had seventeen husbands, and still not considered a flirt. Some of these husbands have been cremated, some discharged, most of them are scattered around loose. She has been Christianized, and lives at present with her last, a very young man. When she sees a gentleman Indian whom she fancies, she trades blankets and bracelets for him; if he has a wife who can not be bought over, she takes her beautiful white yacht, invites the wife to take a sail, spreads the white wings, and floats out to sea. It is needless to say the wife is never heard of again. This princess is an exception to the general rule; it is usually the chief who has more than one wife. When he dies his wives fall to his heir–grandson or nephew, whoever he may be and if the heir refuse to accept the legacy, his clans unite in rebellion and compel him to submit, though the relicts may buy their freedom if they desire. Miss Scidmore, in her history, remarks: "Curiously, with this subjection of the women, it is they who are the family autocrats and tyrants, giving the casting vote in domestic counsels, and overriding the male decisions in the most high-handed manner. The woman's rights and her sphere and influence have reached a development among the Sitkans that would astonish the suffrage leaders of Wyoming and Washington Territories." [Page 726] 

All around Sitka the scenery is most picturesque, and if I could paint from still life I should first want to try the view along the half-mile walk to the Indian River. The ferns grow to immense size. The great fir branches are laden to the ground with rare mosses and lichens, and looking back over the bay, studded with innumerable fir-bound islands, snow-capped mountains in the distance, the effect is enchanting and most conducive to romantic and legendary lore. The schools were under the management of the Presbyterians, and they have seven important mission stations in Alaska. The study halls and manual training schools were large and commodious, almost obscured by evergreen foliage, and flowers were blooming everywhere. The teachers told me the girls were very intelligent, quick to learn, and the only trouble they had was from the United States marines stationed there, who occasionally coaxed one away. There was only one public school in Sitka, and they told me the United States had done comparatively nothing for education in Alaska. The Russians complained bitterly of the faithlessness of our pledges given to Russia regarding educational facilities. With a yearly revenue of a million dollars on seal furs alone, and enough gold in the Treadwell Mines at Douglass Island to pay our national debt, the United States only supports six public schools in Alaska, for a population of fourteen thousand eight hundred and fifty civilized and semi-civilized natives, and then wonders why there are cannibals within one hundred miles of Sitka. At Chilcat, one hundred and sixty miles north of Sitka, and the highest navigable point in the inland channel, we found the women the most peculiar of any yet seen. Their homes were wretched huts made of small poles, and the odors arising from the fish-oil on their bodies and cooking was stifling. The only articles the women offered for sale were the Chilcat blanket, the prices ranging from fifty-five dollars to seventy-five dollars each.

Juneau was our next important stop, and is the largest city in Alaska. Not withstanding the cold, drizzling rain, the women and children were along the sidewalk, with their curios and salmon berries for sale. These latter are a most delicious berry, in size and shape like the raspberry, in color salmon. The women make them into a thick paste and dry for winter use. They have a good school and mission in Juneau. A lady of culture told me it was almost useless to try to do anything in the way of missionary work for the miners were so immoral in their habits they greatly hindered the influence for good. Many of the Indians were dissolute gamblers, and it is a common affair for them to sell their wives and daughters to the miners for three, six months, or more, as the inclination or gold of the miner might warrant. For crimes these men are amenable to United States law. Is there any law that gives them the right to barter their wives and daughters? Are you surprised that the Russian women sent a letter to President Harrison containing the following items: "It is with amazement and profound regret that we learn of the despotic rule of men over women in the one country to which of all others the world turns with hope, expecting progress toward equal rights and privileges." After twenty years of neglect and wrong, Alaska presents to us the only instance in the history of the United States where the right of representation and local legislation has been denied. If this is the state of affairs under a government of men alone, could they be worse, and might they not try the experiment of allowing the women to take a hand in straightening the tangles?


"Whatever do you women want? we hear the scornful cry.
To you, O Christian commonwealth, we women make reply:
We want a Christian commonwealth where just and equal laws
Shall make a needless mission ours who plead the woman's cause.

There are wrongs that must be righted, bitter wars that seek redress;
We can hear our sisters calling in their weakness and distress.
We need the power to lift them from their sad and evil plight;
'Tis for this we want the franchise, and we claim it as our right."


[Page 723] 

Mrs. Clara A. McDiarmid is a native of Indiana, but was reared in Kansas. She was born December 11, 1847. Her parents were John T. Cox of Ohio and Catherine R. Allison of Indiana. She closed her school life at Christian College at Ottumwa, Kan., and has traveled extensively throughout the United States, Canada, Alaska, Cuba and Mexico. Mrs. McDiarmid studied law, attended lectures at Ann Arbor, Mich. As the statutes of Arkansas do not permit a woman to practice she gave it up as a profession. In 1866 she married Maj. Geo. W. McDiatmid of the Federal army. Mrs. McDiarmid is a worker for woman's enfranchisement and temperance. Her literary works are as a contributor to periodicals during her travels, and articles on suffrage and temperance, etc. She is a successful dealer in real estate. Mrs. McDiarmid is a member of the Christian Church. Her postoffice address is Little Rock, Ark.

[Next]

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom

This chapter has been put on-line as part of the BUILD-A-BOOK Initiative at the
Celebration of Women Writers.
Initial text entry and proof-reading of this chapter were the work of volunteer
Mary Hitchcock.

Editor: Mary Mark Ockerbloom