Residents to embark on historic Tlingit trade route

 

August 8, 2019

From the Chilkat River to Kusawa Lake. Map courtesy of the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkley.

This month, Haines residents Tim Ackerman and Mike Bott will embark on a nearly 200-mile route mapped out by legendary Klukwan chief Kohklux exactly 150 years ago. The men say that this will be the first time in 128 years that a traverse of the trail will be documented.

In the basement of the Alaska Native Brotherhood Hall, Ackerman and Bott pored over maps of the upper Chilkat Valley.

Ackerman went to the wall map, and moved his finger from the upper Tahini River, up the Chilkat River and 50 miles to Kusawa Lake. "It took the real experts 12 days. We're giving ourselves two weeks," Ackerman said.

Bott flipped through an enormous volume called "Travels in the Alseck," with pictures of original Kohklux maps to compare them to the state maps hanging on the wall.

The map chief Kohklux drew for scientist George Davidson is the earliest known recording of southwestern Yukon. It is scaled in time-as in the number of days it takes between points-rather than in distances. Though Kohklux is almost solely credited for the maps, according to several sources including the Sealaska Heritage Institute, his wives' knowledge informed it too.


"(Kohklux) didn't write stuff down, and (Tlingit) wasn't ever a written language," Bott said, presenting a map that Kohklux had drawn. Instead of exact coordinates, Kohklux's map shows dark imprints for glaciers, lines for tributaries and circles representing lakes, a lived-understanding of the land.

Before Kohklux's maps, Chilkat and Chilkoot Indians kept the knowledge of the region's geography to control a trade route to the Yukon.

"My great-grandparent, he used to walk all the way up the Chilkat Trail (now Haines Highway), down the O'Conner to the Tatshenshini, down the Tatshenshini, down the Alsek, all the way to Dry Bay and back. From Klukwan he would walk that route," Ackerman said. "I'm just kind of walking in his footsteps you could say."

Ackerman is following his ancestors' footsteps using Native knowledge, he said, following Kohklux's maps, without bringing a compass, a GPS or other technologies that could make navigation easier.

Ackerman said he is surveying the old route, "to record it for future generations so they'll know that these trails exist. The Haines Highway basically erased the memory of the Chilkat Trail."

"What's up with that? Why do they need to rename the original names? ...It's almost as if they're trying to erase any memory of the original inhabitants," Ackerman said.

When the U.S. purchased Alaska in 1867, the land was virtually unknown to them. In his essay "A Pioneer Scientist in the Far North," Morgan B. Sherwood says that the U.S. government, "organized a scientific reconnaissance soon after the cession treaty was ratified," in an effort to understand the value of the new Alaskan territory. This effort brought George Davidson, a president of the California Academy of Sciences to Alaska.


Kohklux's maps were drawn on Aug. 7, 1869, when Davidson visited Klukwan with a group of journalists to observe the solar eclipse.

"It appeared to Davidson and the journalists that the Klukwan residents were awed and frightened by the eclipse Davidson had come to observe. The Native people hid in their houses and came out only when the sunlight had returned. The story goes that the people of Klukwan were convinced Davidson and his men had made the sun sick and were responsible for its brief disappearance... Kohklux was anxious to learn how Davison made the sun disappear and seemed willing to give him almost anything in return for the information," according to the Sealaska Heritage Institute, an organization that supports Tlingit, Haida and Tsimshian cultures in Southeast.


Davidson kept the original Kohklux pencil map with him for the rest of his life, though he never returned to the Chilkat Valley, according to historian John Cloud. For decades, the map was housed in the Bancroft Library of the University of California Berkeley as a cultural artifact. It is scheduled to be repatriated and brought to the Da Ku Centre in Canada this October.

 
 

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