An Anthropologist's Account (“Wealth Woman and Frogs among the Tagish Indians”)

What the Whites Say Happened

The many authors who have written about this event all agree on two points: that the gold was in the creek, and that the Indians Jim and Charlie both became rich. However, reports vary greatly on all other elements in the story such as who first saw the gold and under what circumstances. The Indians who were involved are usually labelled with the odious term Siwash and more or less dismissed. So far as I know only Marius Barbeau has published some of the native traditions connected with the event, and these he learned from a Tsimshian who got them from a coastal Tlingit. Actually, the Indians who found the gold were Tagish, and in their story about the discovery what we commonly call “myth” meets and blends with history to reflect something of the Tagish behavioural environment.

What the Indians Say Happened

About a hundred Tagish now live on the headwaters of the Yukon river. Originally Athabascan speaking, during the 19th century they began to use the Tlingit language of the coastal Chilkat and Chilkoot Indians with whom they had developed an important trade in land furs following the near extinction of the sea otter in the North Pacific. In this trade the coastal Tlingit definitely held the upper hand. They would not allow the Tagish, who lived a harsh nomadic life in the interior, to cross the mountain passes to the coast where they could deal directly with white traders. In fact, so jealously did they Tlingit guard their position as middle men that until well towards the end of the century they successfully kept all white prospectors and traders out of Tagish territory, exploiting to the hilt both the Tagish and other neighboring interior Indians. Some intermarriage took place, largely in the interest of furthering economic transactions, but usually the two groups saw each other only when the Tlingit made their annual trading trips into the interior. By the time the Tlingit blocade began to ease somewhat, the Tagish had, however, adopted Tlingit matrilineal sib organization and even built two houses on Tagish lake. One belonged to the T’uq’weydi sib of the Crow (Raven) moiety; the other housed the dAq’luweydi, of the Wolf moiety.

Skookum Jim and Dawson Charlie were both dAq’luweydi, and the present head of the dAq’luweydi sib is Patsy Henderson, the younger brother of Charlie. Patsy too went to the Klondyke, and although he was not actually present when the gold was found, he used to “lecture” to tourists about the discovery. In these public talks, however, he has never touched on really important happenings which foreshadowed the event.

Before 1898, when Patsy was about twelve years old, he and Charlie went mountain sheep hunting with their uncle Jim. In the evening they landed on the shore of Bennett Lake near the present railroad stop. Cold and wet form bucking a big wind and waves all day, they built a big driftwood fire and then, in Patsy’s words:

…we hear a baby cry. That little lake…we hear a baby crying at the end of it. It’s not real but it sounds like a baby, ‘waa An, waa An’. Two times we hear it. We look at each other.

‘Do you hear it too?’

We don’t know about ttEnax xidAq (Wealth Woman) that time. Pretty soon we hear it again, just half way up the lake crying, ‘waa An, waa An’.

We start then. Jim walks ahead of Charlie is behind him, and I’m last. It’s dark, and we can’t see our way. Half way up the lake, I hear it sound just across…I hear it plain…like a real baby crying. Well, we…pretty near reach the end, but I’m scared. You understand, I’m young. Jim and Charlie want to know what it is, but I’m scared, that’s why I’m poor (now). Pretty near the south end of the lake we hear the sound close to us. Then I’m scared good, like you throw cold water on my head. I start to cry. I’m scared of money. I’m poor today.

Jim is older, but he never heard of ttEnax xidAq before. We all get scared when I start to cry. We listen, but we don’t hear it any more.”

After a sleepless night the party set off at dawn to return to TAgish where the rest of the people were staying. “The old people tell us it’s bad luck (we don’t see the baby). And they tell us about ttEnax xidA . ‘That’s a good luck’, they tell us. Well, after two years we do have luck. We find the gold in the Klondyke. Jim finds the more money than any of us. Just a little, I have…

Today Patsy knows just what to do if one hears the crying of Wealth Woman’s baby. One strips off all clothing and metal ornaments, throws urine at the woman and seizes her child, refusing to return it until the mother scratches one deeply four times with her golden finger nails and defecates four golden colored balls. These will become pure gold if one first returns the baby to the mother and then carries out proper ritual procedure: e.g., keeps silent about the encounter, fasts and bathes for four days while making special wishes for wealth, etc. However, at the time Patsy heard the baby, he did none of these things. Instead, he cried in terror. By contrast, his uncle Jim headed the search for the child.

Probably this action of Jim’s would never in itself have led to the Klondyke gold. Equally important was the aid of Jim’s frog helper. Our eight accounts of Jim’s relations with the frog all differ, even though four of the informants knew Jim well. The basic story is that once when Jim was down on the coast he felt sorry for a frog caught in a dry hole. Jim was ill, but that evening the grateful frog appeared and cured him at once. It also took Jim to visit its home, conducting him through a series of golden rooms, but stopping short of the fourth and last one where its father stayed. One person said that the frog looked like a man, but the others described a fair haired woman with eyes that glittered like gold nuggets in clear running water.

It is also reported that Jim saw the same frog at least three other times. Once when he had been caught in a blizzard, Jim visited the frog people for what seemed only a day, although he discovered on his return that he had really been gone for eleven days. This seems to be just another version of his first visit to the frog’s house. Later, when he and his friends had been starving for four days, the frog gave him directions first for killing a moose, and then for finding the Bonanza gold. Some years after the Klondyke strike the frog also showed Jim a shining light near Atlin, B.C., which marked even more gold.

We need not give here the details of all of these encounters. Enough has been told to suggest that Wealth Woman and a supernatural frog helper are both integral parts of the Klondyke story as known to the Tagish. What else does the story reveal about the Tagish?

Source: Catharine McClellan, An Anthropologist's Account (“Wealth Woman and Frogs among the Tagish Indians”), Anthropos 58 (1963): 121-4

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