Alaska Life

How John Muir became an Indian chief - or not

We regularly encounter, in various books, references to the effect that naturalist John Muir, esteemed founder of the Sierra Club and occasional visitor to Alaska, was a Tlingit chief.

Referring to Muir's 1880 canoe trip up the Inside Passage in "John Muir's Wild America" (National Geographic, 1976), Tom Melham writes, "The Tlingit by now had made Muir an honorary chief during a tribal ceremony; they dubbed him 'Great Ice Chief,' a title Muir cherished." In the first edition of his error-ridden history of the environmental movement in Alaska, "The Quiet World," Douglas Brinkley (2011) repeats the claim: "The Tlingit had made John Muir an honorary chief during his visit in 1880; they called him 'Great Ice Chief.' "

The source of this assertion seems to come from "Alaska Days with John Muir," published in 1915 by Rev. Samuel Hall Young, who traveled with the naturalist on that canoe trip accompanied by several Tlingit guides. Young writes: "At Wrangell, as we went ashore, we were greeted by joyful exclamations from the little company of old Stickeen Indians we found on the dock. That sharp intaking of the breath which is the Thlinget's note of surprise and delight and the words Nuknate Ankow ka Glate Ankow (Priest Chief and Ice Chief ) passed along the line."

Apparently drawing on Young, Alaska author Kim Heacox, in "John Muir and the Ice That Started a Fire" (Lyons Press, 2014), cites Tlingits who accompanied Muir as calling him "a great ice-chief." But he keeps it in the context of quotes and stops short of making any conclusions about what the words may have meant. The adjective "honorary" is notably absent.

The "Dictionary of Tlingit" published by the Sealaska Heritage Institute, gives the word "aanñáawu" for "rich man; man of wealth; chief."

Though not in the dictionary, a similar word, "aankháawu," is variously given as "village master," "village leader," "rich man" and "aristocrat." We find it used in Jana Harris' 1980 fictional book, "Alaska: A Novel," and more recently by Selina Kaseixh Everson, president emeritus of the Alaska Native Sisterhood Grand Camp. Everson gave the opening invocation for a session of the Alaska state House of Representatives on March 25, 2015, saying: "Dikee Aankháawu, I aadé yawtudlighéin yá ts'ootaat." In English: "Precious Heavenly Father, we raise our face to you this morning."

Aankháawu looks pretty close to Young's "Ankow," but the closest item to "ankow" in the "Dictionary of Tlingit" is "ánk'w," a "person who cries easily."

Of course there are lots of words that aren't in dictionaries, plus regional variations and changes in Tlingit orthography over the years that cloud the matter. But the "honorary chief" assertion begins to sound like fiction, or at least an exaggeration.

A parallel recognition, of sorts, is recorded in Muir's own "Travels in Alaska," written shortly before his death in 1914. He recalls a feast in Wrangell in 1879 at which, he writes, he was "adopted by the Stickeen tribe, and given an Indian name Ancoutahan, said to mean adopted chief."

Muir adds, "I was inclined to regard this honor as being unlikely to have any practical value." However, he was told it could serve as a safeguard, a kind of safe-conduct pass.

"Travelers without an Indian name might be killed and robbed, without the offender being called to account, as long as the crime was kept secret from the whites," he wrote. "But being adopted by the Stickeens, no one belonging to the other tribes would dare attack me, knowing that the Stickeens would hold them responsible."

There may be a little hyperbole in the above. Adventurers were ever wont to exaggerate the danger involved in their exploits. And neither Muir's nor Young's accounts were published until 35 years after the events they report. However, Muir (at least) was working from notes said to have been carefully made at the time.

Muir doesn't mention ice with regard to the name given him by the Stickeen people — now better identified as Stikine or Shtax'héen Kwáan. None of the words in the "Dictionary of Tlingit" given for "ice," "iceberg" or "glacier" resemble "glate."

There's something faintly mocking about the term "Ice Chief," a chief being someone who has responsibility for the welfare of other people. It's like saying "King of the Winds" or "President of the Waves" or "Chairman of the Board of Interstellar Dust Clouds."

I suspect the Wrangell elders used the term, if indeed they used it and if Young has it correctly translated, in jest or as good-humored satire. Young himself may have understood it that way. But through subsequent re-tellings by writers immured in the worship of their subject, the quip turned into the implication that Muir held a rank tantamount to that of a clan leader among the awed Tlingits.

To suggest that level of eminence strikes me as ludicrous. And yet the "ice chief" appellation occurs so stubbornly that it's hard to conclude it was entirely made up.

One source, nearly 20 years closer to the time it reports than either Young's or Muir's writings, gives a different origin. It's an essay titled "Recollections of John Muir" by Charles Keeler in the Sierra Club Bulletin's Muir memorial edition, published in 1916.

Keeler writes about the Harriman Expedition of 1899. Tarted up as a scientific trip, the junket was mainly a holiday for super-rich old white boys who shot all the game they could find and occasionally stole totems. Muir came along as a celebrity naturalist.

"During the memorable two months of the Harriman Expedition to Alaska, Muir and I were room-mates," Keeler recalled. "We dubbed him 'Ice Chief' in Alaska, because of his enthusiasm for the great ice sculptor of the Glacial Age who had carved out the mountains in their present form."

Keeler makes no mention of Alaska Natives ever using such a term. It seems that the guys on the boat were teasing the loquacious Scott much as the Wrangell elders may have. Muir, who had a pretty good sense of humor, probably smiled.

He would have guffawed had he thought some future hagiographer might solemnly write, "The super-rich old white boys made John Muir an honorary chief during his visit to Alaska in 1899; they called him 'Great Ice Chief.' " But that has as much accuracy as the claim of his Tlingit chieftainship. Maybe more.

Admittedly, I don't know all the ins and outs of this matter and it happened a long time ago — if it happened as described. I'd love to hear from someone who might have knowledge on the subject that has thus far escaped Muir's biographers.