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Alaska Life

An expert opinion on whether John Muir was really an 'honorary Tlingit chief'

  • Author: Victoria Barber
  • Updated: December 30, 2016
  • Published December 30, 2016

John Muir in 1906. Photo by Francis M. Fritz (Creative Commons)

Things usually tend to be a little slow in the arts department as the new year dawns. So I'll use this column to track the progress of a balloon I floated back in December.

First was the matter of naturalist John Muir, whom some writers claim was made "an honorary Tlingit chief" with the title of "Ice Chief." I argued that this oft-repeated claim seemed ludicrous and gave my reasons. A much more knowledgeable analysis was provided by James Crippen, an Alaskan pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. Crippen, whose Tlingit name is Dzéiwsh, identified himself as a member of the Deisheetaan Ḵakʼweidí clan, Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan. Crippen was raised in Anchorage and Wrangell and Shtaxʼhéen is the more precise spelling of Stikine or Stikeen, the people of the area around Wrangell. His dissertation is on "formal syntactic theory and
information structure in Tlingit."

Crippen writes that the words that Samuel Young Hall translated as "Ice Chief" would be spelled "dleit aanḵáawu" in modern orthography. Early English translations turned "aanḵáawu" into "chief," but this is misleading, Crippen says, "because there are no real chiefs in Tlingit culture, at least as the term is usually used." A better translation is "aristocrat."

As for "dleit," the word means "snow." It is also used in reference to white people, Crippen notes, as in "dleit ḵáa" for "white man." Unless he'd been working in the sun, Muir had a complexion that was pale, even compared with other Caucasians. Additionally, Muir did not know much Tlingit, if any, though he spoke some Chinook Jargon, the polyglot trade lingo of the Pacific Northwest. That language has no known word for "glacier," so Crippen suspects that the Wrangell people would have heard him repeatedly using the Chinook word for "snow."

"In sum, the name Dleit Aanḵáawu means 'Snow Aristocrat,' " Crippen said. "It's a pun on Muir being white as well as being obsessed with glaciers and hence snow. It's a nickname, much like we might joke with a modern glaciologist by calling them 'Ice Guy' or the like." Which is what we suspected all along.

However, Crippen adds this important insight: "(The name is) implicitly a recognition that Muir was more than just another random white guy during the Cassiar Gold Rush. Rather, he was friendly enough and respected enough to be called something in Tlingit. He was a real person deserving of a name, rather than just another anonymous interloper in the mad rush for gold up the Stikine (River)." The respect and dignity that Muir showed his hosts was at that time "rare and remarkable behavior from the American settlers."

Another correspondent told me that the Holt Atherton Library at University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, has a lot of Muir's journals in their special collections and is seeking people who are willing to give them a read and "try to transcribe from Muir's terrible handwriting." Access to digitized copies of the Muir papers via www.pacific.edu appears to be restricted to approved users.

Finally, on the lighter side, a reader rightly chastised me for calling Muir a "loquacious Scott." "Scott" is a surname and sometimes a first name, he correctly noted. "Scot" is the right spelling of the nationality, which has caused me to write the following mnemonic poem that I now inflict upon you:

A single T fits all Scots, the better and the worse 'uns. 

A two-T Scott, however, is the name of certain persons.

A lone T will suffice, then, where ethnicity is reckoned.

But Robert, Dred and George C. will oblige you for a second. 

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