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Title: The Whale House of the Chilkat
Author: Emmons, George T.
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.

*** Start of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The Whale House of the Chilkat" ***






Lieutenant U.S. Navy


Transcriber's Note: The first part of the Publications in Anthropology
has been moved to the end of this text and merged with the last part of
that list.



Lieutenant U.S. Navy.


The material here presented has been gathered from the most reliable
native sources throughout a period of twenty-five years of intimate
personal acquaintance and association with the Tlingit, and treats of
their past, before the exodus from their old villages to the mining
camps and salmon canneries of the white man so reduced their numbers
that communal life in the large old houses, upon which their social
customs and practices depended, was rendered impossible, and the seed
of a new life was sown.

I first visited the Chilkat in 1882, when little influenced by our
civilization. They were a comparatively primitive people, living under
their own well-established code of laws, subsisting on the natural
products of the country, clothed in skins, furs, and trade blankets,
practising ancestor worship in their elaborate ceremonial, cremating
the dead, dominated by the superstitions of witchcraft and the practice
of shamanism, proud, vain, sensitive, but withal, a healthy, honest,
independent race, and friendly when fairly met.

Their villages then represented the best traditions of the past in both
architecture and ornamentation. The houses of heavy hewn timbers, split
from the giant spruces, were fortresses of defense, with narrow
doorways for entrance and the smoke hole in the roof for light and

But today this is all changed. The old houses have disappeared, the old
customs are forgotten, the old people are fast passing, and with the
education of the children and the gradual loss of the native tongue,
there will be nothing left to connect them with the past. So on behalf
of native history and my deep interest in the people, I offer this
paper, describing in accurate detail one of the last relics of their
culture. Had the Chilkat been able to work stone instead of wood, their
country would now be the archaeological wonder of the Pacific Coast.

The illustrations in color are from sketches made upon the ground and
are reasonably accurate both as to form and color. For their final form
I am indebted to Mr. S. Ichikawa. To Winter and Pond I am under
obligations for permission to use the photograph of the two Chilkat


Princeton, New Jersey,
April, 1916.



PREFACE                                                        3

INTRODUCTION                                                   9

THE OLD WHALE HOUSE                                           18

DETAIL OF THE HOUSE POSTS                                     25
    GONAKATATE-GARS                                           25
    DUCK-TOOLH-GARS                                           26
    YEHLH-GARS                                                28
    TLUKE-ASS-A-GARS                                          29

OBJECTS ASSOCIATED WITH THE HOUSE                             30

THE PRESENT WHALE HOUSE                                       33



1. Decorative Figure on Edge of House Platform.

2. Carved and painted Screen over the Front of the Chief's Private
Apartment at Rear of the House.

3. Carved Posts inside the Entrance to the House, Gonakatate-Gars and
Duck-Toolh-Gars, respectively.

4. Carved Posts flanking Screen in Plate 2, Yehlh-Gars and
Tluke-ass-a-Gars, respectively.


1. Coudahwot and Yehlh-Gouhu, Chiefs of the Con-nuh-ta-di      7

2. An Old House, Kluckwan                                     11

3. Con-nuh-ta-di Grave Houses, Kluckwan                       12

4. The Whale House of the Chilkat                             19

5. Groundplan of the Whale House                              21

6. Wood-worm Dish, as seen in the House                       32

[Illustration: Fig. 1. Coudahwot and Yehlh-gouhu, Chiefs of the

_Photograph copyrighted by Winter and Pond._]


Upon the discovery of the Northwest Coast of America, the Tlingit were
found in possession of Southeastern Alaska with possibly the exception
of the southernmost portion of Prince of Wales Island, which had been
wrested from them by invading Haida from Masset on the Queen Charlotte
Islands, during the latter half of the eighteenth century. From the
testimony of the early explorers, this occupation seems to have been of
sufficient age to have developed a racial type, speaking the same
tongue, acknowledging established laws, and bound by like conventions.
What knowledge we can gather of their origin and early life from their
family traditions, songs, and geographical names, although fragmentary
and vague, consistently tells of a uniform northward migration by
water, along the coast and through the inland channels from the
Tsimshian peninsula and Prince of Wales Island, which was constantly
augmented by parties of Interior people descending the greater rivers
to the sea.

An indefinite belief in an earlier coast population is current among
the older people, and in confirmation of this, they refer to some
family songs and local names still used but not understood. As the
Tlingit are unquestionably a mixed race, this aboriginal element must
have been absorbed and contributed its racial characteristics to the
evolution of the present race.

The social organization of the Tlingit is founded on matriarchy and is
dependent upon two exogamic parties, the members of which intermarry
and supplement each other upon the many ceremonial occasions that mark
their intercourse. The one claiming the Raven crest is known
particularly among the northern Tlingit as Klar-de-nar, "one party,"
the other, more generally represented by the Wolf emblem has several
names, local in character, referring to old living places, as
Shen-ku-ka-de, "belonging to Shenk," Sit-ka-de, "belonging to Sit,"
said to refer to the separation of the people after the flood when this
branch settled at Sit, Gee-ya-de, etc. Outside of these there is one
family claiming the Eagle crest that has no phratral standing, the
members of which, as strangers, marry indiscriminately in either
division, but in all cases the children belong to the mother's clan.

The two parties are subdivided into fifty-six existing consanguineal
families or clans, and the names of some other's now extinct are
remembered. Each of these, while retaining its phratral functions and
privileges, is absolutely independent in government, succession,
inheritance, and territory, and besides the phratral crest common to
all, assumes others that are fully as prominent and often more in
evidence. Within the family there is a well-defined aristocracy wholly
dependent upon birth, from which the chiefs are chosen, an intermediate
class consisting of those who have forced themselves to the front,
through wealth, character, or artistic ability, and the poorer people.
In earlier days there were many slaves who had no recognized rights.

Geographically considered, there are sixteen tribal divisions known as
kwans, a contraction of ka (man) and an (land-lived on or claimed).
These are purely accidental aggregations, with little cohesion, a
grouping of one or more families of each phratry through migratory
meeting or continual intermarriage, that live together in fixed
villages for mutual protection and social advantages, but recognize no
tribal head or authority, each family being a unit in itself. Very
often the bitterest feuds existed between families within the tribe and
of the same phratry, although if attacked by a stranger people all
would unite for mutual protection.

Of these several tribes the Chilkat-kwan has been the most prominent
since our acquaintance with Alaska. The relative importance of a
primitive people measured by an abundant food supply, natural resources
and geographic position as to favorable trade conditions was fully
satisfied in their case. In their country about the head of Lynn Canal,
with its two river systems flowing from lakes, the spawning beds of
countless salmon furnished a nutritious and limitless staple food which
was augmented by various other sea fish and seal in the inlets; bear,
goat, and smaller mammals on the land; and exhaustless berry patches on
the mountain sides. Their commanding position at the head of the inland
channels controlling the mountain passes to the interior, gave them the
monopoly of the fur trade of the upper Yukon Valley, and the placer
copper fields of the White River region. These products, unknown to the
coastal area, were economically important in primitive days, and after
the advent of Europeans the increased demand for furs, and their
greater value, made this trade even more lucrative. That they fully
realized its value is demonstrated by their determination to retain
control of it, for when the Hudson's Bay Company established the
factory of Fort Selkirk at the mouth of the Pelly River in 1852, a war
party under the celebrated Chief Chartrich, trailed in some three
hundred miles, surprised, captured, and burned the post, and warned the
occupants against any further encroachment upon their established zone
of trade, and they continued to enjoy these rights until the discovery
of the Klondike gold fields, when the influx of whites over-ran the
country and destroyed their industries.

The earliest mention of this people occurs in a report of the Russian
Pilot Ismaïlof who, when visiting Yakutat in 1788, notes the presence
of a large body of Chilkat. In 1794 a boat expedition from Vancouver's
vessels, while exploring the head of Lynn Canal, met with a hostile
reception from a considerable number of natives and only averted
trouble by a hasty retreat. Lieutenant Whitby, the commander of the
party, was told of eight chiefs of great consequence who had their
homes on and about the Chilkat River, indicating an extensive

[Illustration: Fig. 2. An Old House, Kluckwan.]

Under the Russian régime, beyond the mere claim of sovereignty, no
jurisdiction was exercised over this people except the distribution of
national flags and Imperial medals. All trading was guardedly carried
on from the decks of armed vessels, and long after the American
occupation they were permitted to live unmolested, until their country
became the highway of travel to the interior.

The Tlingit were a canoe people and might be termed semi-nomadic, as
they were on their hunting grounds in the early spring and late fall,
while the summer season was spent in the fishing camps by the salmon
streams, but notwithstanding these long absences they built substantial
villages where, except for social activities, they spent the winter in
comparative idleness.

[Illustration: Fig. 3. Con-nuh-ta-di Grave Houses, Kluckwan.]

As they looked to the sea for their principal food supply, their
villages were directly on the shore just above the high water mark, in
sheltered coves where they could land and launch their canoes in any
weather and at any stage of the tide. But the Chilkat, differing from
all of the other Tlingit, lived just beyond the open water, in a rather
restricted territory, on rivers that were veritable storehouses of
food, bringing their abundance of fish life to their very doors, and so
permitting them to remain at home throughout the year, except when on
their trading trips to the interior, which gave their habitations a
more permanent character, and contributed to the unity of communal

Of the four principal old villages, all of which have survived the
ravages of constant strife and the still more deadly by-products of
civilization--liquor and disease--Kluckwan (mother town) has always
held the first place in size, wealth, and the character of its people.
It retained its supremacy long after the larger of the more southern
coast villages had gone to decay, as its more interior and isolated
position and the independent and aggressive reputation of its
population kept white traders at a distance. The discovery of gold near
Juneau and the establishment of the several salmon canneries at the
mouth of the river drew away its people, and communal life in the large
old houses, that was dependent upon the united efforts of the whole
household was made impossible by the absence of many, and the want of
coöperation of others who elected to live by themselves. With the
introduction of schools and the efforts of missionaries to break up the
old customs, the village has undergone a complete change and the old
houses have disappeared or have been modernized.

The village lies at the edge of a gradual slope on the north bank of
the Chilkat, twenty miles from its mouth, where the swift current
concentrated in a single channel forms a strong eddy that permits the
landing of canoes at any stage of the river. The houses in a single and
double row follow the trend of the shore for upwards of three-quarters
of a mile, but far enough back to allow for the smoke houses, fish
drying frames, and canoe shelters, and in the rear are the grave houses
(Fig. 3) and the now disused cremation grounds strewn with charred logs
and partly burnt funeral pyres. Just beyond the village at either end,
in the cottonwood groves, hidden in the underbrush and covered with
moss, are the crumbling remains of the shaman's dead houses, guarded by
elaborately carved spirit figures and decayed canoes.

The houses of each of the four resident totemic families are grouped
about that of the chief for mutual protection, giving the appearance of
three separate villages, as the two centrally located families through
increase of numbers, have been brought into closer union. In each group
the houses of the aristocracy and those of the poorer classes are of
like construction, differing however in size, strength of material,
interior appointments, and ornamentation.

Of the five totemic families that form the Chilkat-kwan, not including
a sixth subdivision, four are resident here, while individuals of the
others through intermarriage are scattered through the village but
without house standing. The traditions of all of these speak of a
migration from the southern border northward through the inland

The Wolf phratry is represented by three families: the Kágwantan,
Tuck-este-nar, and Duck-clar-way-di. The first two are closely related
and claim to be offshoots of a parent stock and to have migrated north
from the coast between the mouths of the Nass and the Skeena rivers and
in earlier times they lived inland on these rivers. The last-named is
unquestionably of interior origin and it is possible that all three are
of like ancestry.

The sole representative of the Raven party is the Kon-nuh-ta-di with
which this paper deals. Their legendary history, so imaginary and
interesting, is closely associated with the wanderings and antics of
"Yehlh," the Raven creator, while the earliest family traditions are
centered about the south and west coast of the Prince of Wales and
contiguous islands. There is a hazy belief in the minds of the older
people, handed down through generations, that in the earliest days
there came to these shores from seaward, a people of unknown origin who
landed and lived on Dall Island, and later spread along the southern
coast of Prince of Wales Island. The descendants of one of the two
original women, represented as sisters, later crossed Dixon Entrance
and peopled the Queen Charlotte Islands, founding the Haida, while
those who remained, uniting with migratory bands from the Interior were
the progenitors of the Tlingit.

The three principal families forming the Tanta-kwan that lived
thereabouts in the eighteenth century, until expelled by the Haida
invasion from Masset, and then crossed over to the mainland where they
are still found, are the Ta-qway-di, Kik-sat-di, and Kon-nuh-hut-di,
all of which have formed factors of great importance in peopling the
coast of Alaska as far north as Comptroller Bay, and are still
represented in all of the more important Tlingit tribes. The tribal
name Tanta, was taken from their country, the Prince of Wales Island,
Tan, "Sealion" so named from the abundance of this animal on the
seaward coast. The Kon-nuh-hut-di are said to have removed, at some
early day, to Port Stewart within the mainland entrance of Beam Canal,
which they called "Con-nuh," (safe, sheltered) and from which they
derived their family name (people of, or belonging to, Con-huh), but
finding the climate more severe than that of the islands, and with no
compensating advantages of food, they returned to their former home. A
slight variation of the name Kon-nuh-ta-di which is not accounted for,
distinguishes the Chilkat and more northern branches of the family from
the Tanta and Taku. Another name seldom used, but very pretentious and
tribal in character, is Shuck-ka-kwan "highest or first-man tribe" or
Shuck-ka-kon-nuh-ta-di, claiming superiority through a relationship
with Yehlh, in reference to his struggle with Gun-nook, the
supernatural keeper of fresh water, when in his efforts to escape
through the smoke hole of the house with what he had stolen he was
caught and held fast until he was smoked black.

At a very early period they must have lived on the central west coast
of Prince of Wales Island, near Klawak, in a village or country called
Tuck-anee "outside town" where the people were known locally as
Tuckanadi "outside town people" as the scene of one of their principal
hero tales is laid hereabouts (the struggle of Duck-toolh with the
sealions) which it is claimed was the cause of one of the northward
migrations of a body of the family. It was certainly after this
happening, and possibly connected with it, that a considerable party
separated and traveled north through the inland channels to the head of
tidewater, and then up the Chilkat River until they reached the site of
Kluckwan where they finally settled and have ever since remained. This
movement must date back many years, for the Russian Pilot Ismaïlof, as
previously noted, in visiting Yakutat in 1888 met "a chief Ilk-hak with
a large force of one hundred warriors who had journeyed up the coast
from their winter home on the Chilkat River to trade."

Ilk-hak or Yehlh-kok "Raven fragrance or smell" is an hereditary name
belonging strictly to the Kon-nuh-ta-di family (and as a coincidence it
happens to be that of the present chief to whom I am indebted for
certain information herein contained), and to have extended their
commercial activities to such a distance and with such a numerous
retinue would bespeak a considerable age and settled state in their new

Other migrations northward are known to have occurred at later periods;
One party following the outside coast settled in a bay above Cape
Spencer where much glacial ice collected and they took the name
Tih-ka-di (people of or belonging to the icebergs) but of these none

Another body, taking a more easterly course among the islands, stopped
at Chyeek on the Chatham Straits shore of Admiralty Island with the
Hootz-ah-tar-kwan, but trouble with the Dasheton clan arose over a
woman and they removed in a body to Stevens Passage and joined the
Taku-kwan of which they form an integral part today under the original
name Kon-nuh-hut-di.

In the latter portion of the eighteenth century, the Tanta-kwan
including this family, was driven out of the southern portion of the
Prince of Wales Island by the Haida and crossing Clarence Straits
settled on Annette and adjacent islands. Their principal village was
Tark-an-ee (winter town) at Port Chester where New Metlakatla now
stands, and was a very large settlement, a totem pole village, as the
decayed remains showed thirty years ago. In war with the Stickheen,
this village was destroyed and also a later one across the island,
Chake-an-ee (Thimble berry town) at Port Tamgass, when they crossed to
Cat Island and then to the mainland and made a last stand at Tongass
where they remained until the founding of Saxman and Ketchikan.

None of this family is found today on Prince of Wales Island, their
original home. The principal branch lives at Chilkat where they have
always been accorded the highest place with the Ka-gwan-tan, with whom
they have so intermarried through generations, that it often happens
that the chiefs of each family are father and son.

The personal names more frequently refer to the Raven, their most
honored crest, as they claim to be the first family of this phratry,
and it is the more conspicuously displayed on the totemic headdress and
ceremonial paraphernalia. They claim and use a great many other emblems
as the whale, frog, wood-worm, silver salmon, hawk, owl, moon,
starfish, and in their house carvings and painting they illustrate the
hero deeds and conquests of their ancestors in their early struggles
with mythical animals and supernatural beings.

Facial painting played an important rôle in Tlingit life. The several
pigments differently applied in various characters depended upon the
purpose and the occasion. As a protection against snowblindness, the
glare of the sunshine on the water, the bite of insects and as a
cosmetic to preserve and whiten the complexion, a hemlock fungus was
charred, powdered, and applied to the face, which had previously been
covered with a mixture of melted suet and spruce gum, to which it
adhered and hardened, forming a red-black covering impervious to water.

For mourning and anger the face was blackened with charcoal.

When on war parties, the painting was in red or black or both, in
fanciful and hideous characters, but if suddenly surprised, they would
grab a piece of charcoal from the fire and rub it over the face to
disguise their personality and hide any expression of fear.

The most elaborate painting was used in the winter ceremonials and
dances. The designs were almost entirely totemic in character even when
improvised for the occasion and apparently expressionless. They were
either geometric and symbolic in figure, or represented the animal form
in profile or some characteristic feature which distinguished it. In
the latter case the figure was stamped on the cheek or forehead with a
wood die. The primitive colors were black, from powdered charcoal, and
red, from pulverized ocher, but after the advent of Europeans,
vermilion of commerce took the place of the duller mineral red. Yellow,
white, and greenish blue were occasionally used, more particularly by
the southern tribes, but seldom, if ever, by the Chilkat.

The most important painting of the face was that of the dead when
placed in state awaiting cremation, and this represented the crest of
the phratry rather than one of the assumed emblems of the family or
subdivisions. Most all of the Raven party, certainly all of the older
and more important families, and particularly the Kon-nuh-ta-di used
Yehlh-thluou, "Raven's nose," in the form of an isosceles triangle, in
black, the apex at the bridge of the nose, the sides enclosing the nose
and mouth, the base extending across the chin. This painting seems to
have been the right of all of the Raven families and was almost
universally used by them, although minor crest figures were sometimes
employed, as the Kon-nuh-hut-di of the Southern tribes are said to have
painted the starfish figure although I have never seen it so used,
although it was a festival decoration.

It was an old custom, but rather a privilege claimed by the chiefs and
house masters of the aristocracy, to give names to the communal houses
upon the occasion of their dedication, after the walls were up and the
roof was on, when those of the opposite phratry who had assisted in the
construction were feasted and compensated. Of course, in the evolution
of society, men of strong character, successful in war, with wealth and
many followers would compel such recognition as would permit them to
found a house and give it a name, but in order to do so, the potlatch
would have to be of undue proportion. The strongest characteristics of
the Tlingit are pride, vanity, and a dread of ridicule, so unless one
was absolutely assured of more than a formal acceptance of the act by
both his own and the other tribal families he would hesitate to place
himself in a false position, subject to criticism. The highest and most
honored names thus given, were those of the totemic emblem, or
referring to some particular feature of the crest figure, as "Raven
house," "Brown bear house," "Eagle nest house," "Killer-whale dorsal
fin house," etc. Other names meaning less were those of position,
shape, material, etc., as "Point house," "Box house", "Bark house,"
"Drum house," "Big house," "Lookout house," etc. In any case a name
once given survived the mere structure. It was a dedication of the site
and without any further ceremony belonged to all future houses built


When I first visited Kluckwan in 1885, the large old communal houses of
the Kon-nuh-ta-di were still standing, the principal one of which, that
of the hereditary chief, Yough-hit, "Whale house," was in the last
stages of decay and uninhabitable, although the interior fittings were
intact and it was still used upon festival occasions. It was
unquestionably the most widely known and elaborately ornamented house,
not only at Chilkat, but in Alaska. It occupied the site of much older
houses and it is claimed much larger ones. It is said to have been
built by Kate-tsu about or prior to 1835 and stood in the middle of the
village. It represented the best type of Tlingit architecture, a broad
low structure of heavy hewn spruce timbers, with noticeably high corner
posts, that gave it a degree of character wholly wanting in the larger
houses of the Vancouver Island people. It faced the river with a
frontage of 49 feet 10 inches and a depth of 53 feet which was
approximately the proportions of Tlingit houses large and small. The
four broad, neatly finished corner posts, and the intermediate ones on
the sides and back were mortised in length, to receive the ends of the
wall planks of spruce or hemlock that were laid horizontally along the
sides and back, while the front was formed by two heavy bed pieces
placed one above the other extending across the front, dove-tailed into
the corner posts, and reaching to the height of the door sill, cut out
along the upper edge to receive the lower ends of the broad vertical
planks that extend to the roof, and fitted under corresponding grooves
in the cornice cappings that in the rear of the corner posts were
notched and grooved to fit in the post. It will thus be seen that the
old houses formed a solid structure, the frame and planking supporting
each other without the use of spikes. The doorway, that was the only
opening in the walls, was approached by two steps over three feet above
the ground, it was narrow and low as a defensive measure, so that but
one could enter at a time, and then only in a stooping posture equally
impossible for attack or defense. The roof covering consisted of a
confusion of overlapping spruce boards and slabs of bark that
originally had been held down by smaller tree trunks extending the
depth of the structure and held in place by heavy boulders at the ends.
The smoke hole in the center of the roof which both lighted and
ventilated the interior had been protected by a movable shutter
balanced on a cross bar resting on two supports so that it could be
shifted to either side as desired.

[Illustration: Fig. 4. The Whale House of the Chilkat.]

[Illustration: Fig. 5. Groundplan of the Whale House. In size, it was
49 ft. 10 in. front by 53 ft. deep. From a plan drawn by the author.]

The interior formed an excavation four feet nine inches below the
ground level, with two receding step-like platforms. The lower square
floor space 26 feet by 26 feet 9 inches, constituted the general living
and working room common to all, except that portion in the rear and
opposite the entrance, which was reserved for the use of the house
chief, his immediate family and most distinguished guests. This was the
place of honor in all Tlingit houses upon all occasions, ceremonial or
otherwise. The flooring of heavy, split, smoothed planks of varying
widths extended around a central gravelled fireplace six feet by six
feet and a half, where all of the cooking was done, over a wood fire
which also heated the house in winter. In front of and a little to the
right of the fire space entered by a small trap door in the floor
barely large enough to admit a person, was a small cellar-like
apartment used as a steam bath, by heating boulders in the nearby fire,
dropping them on the floor below with split wood tongs, and pouring
water upon them to generate the vapor when the bather entered and the
opening was covered over.

The first platform extending around the main floor at an elevation of
2-3/4 feet, comparatively narrow, with a width of 2-1/2 feet along the
sides, and slightly more at the ends, served both as a step, and a
lounging place in the daytime, and that in front, broken by the steps
descending from the doorway, was utilized for firewood, fresh game,
fish, water baskets, and such larger household articles and implements
as were in general use. The retaining walls of this platform consisted
of four heavy hewn spruce timbers approximately 27 feet long, 3 feet
wide, and 5 inches thick, and so fitted with mortise and tenon at
opposite ends that they supported each other without artificial
fastenings. The faces of these timbers were beautifully finished in the
finest adze work, and those on either side and at the back were carved
in low relief to represent a remarkable extended figure, neither wholly
human nor animal, with widely outstretched arms and legs, painted in
red. It may be that the artist conceived and executed this form merely
as a decorative feature, without meaning, or if it was his purpose to
present a recognizable figure he followed that characteristic and well
established privilege of native art in exaggeration to make the subject
conform to the decorative field. The old chief, Yehlh-guou, "Raven's
slave," said that the figure symbolized "Kee-war-kow" the highest
heaven where those who were killed in war and died violent deaths went,
and are seen at play in the Aurora Borealis. Another explanation is
that it merely represented a man warming himself before the central
fire. (Plate 1.)

The upper and broader platform, rising two feet above that below, was
at the ground level, and was floored with heavy planks. It had a depth
of ten feet on the sides which was greatly increased at the back and
correspondingly diminished in front. The four heavy retaining timbers
forming the walls and supporting the platform were thirty-one feet at
the front and back and thirty-three feet along the sides, two feet
wide, and five inches in thickness, and were fitted together at the
ends as previously described, and shown in the house plan. On the
carefully adzed face carved in low relief, equidistant from the corners
and from each other, arranged in echelon, were three representations of
the "tinneh" the ceremonial copper and in connection with this it may
be noted that one of the names of the house chief was Tinneh-sarta
"Keeper of the copper." This platform constituted the sleeping place of
the inmates. Each family occupied a certain space according to number
and relative importance, the poorer members being nearer the door. The
spaces were separated from each other by walls of chests, baskets, and
bundles containing the family wealth in skins, blankets, clothing,
ceremonial paraphernalia, and food products. On the walls were hung
weapons, traps, snares, and hunting gear. Cedarbark mats covered the
floor over which was laid the bedding consisting of pelts of the
caribou, mountain sheep, goat, and bear, and blankets of lynx, fox, and
squirrel, which in the daytime were ordinarily rolled up for economy of
space. Sometimes these chambers were partly enclosed by skins or old
canoe sails. The back compartment occupying the space between the two
rear interior posts was partitioned off by a very beautiful carved wood
screen which will be described later. This was the chamber of the chief
and his immediate family. (Plate 2)

At the level of this upper platform, firmly imbedded in the ground
equidistant from the sides and nearer the front than the back wall,
were four vertical elaborately carved posts "gars" nine feet three
inches high and two feet six inches wide, which supported the roof
structure. The heads were hollowed to receive two neatly rounded tree
trunks almost two feet in diameter extending from front to rear, on top
of these at intervals were placed heavy cross bars which in turn
supported two smaller rounded longitudinal beams placed that distance
towards the center that would give the necessary pitch to the roof,
lighter cross pieces spanned these, on which rested the ridge pole in
two sections to allow for the smoke hole.

The private apartment of the house chief occupied the central portion
of the upper rear platform, and was partitioned off in front, by a
screen of thin native-split red cedar planks of varying widths, neatly
fitted vertically, and sewed together with withes of spruce root,
countersunk, to make it appear a solid piece. It extended between the
two rear carved posts that supported the roof structure, and was twenty
feet long by nine and a half feet high. The front surface was smoothed
with dogfish skin or equisetum, and elaborately carved in low relief
and painted to represent the rain spirit, which was symbolized by the
great central figure with outstretched arms, while the small crouching
figures in the border around the sides and top known as Su-con-nutchee
"raindrops splash up," represented the splash of the falling drops
after striking the ground. The whole partition was called Su-kheen
"rain wall."

The round hole through the body, over which was formerly hung a dressed
caribou or goatskin, formed the entrance to the chamber, which received
its only light and ventilation over the top of the screen from the
smoke hole in the roof. There seems to be a difference of opinion today
as to who executed this work. Yehlh-kok the present chief of the family
says that it was done by Kate-tsu, the chief who built the house, and
that the painting was the work of Skeet-lah-ka, a later chief and an
artist of wide repute, the father of Chartrich, who in 1834 just prior
to the lease of the littoral by the Russian Government to the Hudson's
Bay Company, accompanied the first Russians who ascended the Chilkat
River, which would carry it well back in the early portion of the last
century which was the Victorian age of Northwest Coast art.

Others, while agreeing as to the painting, claim that the carving was
designed and executed by a Tsimshian. But whether the work of the
former or the latter, the conventionalized design, and particularly the
multiplicity of small figures around the principal one is essentially
Tsimshian in character and entirely different from the realism of
Tlingit art.

It is unquestionably the finest example of native art, either Tlingit
or Tsimshian, in Alaska, in boldness of conception,--although highly
conventionalized in form,--in execution of detail, and in the selection
and arrangement of colors.

The four interior posts "gars" on which rest the heavy longitudinal
beams that support the roof structure are elaborately carved in high
relief, a commingling of human and animal forms. Each one illustrates
some hero tale or important incident in the early life of the family,
or a tradition of the wanderings and antics of Yehlh, "the Raven" with
whom they claim a certain relationship. Each post is named from the
story told. They are of red cedar, brought from the south, and were
carved by a Tsimshian who also carved the figures on the faces of the
retaining timbers of the first platform. For all of this work he
received in payment ten slaves, fifty dressed moose-skins, and a number
of blankets.

Besides these there were four other posts known as Teetle-Gars "Dog
salmon post." They presented a slightly rounded surface, carved in low
relief, painted in dull colors, inlaid with opercula and representing,
as the name indicated, the dog salmon. They were much decayed and only
two were standing at the height of the upper platform at the sides in
1885. They had been used originally as interior posts in some house but
had passed their period of usefulness and were preserved simply as
relics of the past.



The carved interior post to the right of the doorway entering was known
as Gonakatate-Gars and told a story of Yehlh, the Raven. (Plate 3_a_.)

Gonakatate was believed to be a great sea monster, half animal and half
fish, variously represented according to the imagination of the artist,
but generally shown with fore feet, a characteristic dorsal fin, and
the tail of a fish, but again it is said that in rising from the water
it appeared as a beautifully ornamented house front. It brought great
good fortune to one who saw it.

The principal figure extending from near the top to the bottom with
front and hind paws represents this monster holding a whale by the
flipper with the tail in its mouth and the head between the hind feet,
for the Gonakatate is believed to capture and eat whales. The figure of
a woman on the back of the whale is called Stah-ka-dee-Shawut which is
an older name of the Qwash-qwa-kwan, a family that came from the
interior and settled on the coast about Yakutat, and as the scene of
this adventure is placed thereabouts and with the matriarchal system
the woman would indicate the family. The use of her figure would serve
to mark the locality which is the only explanation for her appearance.

In the blow hole of the whale is the head of the Raven which is the
significant feature of the whole carving that illustrates the story.
The smaller head at the top, ornamented with human hair is called
Gonakatate-Yuttee, "Gonakatate's child," that holds the head of the
hawk in its paws. While the hawk is an emblem of the family, these
figures are merely ornamental and have no connection with the story.

The story of the Gonakatate-Gars is as follows:--

During the wanderings of Yehlh "Raven" along the coast of Alaska above
the mouth of the Alsech River, he saw a whale blowing, far out to sea,
and being always hungry he greatly wanted to capture it, but he had
neither spear nor line and only his fire bag of flint, stone, and
tinder. He thought that he might kill the whale if he could only get
inside, so when it came up to breathe he flew in the blow hole and
reaching the stomach, struck a light, and made a fire that soon killed

When it floated inshore and was rolled on the beach by the breakers, he
tried to escape as he had entered, but the blow hole had partly closed
and he could only get his head out. He saw a young man coming down to
the shore and he commenced to sing in a loud voice. This greatly
surprised him and he hastened back to the camp to tell the old people
that there was strange singing in a stranded whale, which brought all
the villagers to the scene, and they proceeded to cut open the whale at
the blow hole when the Raven flew out singing khoonee, khoonee,
"cleaned out the blow hole." When the people had cut up the whale and
tried out the blubber into grease the Raven returned in human form, and
asked them how they got the whale, and if they had heard singing
within, for he told them that long ago this had happened in his
country, and all of those who ate the grease had died. This so
frightened the people that they left the grease boxes on the shore and
returned to the village, when the Raven sat down and ate all the grease
they had prepared.


The carved interior post, to the left of the doorway entering, was
named Duck-toolh-Gars, and illustrates a hero tale of the family that
occurred before their northern migration. The human figure represents
Duck-toolh "Black-skin" (typifying strength), tearing the sealion in
two. The head at the base symbolizes the rock island on which the
sealion hauled, when this incident took place. The head of Duck-toolh
is wrapped around with sealion intestines and is ornamented with human
hair hanging down over the face. The sealion forms the central figure;
the protruding tongue indicates death, as the body is split in half.
The fore flippers are parallel with the body under the man's forearms
and the back flippers rest on his shoulders.

It is said that in the early life of the Kon-nuh-hut-di, before their
migration north, when they lived on the west coast of Prince of Wales
Island, at or near the present site of Klawak, at Tuck-anee "just by
the outside" from which the inhabitants took the local name
Tuck-an-a-di "outside country people" from their home on the ocean
coast, there was a young man, the nephew of the chief, named Duck-toolh
"Black-skin," but nicknamed At-kaharsee "nasty man" from his generally
dirty condition.

The villagers depended largely upon the flesh of the sealion for food,
its hide was used for armor and other economic purposes while the
whisker bristles were greatly prized for the crown of the ceremonial

These animals were found in great numbers on a rocky island far to
seaward (supposed to have been Foresters Island), but the ocean passage
in their frail canoes was very dangerous and with their primitive
spears and clubs it took courage and strength to succeed in the hunt,
and so they prepared themselves for the undertaking by much exercise,
and hardened their bodies by sea bathing in the early morning
throughout the winter. But Duck-Toolh seemingly practised none of these
things, he slept late and although of great size was looked upon as
lazy and weak until he became the laughing stock even of the children.
In the household was a powerful man named Kash-ka-di, who in passing
for his morning plunge would kick Duck-toolh and call him by his
nickname, which he never resented. Upon coming out of the water each
morning the bathers would test their strength by trying to pull up and
break smaller trees. All of this time Duck-toolh was shamming, for
every night after all had gone to sleep he would steal out and sit in
the ice cold water by the hour, and coming out would beat himself with
bundles of brush to keep up his circulation, then he would enter the
house and throwing a little water on the hot coals to make steam, and
wrapping himself in his bark mat would lie down and go to sleep in the
ashes which covered his body and gave him his nickname. One night while
he was sitting in the water he heard a whistle, and saw a heavily built
man rise out of the sea. He came to him and told him to get up, when he
whipped him on the back four times and with each stroke he fell down.
Then he gave Duck-toolh the sticks and told him to whip him, which had
no effect upon him and he said, "You have not gained strength yet."
This operation was again repeated which gave Duck-toolh great strength,
and then they wrestled with each other, but neither could throw the
other. The strange man said, "Now you are very powerful I have given
you my strength," when a heavy fog suddenly drove in from the sea and
enveloped him and he disappeared. Then Duck-toolh ran about and broke
the limbs off the trees with little effort, but he put them together
again and they froze in place for he did not want any one to know that
strength had come to him. He felt very happy, and was very willing to
do anything for any one or to accept the ridicule and abuse heaped upon
him. In the morning, Kash-ka-di, after coming out of the water, ran
about trying his strength and he took the great limb that was stuck
together in his hands and pulled it apart. He boasted to everyone that
strength had come to him and that he was ready now to go out against
the sealion. Duck-toolh said, "Yes, he would go too," which made every
one laugh. Even the girls made fun of him and asked him what he could
do, for he was like them, and he said that he could bail the canoe,
which was a woman's or child's work. He washed and put on clean clothes
and going to his grandmother said, "You have no tlhan," (strips of fur
woven into blankets); "you have no da" (martin skin). She answered,
"Yes" and gave him a strip of fur with which he tied up his front hair,
taken in a bunch (this was done when one felt angry), and he dabbed his
mouth with red paint, but still the people laughed at him, although he
looked like a chief. Then the canoe started for the sealion grounds and
while Kash-ka-di boasted of his great strength and what he would do,
Duck-toolh sat silently in the bottom of the canoe. When they reached
the rocks Kash-ka-di jumped out and grabbing a great sealion by its
hind flippers tried to tear it in two, but he was thrown high in the
air and killed on the rocks. Then Duck-toolh laughed and said, "Who
broke the tree," "I break it," and he jumped on the rock and grabbed
the sealion and tore it apart, beat the brains out of the smaller ones,
and for some unknown reason he wound the intestines of the animals
around his head. Then they loaded the canoe with the carcasses and
returned home and everyone knew that Duck-toolh was strength and he
became a very powerful and wealthy man. Some versions of this story say
that he remained alone on the island for some time during which the
spirit of the doctor came to him, but my informant knew nothing of


The carved post on the right of the ornamental screen was named
Yehlh-Gars "Raven Post," and told the story of the capture of Ta "the
king salmon." The main figure shows the Raven in human form holding a
head with a projecting blade-like tongue, which is known as Tsu-hootar
"jade adze." At the bottom is the head of a fish which should have been
that of the king salmon, but through a mistake of the carver it
resembles more nearly that of the sculpin. Coming out of the mouth of
the Raven is a bird form called Tu-kwut-lah-Yehlh, "telling lies
raven," which symbolizes the lies the Raven told to the little birds
mentioned in the story. (Plate 4_a_.)

Many of the myths relative to the later wanderings of the Raven after
the release of the elements necessary to life on the earth, and
particularly those in connection with animals, represent him as always
hungry, unscrupulous and deceptive, and friendly only for selfish
purposes. In the early spring before the salmon had come into the
rivers, or the berries had ripened on the mountain sides, the season of
little food, Yehlh happened to be on the seashore near Dry Bay and very
hungry. He saw a king salmon jumping in the ocean and he commenced to
plan how he could take it, for he had neither canoe, spear, nor line.
Going back from the shore he found in a deserted camp a piece of an old
cedarbark mat, an old woven spruce root hat, an eagle skin, and a jade
adze "tsu-hootar." Putting on the hat, folding the mat about his body,
and dressing his hair with eagle down, he took the jade and seating
himself on a big boulder at the edge of the water said to the salmon,
"Tsu-hootar is calling you bad names, he says that you have an ugly
black mouth and that you are afraid to come up to the shore." This so
enraged the salmon that he came towards the shore, when Tehlh said,
"Wait a little, I have to go to the woods" for he had no club and the
salmon must always be killed by striking it on the head with a club.
When he returned, he again reviled the salmon and when it came and
jumped in shallow water he killed it. He then kindled a fire with his
rubbing sticks and prepared the fish for cooking. In the meantime many
small birds came around hoping to get something to eat, and the Raven
sent them off to gather skunk cabbage leaves to wrap the fish in, but
those that they brought he condemned as too small or smelling bad, and
told them to go to the far mountain where the proper kind grew. As soon
as they had disappeared he wrapped the fish in the discarded leaves,
scraped away the fire and the gravel beneath, buried the fish, and
covered it with the hot stones and the fire. When the fish was cooked,
he ate all of it and collecting the bones, carefully wrapped them in
the old leaves and covered them with the fire and when the little birds
returned with the mountain leaves he showed them the bones, saying that
the fire had eaten the flesh. Then all of the birds felt very badly,
the little chickadee cried bitterly and continually wiping its eyes
with its feet wore away the feathers which ever after showed a white
stripe from the corners down. The blue jay was so angry that he tied up
the feathers on top of his head which have ever since formed a crest,
for when the Tlingit are angry they tie the front hair up in a knot;
while the robin in his grief sat too close to the fire and burned his
breast red.


The carved post on the left of the ornamental screen was named
Tluke-ass-a-Gars "Wood-worm Post" and illustrated a very important
happening in the early life of the family that is believed to have
caused the separation of the body that first migrated northward. The
large upper figure represents Ka-kutch-an, "the girl who fondled the
wood-worm," which she holds in front of her body with both hands. Over
her head are two wood-worms whose heads form her ears. Beneath is shown
a frog in the bill of a crane. The whole post symbolizes the tree in
which the wood-worm lives, the crane lights on the outer surface and
the frog lives underneath among the roots.

It is said that in early days in a village that would seem to have been
near Klawak, on the west coast of Prince of Wales Island, there was a
chief of the Tlow-on-we-ga-dee family whose wife was of the
Kon-nuh-ta-di. They had a daughter just reaching womanhood. One day
after the members of the household had returned from gathering
firewood, the daughter, picking up a piece of bark found a wood-worm
which she wrapped up in her blanket and carried in the house. After the
evening meal she took it into the back compartment and offered it some
food, but it would not eat, and then she gave it her breast and it grew
very rapidly and she became very fond of it, as if it were her child,
and as time went on her whole life seemed to be absorbed by her pet
which she kept secreted. Her constant abstraction and absences grew so
noticeable that the mother's suspicions were aroused and one day she
detected her fondling the worm that had now grown as large as a person.
She called the chief and they wondered greatly for no one had ever seen
anything like it. As she played with the worm she sang to it all the

    "Da-a-a see-ok bus k-e-e-e.      Tchi-ok kon nok
    They have small faces.           Sit down here.

    Tu usk-k ka tel kin ka           Tchi-ok kon nok
    They have small fat cheeks.      Sit down here."

The father told the uncle and he sent for his niece and set food before
her, and while she ate he stole away to see the worm, which she had
hidden behind the food chests in the back apartment. That evening the
uncle called the people together and told them that his niece had a
great "living creature" Kutze-ce-te-ut that might in time kill them all
and they decided to kill the worm. Another reason given for the
destruction of the creature was that it was held accountable for the
loss of much food that had been mysteriously disappearing from the
grease boxes for some time past.

The following day the aunt invited her to come and sew her martin skin
robe, and in her absence the men sharpened their long wooden spears and
going to the house killed the worm. Upon her return she cried bitterly
and said they had killed her child and she sang her song night and day
until she died. Then her family left this place and migrated north. In
commemoration of this event the Tlow-on-we-ga-du family display the
tail of the worm on their dance dress, pipes, etc., as they attacked
that part, while the Kon-nuh-ta-di display the whole worm figure as
they killed the head which was the most important part.


Closely associated with the "Whale House," and in the keeping of the
chief, were many ceremonial objects in crest form, that were never
exhibited except upon such important occasions as when the whole family
was assembled and much property was distributed to those of the
opposite phratry who had assisted at house and grave building,
cremation, etc. Most prominent among these was a great wood feast
dish, and an exceptionally large basket. The former was known as
Thluke-hotsick "wood-worm dish," and as a crest object it told the same
story as the carved interior post previously described. It was hollowed
out of a tree trunk 14 feet 6 inches long, 2 feet 6 inches wide and 1
foot high. It was shaped and ornamentally carved and painted to
represent a wood-worm and inlaid along the rounded upper edge with
opercula. In 1885 it had so far decayed that its usefulness was past
although it was still displayed upon ceremonial occasions (Fig. 6).

[Illustration: Fig. 6. Wood-worm Dish, as seen in the House.]

The basket although at least two generations old, has been carefully
cared for so that it is in an excellent state of preservation. It is
named Kuhk-claw "basket mother" on account of its great size, measuring
33 inches in both height and diameter. It was woven of split spruce
root in cylindrical form, by a woman of the family, in the
characteristic weave of the Chilkat, where alternate spirals of woof
are in the double twining and plaiting, giving a rough and irregular
appearance to the wall surface. The only variation on the outside are
four short darker colored lines of weave which mark its capacity at
different heights as we mark a commercial measure. It is fitted with
twisted root handle for carriage. Both of these receptacles were used
at feasts, filled with native food, and are generally known throughout
southeastern Alaska.


In 1899 this house and Yehlh-hit (Raven) House adjoining were torn down
and preparations for the erection of new buildings were gotten under
way, and in the winter of 1901, after the walls were up and the roof
on, a great potlach was given by the Kon-nuh-ta-di, to the three Wolf
families of the opposite phratry in the tribe and the Ka-gwan-tan of
Sitka, in which over ten thousand dollars in property, food, and money
were distributed. The head chief of the family the master of the whale
house Yehlh-guou "Raven's slave," welcomed his guest upon landing,
wearing the Raven hat. The new house although modern in form and of two
stories took the old name, and it stands today windowless and doorless,
the interior grown up in weeds, a monument of the last great potlatch
of the Chilkat, as the chief died soon afterwards and his successor has
neither the means to finish it nor the desire to live in it and the
elaborate carvings have never been placed but are stored and will
probably so remain.


Decorative figures carved in bas-relief on the face of the retaining
timbers supporting the two interior superimposed platforms. For their
positions in the house see Fig. 6. The three upper figures represent
the native hammered copper plate, "Tinneh," which was an important
feature in the ceremonial life of the Northwest Coast and was the most
valued of possessions, while that below was said to symbolize
"Kee-war-kow," the highest heaven. (See p. 22.)

[Illustration: PLATE 1.]


Carved and painted screen at the back of the house partitioning off the
chief's apartment. It is called Su-kheen, or "rain wall." The central
figure with outstretched arms represents the Rain Spirit, while the
small crouching figures in the border are called Su-cou-nutchee,
"raindrops splash up," or the splash of falling drops after striking
the ground.

A portion of the screen has been broken off and the otherwise
unsymmetrical form of the drawing is due to photographic distortion.
Its position in the house is indicated by Fig. 6. The hole through the
body of the symbolic figure is the door or entrance to the apartment
behind. (See p. 23.)

[Illustration: PLATE 2.]


_a_ Carved interior post to the right of the entrance, Gonakatate-Gars,
representing the mythical sea monster that brings good fortune to one
who sees it and illustrates a story in the early wanderings of Yehlh,
the Raven. At the top is "Gonakatate's child" who holds a hawk in its
paws. Next is the head of "Gonakatate," the principal figure whose body
extends to the bottom of the post. He holds in front of him a whale,
peeping from whose blow hole is the head of the Raven. On the back of
the whale is the figure of a woman. (See p. 25.)

_b_ Carved interior post to the left of the entrance, Duck-Toolh-Gars
representing the legendary hero, "Black-Skins" rending the sealion. The
large human figure is Duck-Toolh, who holds a sealion by the hind
flippers. The head at the base of the post represents the island upon
which he stood while tearing the sealion asunder. (See p. 26.)

[Illustration: PLATE 3.]


_a_ Carved interior post to the right of the decorative screen in the
rear of the house, Yehlh-Gars, Raven Post, telling the story of the
Raven capturing the king salmon. The main figure with head at the top
represents the Raven, holding the head of Tsu-hootar, or "jade adze,"
and standing upon the head of a fish. From the mouth of Raven is
issuing a bird representing lies. (See p. 28.)

_b_ Carved interior post to the left of the decorative screen in the
rear of the house, Tluke-ass-a-Gars, illustrating the story of the girl
and the wood-worm. The human figure above is that of Ka-kutch-an, "the
girl who fondled the wood-worm." She holds the wood-worm in front in
her hands. Two worms are peeping around her head. The lower figure
represents a crane holding a frog in its bill. (See p. 29.)

[Illustration: PLATE 4.]

American Museum of Natural History.


In 1906 the present series of Anthropological Papers was authorized by
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   I. Riding Gear of the North American Indians. By Clark Wissler. Pp.
1-38, and 27 text figures. 1915. Price, $.50.

  II. Costumes of the Plains-Indians. By Clark Wissier. Pp. 41-91, and 28
text figures. 1915. Price, $.50.

 III. Structural Basis to the Decoration of Costumes among the Plains
Indians. By Clark Wissler. Pp. 93-114, and 12 text figures. 1916.
Price, $.25.

  IV. Basketry of the Papago and Pima. By Mary Lois Kissell. Pp.
115-264, and 81 text figures. 1916. Price, $1.50.

   V. (In preparation.)

Volume XVIII.

   I. Zuñi Potsherds. By A. L. Kroeber. Pp. 1-37, and 2 text figures.
1916. Price, $.30.

  II. (In preparation).

Volume XIX.

   I. The Whale House of the Chilkat. By George T. Emmons. Pp. 1-33.
Plates I-IV, and 6 text figures. 1916. Price, $1.00.

  II. (In preparation).

_The Cosmos Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts_

*** End of this LibraryBlog Digital Book "The Whale House of the Chilkat" ***

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