A Tsimshian Tale of the Acquisition of a Great Copper
“Introduction” 2014 Don Macnaughtan
The tale of “The Purchase of the Nahuhulk” is a traditional story in the public domain.
Copper Ethnographies no. 2
William Beynon in 1915
Beynon was a fascinating character: “Beginning in 1914, he was hired as a translator and transcriber by the anthropologist Marius Barbeau, then in the employ of the Geological Survey of Canada. Barbeau and Beynon’s series of interviews with Lax Kw’alaams chiefs and elders in 1914-15 has been called by the anthropologist Wilson Duff ‘one of the most productive field seasons in the history of [North] American anthropology.’ In 1916 Beynon continued the same type of work, on his own, with the Tsimshians of Kitkatla, B.C. As Beynon increased his facility with phonetic transcription and with his own people’s traditions – which, as a formerly assimilated urbanite, he was quickly learning – he began to work more and more under his own direction. In the 1920s he worked with Barbeau with elders from the Kitsumkalum and Kitselas Tsimshian and the Gitksan nation, in and around Terrace, British Columbia.”
When the Tale was recorded, it was already over a century old, but the tale remained utterly vivid in the mind of the narrator James Lewis, even 4-5 generations later. Despite a length of almost 10,000 words, Lewis could remember incredible details, down to the nuances and expressions of the lengthy individual speeches scattered throughout the story. It is a tale of power, intrigue, lust, acquisition, political shenanigans, formalities, proper conduct, and pride, all encased in a cultural tradition so rich and intense that it is almost beyond our modern Western comprehension. Even more extraordinary, the story had passed down without the usual mechanisms of recording and writing. It remained so real to its narrator that it could have happened a week or a month ago.
The story of the “Purchase”
The Tale begins with the chief Wasaiks (‘Wiiseeks), aka Wisaiks I, head of the Gispwudwada (“Killer Whale”) clan of the Ginaxangiik Tsimshian, based at the village of Fort Simpson/Lax-Kw’alaams, British Columbia. Wasaiks developed an overwhelming desire to possess the most valuable thing along the Northwest Coast: the fabulous copper known as the Nahuhulk. This copper had passed, in a series of raids and trades, from the Chilkat Tlingit of Haines, Alaska, down the west coast until it fell into the hands of the Stikine Tlingit (Shtaxʼhéen Ḵwáan) people at Wrangell, under the leadership of their chief Saiks (Shakes). In the course of this trade, the copper had accumulated vast value, both economic and spiritual. Its prestige was unprecedented.
Wasaiks become so obsessed and determined to acquire the Nahuhulk from Saiks that he persuaded his tribe to pledge three canoe-loads of valuables. The other clan leaders, including Mediks and Gyamk, rather reluctantly went along with the project, out of respect for the prestige of Wasaiks and his lineage.
However, when he arrived to make the deal, Wasaiks became infatuated with one of the beautiful wives of Saiks, and squandered the entire cargo in exchange for a liaison with the wife. This went ahead with the eventual agreement of both Saiks and his wife, who saw political and economic advantages to the arrangement. Wasaiks’ fellow Ginaxangik leaders were horrified, but had to acquiesce or be humiliated.
The other leaders subsequently sidelined Wasaiks, and kept the affair with the woman quiet from the rest of the tribe. After several years, they had accumulated enough wealth to try again to trade with the Stikine. This time they took no chances that Wasaiks would ruin the deal, so they began negotiations immediately, and bargained hard. After hours of speeches and negotiations, the Ginaxangik managed to acquire the Nahuhulk. In doing so, they became the envy of all the tribes along the coast; but they had spent vast resources, and also placed themselves under obligation to the Stikine, who retained residual ownership rights to the Nahuhulk.
The Nahuhulk in 2014
The Nahuhulk stayed in the hereditary possession of the seven Wisaiks of the Killer Whale lineage of the Ginaxangik, and eventually passed into private ownership within the last two decades. The copper is 36″ tall, and is undecorated. It has been hammered into shape, rather than pressed on a form (except perhaps for the “T”). It is also uncut, unlike some very old coppers, which were ritually dissected down to the “T” backbone and then reconstructed using rivets.
The Nahuhulk is of the Type C design as described by Carol Jopling in her standard work The Coppers of the Northwest Coast Indians.
The Antiquity of the Nahuhulk
It is possible that the Nahuhulk predates the acquisition of trade copper plate by the Northwest tribes. Judging by the fine craftsmanship, it was probably not crafted from native ore by the Chilkat Tlingit, who had access to deposits in their area. The first trade copper probably arrived ahead of Russian trade networks in the 1740s, and the first copper to be recorded by a European was seen by Capt. James Colnett in 1787. The Tale makes no mention of Europeans or European trade goods, such as guns; therefore, the best guess would place the creation of the Nahuhulk at between 1790 and 1810.
However, the current owner of the Nahuhulk has had the copper metallurgically tested, and the metal lacks traces of zinc. This trace element was present in European trade copper, but absent in native copper. In addition, the lineage of the Wisaiks suggests that Wisaiks I, hero of our tale, flourished in the early to mid 18th century. If the Nahuhulk is indeed made of native copper, this would suggest an extraordinary and unprecedented level of Indian metallurgy. Copper needs to be smelted and refined at high temperatures, and it is difficult to imagine how Alaskan natives managed this feat. Another tantalizing clue: there is some evidence that Tlingit villagers suffered from arsenic poisoning, which is a by-product of copper smelting. The question remains unresolved.
Beynon, William, and James Lewis. “The Purchase of the Nahuhulk.” Tsimshian Narratives 2. Ed. George F. MacDonald and John J. Cove. Ottawa: Directorate, Canadian Museum of Civilization, 1987. 38-52. Print.
Ickes, Karl J.” A Study of the Coppers of Northwest Coast Native Americans and the Issue of Their Origins and Antecedents.” Thesis (M.A.) Western Washington University, 1999. Print. 78p.
Jopling, Carol F. The Coppers of the Northwest Coast Indians: Their Origin, Development, and Possible Antecedents. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Soc., 1989. Print.
Narrated by James Lewis, Kitkatla
Recorded by William Beynon, 1916
Many myths have always stated that copper shields came from among the Chilkat of Haines, Alaska, and that these people traded in coppers and in the chiefs’ dancing aprons or Chilkat blankets. The people who were privileged to trade with the far northern tribes were the Ginaxangik of the Tsimshian. This privilege the Ginaxangik claimed by virtue of having proclaimed it as their right and by distributing gifts to all the guests. This right was continued by all the other tribes. The Gilodza were privileged to trade with the Haida of what is now Prince of Wales Island. The Gitlan traded with the Nass tribes; the Gitwilgoats, with the Haida of what is now the Queen Charlotte Islands; the Gidzaxlahl and Gitsis with the Tlingit, with whom their royal Houses were related; the Gixpaxloats, with the Upper Skeena; the Gitando with the Kitselas; and the Kitkatla with the Kitimat and the Bella Bella. Thus all had exclusive trading areas.
Wisaiks of the Ginaxangik traded with the Stikine Tlingit. Here it was that he learned of a famous copper shield which had originated among the Chilkat and had passed through many war raids between the Chilkat and the Kake tribe of the Tlingit, and even the tribes of the Upper Stikine. It now was in the possession of the Stikine chief of Saiks. The fame of this shield was known to distant lands and was considered the most valuable of all copper shields. It was appreciated by Wisaiks of the Ginaxangik who, at various times, had seen it. Thus he became desirous of owning it.
So he held a chiefs’ feast in his own tribe and when his people had come in and were fed and gifts were distributed by Wisaiks, he spoke and said, “There is one thing I want to tell you about, that is, what I want not only for myself, but also to put the Ginaxangik tribe above all the other tribes. We have for generations gone to the Stikine to trade, and there is only one valuable thing they possess which we do not, and it is their copper shield Nahuhulk, of which I speak. It is the one copper shield that is the most valuable possession of all in the world. The tradition and fame of this shield has reached all the other places, and yet it is beyond the reach of all tribes. So I am asking that we try and get it. This means that it will take all our wealth. But in so doing, we will become the foremost of all people. This is why I have gathered you together, so that we may discuss this plan. I now put this question in your hands, you headmen, you who control the Ginaxangik tribe. By your counsels I will abide. Should you so desire, nothing will prevent you getting this, the most valuable position among all tribes. Consider this and tell me your thoughts, you, Mediks, Gamayam, Gyamk, Garaolida, Halaidemran, Gisyoksemwalp, Nistelax, Awi, and all the other headmen. That is all I have to say.”
Each one of the headmen spoke and thanked the chief. The last speaker to answer was Mediks, who at that time was the foremost and whose word was almost equal to that of the chief Wisaiks. “Yes, my master, who I serve. I have heard your voice and your desires, and so have the other wisemen of your tribe. It is indeed a great wish and one which, as you say, will place you and us above all other tribes. We must consider this very carefully and we must counsel among ourselves, as to whether we can do it. Anything that is worthwhile doing must first be carefully planned, and in so doing, nothing is overlooked that may defeat our plans. But there is one thing I must ask all, that is, we must keep this a secret among us. When we have arrived at a decision, we will let you know, my master Wisaiks. Do not become discouraged. We have not said that we shall do what you desire. But we must proceed with the utmost care, so that the other tribes will not ridicule us or shame us for having such high ambitions. To you, my fellow headmen, give what Wisaiks has said careful thought, and we will discuss it.”
After a long while Mediks invited only the headmen to a secret meeting. At this time he spoke, “It is now well that we should take up the question which our chief has asked us to consider. Even though we have not discussed it outside of ourselves, it has already been spoken of by other tribes, and we must try and see what we can do. The Ginaxangik tribe is now placed in a very uncomfortable position. We must do something. So that is why I am bringing this to you now. After we have made our plans, we will call Wisaiks and inform him of what they are to be. This is what I suggest; that we forego all festivities this coming season, and that we gather all our wealth together. When we have accumulated enough goods and slaves and canoes, then we shall go direct to the Stikine and ask Saiks of that tribe to do his brother a favour and give him the copper shield Nahuhulk, for which we will give compensation. Now you, headmen, it is for you all to discuss this very important question. It is not a small matter that Wisaiks, our master, has asked us to consider and we must find a solution. If you think that this is going to be too big an enterprise for us, then we shall drop it, and in so doing, we must be ready to hear the insults and taunts of the other tribes. So now let us all speak on this. It matters not if we must stay in here for a long while.”
As soon as Mediks had finished speaking, Gyamk and Nistelax followed. Gyamk was a veteran trader, and as his former uncles had done, he traded with the Chilkat; and much of his products consisted of moose hides and caribou hides. These he got from the Gispaxloats, who in turn accepted them from the Hagwilget tribe of the upper Skeena River. Gyamks was considered at this time as being very wealthy. So he spoke up, “Are we children that we should be scared so easily? This great mighty Ginaxangik tribe stands in fear over the purchase of a copper shield. I thought you were brave and wise men. But you seem to be afraid. Why? Even one man could get that if he were determined to do so. So why should this mighty tribe have doubts as to its own strength? Come, my fellow tribesmen, let us show to all the strength of this mighty people! Come, my nephew, Nistelax, come, I want you also to voice your feelings and show that you are not a nawts (hermaphrodite) and that we are mighty men. I will be able to contribute much wealth, and I know that you will all do likewise. But if you decide that we should not do this, then we are now humiliated, and we have no place here to hide our shame. This you must consider.”
So saying he called upon his nephew Nistelax, who responded, “You have heard the voices of two of our leading men of the Ginaxangik. Who are we that we should dispute what you have set out to do? There is no way out of this but to go ahead and get this thing that our master wants. If we all go and work together, we can do this. This is all I have to say. I am but a young man among you, but I will do anything that you want of me. So now we should hear from our wisemen, men who have had much experience. Whatever they say we will do.” The final speaker was Niskwelax, a Raven, who was a great leader among the Ginaxangik. “Yes, my fellow headmen, what you say is true. As soon as my master voiced his feelings and told us his desires, I for a time hesitated, as this is a big thing. Should we fail, we shall face taunts from the other tribes. It is also going to take all our strength and resources. That is why I doubted at first, but now that the other tribes know that we are after this, we cannot turn back. So it is well that we call Wisaiks. And you, Gyamk, and you, Awi, shall make known to him: what we have decided, that we shall assist him in getting this copper shield from the Stikine. We must know what he himself plans in doing. Then we will be guided by whatever he does. It is he that we are going to elevate, and he must be prepared or he would not have called us to make known his wishes to us. It is well that someone goes for him now and summons him here, so that we may know what to do.”
A messenger was dispatched, and he soon came back accompanied by Wisaiks. It was agreed that Gyamk and Awi should speak to the chief. As soon as Wisaiks entered, he was greeted and accorded the place of honor at the rear of the house. Then Gyamk spoke, “Chief, chief, my master, I am not of your size or rank. I am like a slave, but I know that you will listen to me. After you made known your desires and wishes to your tribesmen, they considered them very seriously. This has caused a great deal of worry and anxiety. Now we are all as one in accord, that we shall muster the wealth and strength of the Ginaxangik, in order to try and bring your wishes to fruition. We know that already other people are talking of us, ready to taunt us should we fail, and they are ready to ridicule us, if we do not try to fulfill your desires. So now, my master Wisaiks, as I have said, your tribe stands as I do and it will be well if we impoverish ourselves, but we shall try. All our children shall do their bit and you yourself, chief, will be a very wealthy man. You have slaves from Kwakiutl, Ligyimen, Owikeeno, Bella Bella, Kitimat, Kitlope, Gihlrayu, Queen Charlotte Haida, and Gitrao, Prince of Wales Island Haida. You even have some from Nootka from the West Coast of Vancouver Island, as well as Tsetsaut interior tribes of the hills, as slaves. No other chief has such a great collection of them. We will add our humble wealth to yours, when you are ready to go to visit your brother at Stikine. Now I want Awi to add his wisdom to my words, and that is then the wishes of the Ginaxangik tribe, which we now lay before you.”
Awi, who was head of the Raven households, then spoke, “You have heard Gyamk. What he has said is true. It is the voice of the Ginaxangik. It is true we were afraid of this at first, as it seemed too big an undertaking. But your desires and wishes, we have felt, must be met. We have always been able to get whatever we have wanted, and this will be so again, if we go at it all together. Well, chief Wisaiks, you can rest better now that you know that we have decided to get this for you, and much will depend on yourself. There is this to bear in mind, that all of the other tribes are watching us, and if we fail, we shall be ridiculed and taunted for our failure. But if we succeed, we shall become the wealthiest among all tribes, for is not this Nahuhulk the most valued of all copper shields? So until next fall when it will be the season of the naxnox, we will go to the Stikine and make overtures to your brother there. So in the meantime from now on until we get ready to go, we shall devote all our efforts to accumulate wealth for the purchase of this copper shield. This we now tell you, chief Wisaiks.”
He then replied, “So counselors, wisemen that control this great tribe, I have heard your answer to my poor plea, and now I am happy. I will sleep, as I know that whatever you set out to do, you can accomplish. When the time comes, I will gather you altogether and then we shall see what wealth we can accumulate. I have full belief that my brother Saiks at Stikine will heed our plea, and that we will be able to dispose of enough wealth to satisfy him and his people. I have no doubts. We will shame all of those that would ridicule us, and we will achieve fame. I had faith in your wisdom and knew that if you felt that this was impossible, that you would not undertake it. So now I am pacified and shall devote my time to meet the wants of my Stikine brother.”
When the fall came and the people had finished gathering all of their various foods and before the month of taboos when nobody would travel, the Ginaxangik gathered together at their village of Ginaxpaos, now Sand Point, at Metlakatla. Then Wisaiks assembled his people together and then announced to them, “I have been preparing to go to the Stikine as we planned. So I have gotten two large Haida canoes, each to be manned by ten slaves from all surrounding countries. Together with these I have prepared many moose hides, also I have much other wealth in two other canoes. Altogether I have four canoes and now, my tribesmen, my wise headmen, men that are able to accomplish anything they set out to do, to this you will add your help in order that we may go to the Stikine before the months of the taboo set in.”
All his nephews and nieces and his own immediate household came forward with their various gifts. These were placed in the middle of the house. Then each headman stepped forward together with his household and their gifts. These all came forward as they were called. Then when all of these had finished their contributions to Wisaiks, those that had married into the Ginaxangik tribe came forward with their gifts. Then the wife of Wisaiks and her maternal uncles and household came forward too with what was termed sawasesk (to make covered with blankets).
When all had been completed, these gifts were gathered up and placed in the rear of the house to be put in the canoes. In all these were four canoes from Wisaiks. Two of these were manned by slaves, twenty slaves in all. From among all the tribes, six more canoes were given. Into these ten canoes were placed all of the gifts with which to purchase the great copper shield. Preparations were now made, and Gyamk and Awi were to be the leaders, as these men had much experience in travelling to that distant country.
They now set off. Only men, and these the headmen and strong young men, went with the large party. Wisaiks’ canoe was in the middle of the group. After many days of travelling, they came to the mouth of the Stikine River and to the village of Saiks, which is now known as Wrangell. They did not land at once, but waited until they had been seen. They set up a camp opposite and made preparations to meet Saiks of Stikine. When they were in readiness, they heard the drums announcing their arrival. So they knew that they would be welcomed, as they heard the songs that proclaimed that a supernatural power would be thrown to them.
When those on shore had finished singing of their supernatural powers, they threw in the direction of the Ginaxangik canoes, an invisible being. Then Wisaiks of the Ginaxangik stood up in his canoe and after wrestling with this invisible power, finally overcame it, and then the Ginaxangik people began to sing of their ability to overcome it. Then Wisaiks stood up in his canoe and said, “Now is the time,” and he threw towards the Stikine group on the shore his invisible power, and Saiks wrestled on the beach with this invisible power and finally overcame it. The Stikine people then began to sing. This went on for some time, until Saiks ran up into his house with the invisible force that had been thrown by Wisaiks of the Ginaxangik, and then he sent down his messengers to call in his brother and the Ginaxangik tribe.
When they arrived they were taken into Saiks’ house, who called out, “Sit my brother and his spokesmen at the rear of the house, and spread a mat for them.” After this all the Ginaxangik were seated at the side of the house, and then the Stikine Saiks went to the secret chamber of the house, and after a long while he emerged wearing his dancing hat and his dancing garment, and the headdress was filled with eagle down which he scattered, while dancing, upon all of the guests as a symbol of peace. When he had danced in front of the guests and finished scattering the eagle down, he sat alongside of the Ginaxangik Wisaiks. Then he called out, “Bring us food, for my brother is hungry.” Food was brought to them only a long while after they had arrived. This was a sure sign of no treachery. Had the Stikine planned on treachery, they would have fed their guests at once and then killed them. But the longer they kept their guests waiting, the greater the respect they were paying to them. Many times when tribes were visiting one another, they would eat just before landing, knowing that it would be much later that they would be fed.
The host Saiks of Stikine spoke, “It is well, brother, that you visit me. I feel greatly honored to know that my relatives always have me in mind. You have visited me many times and I have not done the same to you, but the fame of your village and your people has reached me. Many of your headmen have married Stikine women and many of these I know must have children, and among your people my tribe has grown. We also have some from among your tribe who have married into mine, and you will see that you have people among my tribe and village here. You will not feel as a stranger, and my House shall be your House, and we want you to stay as long as possible. We will have much to talk about, and my people will entertain you each in their turn.” The host was followed by his tribesmen, who each spoke welcoming Wisaiks of the Ginaxangik to the house of his brother.
Then Gyamk, who had been designated as the spokesman together with Awi, spoke in reply, “Yes, brother, your brother has been lonesome for you and has spoken of you constantly, so that his tribesmen, having pity on him, then suggested that the chief visit you. Now we have heard and seen your welcome to us, and I know that my master’s feelings are now at rest since he has come into your House. Ages and ages ago it is said that we were as one family and that we became separated through warfare, misadventure and through thoughtless illicit love affairs, which caused us to leave and separate in shame, and many times in disgrace. But we have not forgotten our connections and relationships. That is why the chief, your brother, got very lonesome for you. And he brings you some gifts from his own territories on the Skeena. Come, Nistelax. Brings the gifts which our master has brought for his brother.” Nistelax and his fellow tribesmen then came forward and placed the gifts of moose skins before Saiks of the Stikine.
When this was done, Awi of the Ginaxangik addressed the Stikine chief, “Chief Saiks, your brother has heard your voice and has received your welcome, and as you have heard Gyamk say, he has been longing to see you. We will do as you say, and stay as our master wishes. What Gyamks says is true. Among our forefathers, whenever the Ginaxangik House of Wisaiks was about to become extinct, women were taken from Saiks of Stikine’s House, and these because mothers perpetuated Wisaiks House of the Ginaxangik. Saiks of the Stikine did the same thing. Thus the two Houses grew closer to each other. All this my master knew. That is why he was so lonesome to visit you. Now you have welcomed him, and we will do as you bid us do. Before we return, we shall ask of you one great favor, and of this we will talk later. It is a great favor, one that will not only bring fame to you for having given it, but will also add prestige to your great brother among his fellow Tsimshian chiefs. We ask that you will not refuse this poor plea for this great favor, because on your granting it lies the future of your brother. This we will make known to you at a future time. Now we have gathered together to be happy and to become better known to one another. This is all that I say, great chief, Saiks, although I am not of high rank to address you, but as the spokesman of my master I address you on his behalf and of his tribe.”
Now it was known that, besides a friendly visit, there was another reason for the Ginaxangik coming here, and this reason was kept secret. As much as the Stikine people wanted to know, they would not ask. Chief Wisaiks of the Ginaxangik now was as a member of the Stikine chief’s House. This Stikine chief had many wives from as many places, among whom was a very beautiful and fair young woman of the Raven clan. She was always at the rear of the house, weaving mats. Wisaiks saw her and immediately became enamored of her and wanted her for himself. He became very much infatuated and wanted to sleep with her. He called one of his tribesman and told him of his desires to have intercourse with his brother Saik’s wife. “Stop it! This is not what we have come for. If you ruin what we have come for, we will return empty-handed. We are here on a very serious trip. We must use every possible means to bring about the good feelings of your brother and his Stikine people. We must not do anything to bring shame upon us or anger from the Stikine people. We should now feel out what your brother and his Stikine tribe will think of trading the great copper shield for which we have come. We should make overtures to the Stikine chief, and then we will know how to approach him. But, my master, again I ask you not to indulge in these desires of yours. We are on a trip which is equal to a war expedition, and as you know, it is strictly taboo to have any sexual relationship with any woman, as this would weaken the purpose of our visit. So again I ask of you not to indulge in your desires.”
But this resistance seemed only to increase the infatuation of Wisaiks for the wife of his Stikine brother. The woman kept to herself and was always busy weaving. Seemingly she paid no attention to any of the visitors. Again and again Wisaiks pleaded with his tribesmen, that he would make known his desires to the woman who now had completely infatuated him. But always these men pleaded with him to not heed his desires, which would upset their plans. He then pretended to his now alarmed tribesmen that he would forget this woman.
Some time after, he called to his side a Ginaxangik woman who had married into the Stikine tribe and spoke very secretly to her, saying, “I am much infatuated with my brother’s wife, and I wish to have intercourse with her. I want you to speak to her and tell her of my desires, and I shall present her with many slaves. Tell her it is my wish and desire.” Next day, the Ginaxangik woman went to where the Stikine chief’s wife sat, and after speaking of many things, she said, “My chief woman, there is one thing I have come to you for. My master your husband’s brother Wisaiks wants you and wishes to have intercourse with you and will present you with many slaves for this favour. What shall I tell him?”
The Stikine woman made no reply, seemed not to have heard what the woman had said. So the Ginaxangik messenger repeated her request. But again the Stikine woman kept on with her weaving silently. So the Ginaxangik woman returned to Wisaiks and said to him, “The woman who you want will not even speak to me. I told her your message and your desires, but she never even replied to me. It was better that you leave her alone. It was not right that a foreign woman should humiliate you. She is not the only woman. There are many others.”
Wisaiks did not reply, but went out and sat outside for a long while. His pride was hurt. But now he was determined to get this woman at all costs, rather than his pride be hurt and his overtures spurned, he, a chief who was always used to being obeyed. When in the past he made requests of this nature, although the women to whom he made them did not want him, they had respect for his high rank and gave in to his wishes. Here he met with a woman who not only disregarded his high rank, but even would not deign to reply and speak to his messenger. This made him very angry, but he would not show his anger. He made up his mind that he would conquer her, even if it took all the wealth he had.
Next day, he called the Ginaxangik woman and said to her, “You go and see my brother’s wife. Tell her that I must have her and I will give her more slaves and wealth, if she will let me have intercourse with her. Tell her I shall give her one canoe loaded with slaves, besides much wealth.”
The Stikine chief’s wife, sitting in her position of the house, was busy weaving when the messenger came beside her whispering to her, “My master Wisaiks, your husband’s brother, has sent me again. His desires for you are very great, and if you will let him stay with you, he will give you one canoe loaded with slaves, also much wealth.” The Stikine woman went on with her weaving and seemingly paid no heed to the messenger’s request. After a long while this woman again spoke to the Stikine woman, “It is well that you should tell me what to say to my master. He is not a child.” But still the Stikine woman paid no attention.
After a long while, the messenger laid some presents down beside where the Stikine woman sat and then went out to where the chief was, and she said to him, “No, master, the woman does not reply. I waited for her to reply, but she seemed as if not even to hear what I had said. You should not go on with this, my master, there are many women who are better than she. Give her up before she openly hurts your feelings. Who is she, that she should ignore your requests? She seems to think you are a child. So, master, show your disregard for her as well.”
Wisaiks was now indeed hurt. He again went out of the house and for a long while he sat at the water’s edge, considering what to do. He was now more determined than ever to get the woman and he would sacrifice all the wealth he had brought to purchase the copper shield, in order to conquer her. She now seemed to disregard his overtures. He was so angered that now even some of his counselors began to suspect that something was wrong with their chief. So they were constantly watching him, but only the Ginaxangik woman who was acting as messenger knew of his secret, and she told nobody.
Next day, the Ginaxangik chief went to where his messenger was and said to her, “I want you to go to the Stikine chief woman, and tell her I must have her, and I am going to increase my presents to her by offering two canoes loaded with slaves together with much other wealth. Ask her to send her answer by you.” So the woman again went to where the Stikine wife was weaving her mats, and she sat close beside her and said to her, “My master’s desires for you are strong, and he must have you above anything else. He has told me that his presents to you are now two canoes, each loaded with ten slaves, besides much other wealth. Also he must hear from you now.”
After a long while, the Stikine woman answered, “I have heard your master’s wishes, and I must first decide upon his request. It is not that I have ignored his voice. But I have to consider it very carefully. I will let you know what my decision is as soon as I have settled what to do.” When the chief’s messenger returned to Wisaiks, she said to him, “The woman has replied to your requests, my master, and she will think your offer over. Then she will let me know. As soon as she does this, I will tell you.” Wisaiks was pleased now that he knew that he would get this Stikine woman, and he said to his tribeswoman, “All is well. As soon as she lets you know what she has decided, you will come to me secretly. Do not tell anybody what you have done or said. We will await her reply.”
In the meantime, the Stikine woman, who was but one of the many wives of Saiks, went to her husband and said, “Your Tsimshian brother has sent a messenger many times, asking that I sleep with him. His desires must be very strong for me, as he has in his last offer to me promised two canoes loaded with twenty slaves, besides much other wealth. What shall I tell him, as he sends his messenger to me every day and he seems very earnest and insistent? I did not tell his messenger that I would see you, but I told her I would think the matter over. This is the first time I have replied to his demands. It now is to you to decide.”
When she had finished, she waited a long while. Then her husband, who sat very quietly and was in deep thought, finally said, “It is well that you should yield to the wishes of my Tsimshian brother. He wants you, and you should take him to your uncle’s house, and there stay with him as long as he wishes.”
This was but in accord with the ways of the olden people. It was a source of revenue for a chief; and if his wives brought him wealth in this manner they were considered lucky women. Often hunters previous to their taboo feasts in preparation for the hunting trips would seek out women who were considered lucky women, that is, women who brought good luck to a chief. These women commanded very high presence when overtures were made to them, and when they consented to the plea, they got large presents from the hunters. These presents were given to the women, who in turn brought them to her spouse. The wife of the man very often took the gifts to the wife of the chief, with whom her husband had been associating, especially if she were of lower social standing, recognizing also the lucky qualities of the woman in question. A woman who had no lucky qualities was never in demand, regardless of the fact that she may be even more beautiful.
So it was in this instance. This particular woman was considered not only the most beautiful, but also the most lucky and industrious of the Stikine chief’s House, and she was in popular favor. She also was of the highest rank, being from the Eagle House of Kasaiks who afterwards moved further south at Laxspeaus (On-place-of-Sand) now known as Cape Fox near Mary Island.
After the woman had heard what her husband had advised her, she went to her uncle’s house and said to him, “I am bringing in the Ginaxangik chief Wisaiks, who is going to stay with me. He has promised me much wealth and you must entertain him, while he stays here with me.” The woman’s uncle was at first alarmed. But when he learned that his niece’s husband approved, he could do nothing but accede to the wishes of his niece. He set apart a portion of his house for the use of the Tsimshian chief and his niece. After all was made ready, the wife of the Stikine chief sent for the woman messenger of Wisaiks. When she came to where the woman sat, in the house of her uncle, she said to her, “Go and tell your master that I have carefully thought over his desires to stay with me, as well as his offer of presents. So I will bow to his wishes and I will grant them to him. Let him be ready to come when my uncle sends for him. But he must come alone. He will stay with me here.”
The messenger went at once to her master and said, “Well, chief, be of real courage! You will now get your desires. The woman for whom you most earnestly want has accepted your offer, and when her uncle sends for you, you must go to his house alone, and there you shall stay. Should your tribesmen become alarmed or worried over your absence, I shall say that you are having an adventure with your brother’s wife. But when you have finished your visit with her, you must then give your presents, in order that no shame or taunt will fall upon you.”
The Tsimshian Wisaiks now made preparations and it was at this time that he confided in his chief spokesman and advisor Gyamk. “I have been trying to meet with my brother Saik’s wife for a long while, and now I am arranging to stay with her, while she is visiting her uncle. Do not be alarmed at my absence, and should anything happen, the Ginaxangik woman who is one of the wives of Gusran will keep you informed. But do not tell my tribesmen. Advise them that I am acquiring a new supernatural power and I have gone into seclusion.”
Gyamk was very much alarmed and afraid that this would now spoil any chances of their being able to purchase the valuable copper shield they had come for. So he answered, “You should not do this, my master, chief Wisaiks, it may spoil any chance that we have to purchase the great copper shield. It is better that you wait until this is finished and then fulfill your own desires. This is a very foolish thing to do and may not only ruin the thing we have come here for, but also bring disaster upon us. I urge you to stop and consider not only yourself, but your tribe.”
Wisaiks became very angry and replied to his headmen, “Am I a child that you should talk to me like this? You do not seem to know me. When I want anything, I will get it. I have told you what I am going to do, and this I will do. I do not want you to inform any of the other tribesmen, excepting what I have told you to tell them.”
The tribesman was also very angry and he retorted, “Do as you please! It will not be I that will be laughed at and ridiculed, should we fail in the purpose of coming here. It was a known fact, when you left the Tsimshian, that you were coming for the great copper of Saiks of the Stikine.” With that the headman left and the Ginaxangik was more anxious than ever to get the Stikine woman.
So after a few days had gone by, the woman’s uncle sent one of his tribesmen to summon Wisaiks to his house. When he came in he placed him at the rear of the house, a part of which had been prepared for him to stay with the Stikine woman. It was then that Wisaiks sent for his nephews and had them bring in the slaves and gifts that he had promised to present to the woman. After these were brought in, he gave them to her.
Well, he stayed with her many days, and when he was finished with her, he made preparations for his return to his Tsimshian village at Metlakatla. He had paid all of the wealth he and his tribe had brought to satisfy his own desires, and they were now returning without even trying to bargain for the great copper shield. The entire Ginaxangik tribe was ashamed of their chief. But none spoke nor rebuked him. Just before Wisaiks was ready to return, Gusran, the uncle of the woman, filled the canoes of the Ginaxangik with food and gifts in recognition of the honor their chief had bestowed upon him by staying with his niece in his house.
The Ginaxangik returned to their village and they told nobody what had happened, but rather they gave the impression that they had only given preliminary payment and they were to go again before they could possess the valuable copper shield. Then for two years the Ginaxangik gathered and stored wealth again to make an effort to purchase the copper. They accumulated a huge amount of wealth, some of which. was of a personal kind, such as valuable supernatural power which were the exclusive property of Wisaiks. It was with these that Wisaiks hoped to satisfy his Stikine brother. The counselors who accompanied him were now in control of all the things. Gyamk said, “It is better we should bargain at once, and we will await the reply of the Stikine, as this will take some time to decide. They will not part with such a valuable thing as this copper shield without a struggle. We felt, when we were there last, before our thoughtless chief gave all the wealth we had to that woman, that we could get this copper. So we must bargain soon after we arrive, before we again run into another mishap.” To this all of the other headmen agreed. Wisaiks had little to say, as everything was now in the control of his tribesmen, who were not going to allow anything to ruin their plans.
When they arrived at the Stikine village they were received in the same manner as in their former arrival. After the many days they spent in feasting and entertaining, first by the Stikine Saiks and then the Wolf, Raven and Eagle chiefs, the Ginaxangik headmen went in to where the Stikine Saiks was sitting and they placed there many valuable gifts. Their gifts were known as haliskehl (the gift for the privilege of speaking).
Gyamk spoke, “Chief Saiks, chief Saiks, chief Saiks, it is with great humility that we come before you. Were you not the brother of our poor master, we would have great fear in approaching you. We have come, great chief and all your wise tribesmen, we have come to ask of you something which has become a great desire of your brother. To get it will not only make him the greatest among the Tsimshian, but will also make him the wealthiest. The fame of the Nahuhulk copper is known to our people, and it seems to be a myth rather than a reality that you own it. It is spoken of in great respect by our people. This is the desire of my master to ask that you present him this copper shield. You shall give it to him, as we know we have not enough wealth with which to purchase it. Even so, your brother will do his humble best to return your favor. This is a request not of a stranger, but of your own brother, who now humbly pleads to you. Now to the wisemen of your tribe I will speak. Wisemen, wisemen, men who govern and advise and give strength to your chief! You are the strength and wisdom of the Stikine tribe, and at this time you have heard the humble plea of your master’s brother, our chief. I know that it is asking a great deal, but not only will it add to the prestige of our chief, but all of the other people will know whence it came. Thus this will also add to the already great fame of your master. You will hear also the voice of Awi, as we both express not only the humble plea of our master, but also the wishes of all his tribesmen. We hope you will pity us and grant us this favour which my master asks of you, his brother.”
After Gyamk had spoken, Awi addressed the Stikine chief and his tribesmen, “Great chief Saiks, great chief Saiks, everything that Gyamk has said is true and we are but little children compared with you. But it is only because our master is your brother that we do not fear to speak to you, to ask of you such a great favour. We feel that you will accede to your brother’s desires, and that you will grant him his wishes. We tried many times to dissuade him and to point out to him that what he wants is too much, but he is certain that you would heed his poor plea. Your two Houses, yours and your brother’s, have been at all times — far back — closely connected. When one was about to become extinct, it was kept alive by the other; so that there was always a close link. That is why we do not hesitate to ask of you this that you value so highly. We ask your consideration, and we know you will grant this wish, and you will endeavor as well to satisfy your own feelings in this. We do not expect a reply at once, but we will await it. Now to your great tribesmen, who are brave and wise! I am but adding my own voice to that of Gyamk. I am nobody, but we are only expressing the wishes of your master’s brother who controls us. We know that you will give this humble request your wise consideration, and we hope that as soon as you have decided we will then endeavor to satisfy the feelings of your chief, for we realize the value of this which our master asks. Even though you have heard the voice of only two of us, it is for our chief and the entire Ginaxangik tribe that we speak.”
For a long while none of the Stikine spoke, then the spokesman for the Stikine Saiks said, “Yes, great chief, and your tribesmen, your brother has heard your voice and he recognizes your plea, and we will carefully consider everything you have said. Your brother recognizes your voice, so why will he not give it careful thought? And we will do likewise. It has always been the way between brothers. When one has something really valuable and the other wants it, they have come in the same manner as you. So be patient, great chief, be patient! We have heard your voice, Gyamk, we have heard your voice Awi, and we recognize them. What you say is true. Be patient, great Ginaxangik tribe, be patient! Our master has never let any of his brothers go empty-handed. So again I say to you all, be patient! You will be with us a long while, and we will carefully consider all that you have said, and we will let you know my master’s wishes.”
After this the offerings of the Ginaxangik, which had been put in front of the Stikine Saiks, were taken, and this in itself was encouraging to the Ginaxangik. Many days after this, after many secret meetings of the Stikine chief and his tribesmen, messengers were sent to invite the Ginaxangik chief Wisaiks and his tribesmen to the house of his brother Saiks. When they came in, they were all seated in the place of honor and food was served. After this there was a dance and the spreading of eagle down.
When they had finished dancing, one of the nephews of the Stikine chief brought out the great copper shield. It was wrapped up in cedar bark and was placed in front of the Stikine chief, who now arose and danced with it. He placed it in front of Wisaiks of the Ginaxangik, afterwards spreading more eagle down upon him, and then he danced back to his own place.
When all the dancing was done, Saiks spoke only a few words saying, “Yes, my brother, I have heard your voice, and why should I let you return empty-handed, after hearing your plea? You will now take the copper shield that I value very highly. Now I give it to your care and that of your tribe.” This was all that he said.
Then his spokesman arose and spoke, “Great chief Wisaiks, chief Alimlaxa, all of the headmen of the Ginaxangik, and all the Ginaxangik tribe, you have heard the voice of my master Saiks. He declares that he has heard the voice of his brother and his plea and he recognized it. Now you have seen what he has done. My master valued this copper highly above all his other wealth. It was obtained only after many trips to the Chilkat people who were loath to part with it. Because of these many efforts my master and his people were able to acquire this copper shield. He is sure that you will take good care of it and will appreciate its value. Many tribes have wanted to purchase it, but at no time have the Stikine and Saiks wanted to part with it. We have always had very good connections with the Ginaxangik. When we have wanted to reestablish a weakened chief’s House in our village, we have always taken a member of your chief’s House. So have we maintained the best of relationship, and it is because of this that my master and his people have heeded the wishes of your chief. We are not selling this copper shield, because it is priceless. But it is like placing it in the care of another part of the House, as the copper is still in the keeping of the group of Saiks and Wisaiks.”
When this man had finished, other Stikine leaders spoke, all in the same manner as the first. When it was over, Wisaiks, chief of the Ginaxangik said, “Yes, brother, I have now seen what you have done. You have stripped yourself naked, in order to please my poor wishes. And before I shall take this priceless gift, I will satisfy my feeling also by adding to my brother’s already great wealth. I am not purchasing this, as what you say is true, that there is not enough wealth among all the tribes to purchase so great a copper as this. I will now call on my tribesmen. Come Gyamk, come Awi, come Nisaxnats, come Nistelax, come Halaidemran, come Mediks, come Wasibaxs, come Naxi, come Saraolita, accompany my nephew Alimlaxa and Nisratis. Bring in my box, open it, and place it in front of my brother! I have been made happy today, and I want, in a small poor way, to make my brother’s heart and feelings good, as well as of his tribesmen.”
When he had said this, his leading headmen, who he had called upon immediately, arose and left the house. Then after a while, they returned with many slaves and many canoes, also with all other wealth, such as mink garments, groundhog blankets, moose skins and hides. The moose hide was considered one of the most valuable articles, as from it were made all wearing garments. These were all piled up in front of the Stikine Saiks.
Then Gyamk, who was the Ginaxangik chief spokesman, said, “Saiks, Saiks, Saiks, there now comes into my master’s tribe great happiness, which has originated from your kind words and those of your tribe. I shall continue to tell of your wonderful act, even when I am only a ghost, and when I meet with our ancestors, in ghostland. These few paltry things that my master now places before you are to show you in some way the happiness that he and his people feel. It is not to be regarded as payment for your wonderful gift. But he has a personal gift for you, which belongs to him and he now places this to be your exclusive property. It is a naxnox, and he himself shall dance it, and you will hear him sing the songs belonging to it. You shall use them whenever your fellow chiefs meet together in festivities. The name of the naxnox is Hukaloup (continually throwing stones). You will see yourself how my master acts it and shows you its privilege. This is one of the most valued privileges my master possesses, and this he passes to you for your exclusive privilege. Now to your tribesmen I will address some words. Wisemen, wisemen, who guide the destiny of the chief and the great Stikine tribe! You people have done a great thing, this day, which my master and his tribe shall never forget. It will show to all of the other Tsimshian tribes that the clan of Wisaiks is not beggarly, but is a mighty people. My master will show this great gift, which his brother has bestowed upon him, not only to his own tribe, but to all of the other tribes of the Tsimshian, of which there are many. Now my master Wisaiks, show to your brother Saiks your own exclusive gift to him, a power which you now bestow upon him, to use when he meets with his equals. Come, bring it forward, my master!”
Wisaiks of the Ginaxangik then arose and began to sing the song of Hukaloup. He was accompanied by his tribesmen. When he came to the part of the song which related to his exclusive privilege of throwing stones among the guests, he bent down and gathering handfuls of pebbles he scattered these all round the house, and none that were hit could protest. But if any were injured, he was immediately compensated by a tribesman of the chief. He wore a mask that represented a bird, and his garment was the grizzly bear representing the Prince-of-Grizzlies. When he came to where sat the Stikine chief, he placed all of these in front of him and then returned to his place.
Then the Ginaxangik chief called on each of his tribesmen, “Well, Gyamk, are you not going to show your appreciation to my brother for what he has done for us?” With that, Gyamk, who had brought in much of his wealth, stood up, “Here I am, master! I cannot hide myself from this great event. Even though my gifts are small and of no value, yet they are a symbol of how I feel for your brother and appreciate what he has done.” He then placed his gifts in front of chief Saiks. Each one of the Ginaxangik headmen were called in turn and they responded in the same manner as Gyamk.
When all this was finished, the Ginaxangik made ready to return to Metlakatla. Although this copper was considered a gift, it was a form of sale, the gift making it more valuable; also it placed the Ginaxangik somewhat in a position as being still under obligations to the Stikine people. So while it was a gift to the chief Wisaiks, it also was the property of the Ginaxangik, who had contributed to the purchase – gifts to the Stikine chief and his people. While this copper shield remained in the care of the chief, it was actually controlled by the tribe. It was known from time to time to all of the Tsimshian in feasts.