Culture embedded in nature
For the past 30 years, I’ve grown steadily more fascinated by Tlingit and Haida geography; the history and migrations of kwáans, clans, and houses, and the ways in which natural and cultural history intersect. From February to May, 2013, I participated in a course for high school students by Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, entitled Why do we live here?
Our essential question; What factors went into the selection of village sites for Áak’w and T’aakú ancestors? One of the most powerful educational experiences of my career, it deepened my interest in the locations of ancient settlements. I now feel that these are the most important places in Southeast Alaska for all of us to know and understand.
In coming years I hope to substantially expand this section of juneaunature on Tlingit geography and history. Even from my limited perspective as a Southeast naturalist, the subject has so many fruitful avenues of investigation! But for starters, let’s begin with a journal and map I discovered in winter, 2014. It dates to the earliest months after US purchase of Alaska from Russia, known mostly as “Seward’s Folly” to Americans who’d never heard of temperate rainforests, or 50-foot redcedar canoes, or the complementarity of Raven and Eagle.
Just before the camera: the journal of Richard Meade
Richard Meade was a Civil War veteran who commanded the steamship Saginaw on a 4-month tour through Southeast Alaska in 1868 and 1869. Best known for overseeing the destruction of villages and forts near Kake, Meade also kept a little-known journal and contributed to a magnificent nautical chart. Recently, the journal was published on Google Books as Hydrographic Notice #13-1869. At the same time, the chart, credited to him and subsequent commanders Glass and Mansfield, was made available for download from NOAA’s historical map and chart collection
I decided to dice and sprinkle excerpts from Meade’s chart throughout his trip-log, adding contemporary comparison maps and sidebars detailing several discoveries or hypotheses that emerge from close reading and cartographic scrutiny.
The result is meade1868.pdf (8 megs)
Compared to other writers of his time such as George Emmons, Aurel Krauss and Eliza Scidmore, Meade had little if any empathy for a culture he was sent to suppress. This is not pleasant reading. In fact it’s chillingly callous and arrogant in places. But Meade—through his mapping—unwittingly bequeathed something to cultural historians which none of those other journalist-ethnographers did; geographic specificity. Only from Meade’s journal and chart (and a few other early surveying efforts) can you learn exactly where certain Tlingit villages, forts and fish camps were located.
Brace yourself for an outrageous and enlightening journey. And please let me know if your reading of Meade leads to discoveries I overlooked in my sidebars and footnotes and annotations. Even more appreciated are your corrections or alternative interpretations!