Chief Kowee Shaman, chief and guide

Southeast sagas

Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

Chief Kowee, or Cowee of the Auk Tlingits, was the best-known Juneau Tlingit chiefs during the time Juneau was founded. Juneau photographers Winter & Pond took a photo of his house about 1887. Nailed to the clapboard above the door is a 5-foot plaque, painted with his name, spelled Kow-ee.

Auks tried more than once to get prospectors interested in this area. In 1879, for example, Auks gave specimens of gold-bearing quartz to officers of the USS Jamestown.

The Jamestown, under command of L.A. Beardslee, was dispatched to Sitka from May 1879 to November 1880. The ship was commanded to keep order after the withdrawal of the Army and to cruise the coast, with any necessary shows of force.

Unlike most representatives of the federal government at the time, Beardslee considered it his duty to learn the laws and customs of the Tlingits. Disputes between Tlingits, or between Tlingits and Caucasians, were often settled by payment in blankets or coin.

Beardslee passed the quartz specimens on to a Sitka resident, George Pilz, a mining engineer. Pilz had seen other such samples from Hoonah, Admiralty Island and Sumdum, but no specifics. He offered 100 Hudson Bay blankets to the man who could not only bring him a sample - but also guide prospectors to a major strike.

Kowee offered to guide two veteran prospectors from the Cassiar Region of British Columbia - Joe Juneau and Dick Harris - to a good spot. On their first trip, by dugout canoe in July 1880, Juneau and Harris were unsuccessful. An uncomplimentary version of this luckless venture says that the pair traded their grubstake for rotgut booze and "spent the next three weeks on a drunken binge."

Back in Sitka, Kowee informed Pilz that the men had never gotten off the beach, and an angry Pilz ordered them to try again. On their second trip in October 1880, Kowee led them up a creek (now Gold Creek) to a mountain valley the Tlingits called "the bear's nest" (now Silver Bow Basin). They found lumps of gold "as large as peas and beans." The following month, Pierre "French Pete" Erussard found gold-bearing quartz on Douglas Island, and the rush to Gastin-eau Channel was on.

Beardslee used highly placed Natives to mediate disputes and often appointed them policemen. Uniforms helped emphasize their duties. Kowee was a policeman, and proudly posed in his blue uniform, complete with shiny, star-shaped badge.

Kowee met ethnographer George Thornton Emmons of the U.S. Navy in September 1882, shortly after Emmons was assigned to the USS Adams at Sitka. Emmons encountered Kowee, chief and shaman of the Raven clan, at the boomtown of Juneau, and they became friends. Kowee told Emmons the Tlingit version of the French explorer La Perouse's visit to Lituya Bay, a historic event of 1786.

One of Kowee's predecessor's bore his same name. This earlier Kowee was also shaman and chief of the Auk. This predecessor died about the middle of the 1800s, and his shaman's outfit was obtained by Emmons for the American Museum of Natural History.

Kowee also may have given writer Jack London some inspiration when London joined the rush to the Klondike in 1897. London, who hired two Tlingit dugouts to transport his party from Juneau to Dyea with their supplies, may have borrowed Kowee's name. He used the spelling "Gowhee" for a short story, "The Wisdom of the Trail," where a man with that name is one of three guides and trail-breakers hired for a winter journey.

The missionary S. Hall Young considered Kowee one of three troublesome shamans in Southeast Alaska. The other two were Klee-a-keet of Angoon and Skundoo-o of Chilkoot.

Young was stationed in Wrangell in 1878. He disliked the tendency of shamans to attribute illnesses to witches, who would then be condemned to death for their "black magic."

Young made great efforts to eradicate shamanism. He rescued a number of children accused of witchcraft. Many of the children had been tortured by shamans until they admitted "guilt." At one point, a frustrated Klee-a-keet tried to stab him, but was prevented. Klee-a-keet then predicted the death of Young. When Young did not die, Klee-a-keet committed suicide.

Chiefs were seldom also shamans. But the combination is not as rare as some historians think, says Tlingit elder Rosa Miller of Juneau. Miller says that the first Kowee practiced his medicine at Berners Bay. In her opinion, Emmons "looted" his grave, and she says that his descendants, including Bob Sam of Sitka, are trying to repatriate the contents.

The second Kowee is not the man who discovered the gold that became the big strike for Juneau and Harris, Miller said recently. The honor should really go to a woman.

"I believe in giving credit where credit is due," Miller said. "When Kowee was inquiring about gold around the (Tlingit summer fish camp at the) mouth of Gold Creek, Sheep Creek Mary was there. She was the caretaker of Fish Creek, but she was probably fishing at Gold Creek. She had a pouch around her neck. Kowee asked, 'Is that your medicine?' And she said no, and showed it to him. It was a gold nugget and he got excited, so she took him up to the Basin and showed it to him."

Kowee, like most subsistence people who gathered and hunted at several places during the year, had more than one residence. One was said to be at Young's Bay on Admiralty Island. Another is said to be at the mouth of what's now called Kowee Creek on Douglas Island.

The Auk Tlingit fished and preserved fish along what is now Willoughby Avenue. (Mine tailings were later used to fill in this area, permanently changing the shore line.) The winds downtown helped with drying fish. In the winter, they lived in a village near Auk Village Recreation Area, where the wind is less strong.

Kowee was born about 1817. He died on Feb. 27, 1892. He was cremated after lying in state for four days. Before he died, he asked to be dressed in his police uniform for the two days his white friends filed past his bier, and in his Auk regalia for the other days. A memorial to Kowee stands just off Glacier Avenue, across the street from Harborview Elementary School, in Evergreen Cemetery. Juneau and Harris are buried at the opposite end of Evergreen. The site of the Kowee memorial is said to be the site of his cremation.

On May 16, 1999, Kowee, Pilz, Juneau, Harris, Bart Thane and geologist and mine executive Livingston Wernecke were inducted into the Alaska Mining Hall of Fame.

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