The mystery of knives, musical instruments and blue eyes

Posted: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

A t the present time, the earliest descriptions of Native life on the Northwest Coast of North America are found in the reports by the Spanish navigators and chaplains who arrived on the coast in 1794. In 1779 the Spanish spent several weeks charting Bucareli Bay, south of present-day Craig. They had many encounters with the people living there. In their journals are many small details that make a person wonder if the Spanish were actually the first foreigners to trade with the inhabitants of this area.

When Juan Pérez approached the northern end of the Queen Charlotte Islands, the Haida immediately came out to trade. The journals mention that the leader of the group, stood up in a canoe, stretched out his arms to the side and tossed white feathers into the air. This was a sign along the Northwest Coast that they were coming in peace and were ready to trade. As Professor Archer of the University of Calgary once commented to me, "One gets the feeling that they were not frightened by the large ships. It is as if they had been doing this for some time."

There appears to have been a significant number of iron artifacts on this coast prior to the arrival of the Europeans. Some researchers have concluded that the iron came from shipwrecks of Chinese, Korean or Japanese vessels. But in the journals from the Pérez expedition, they mention that the Haida women were wearing rings on their fingers and bracelets, both made of copper and iron. Copper is a soft metal that can be used to make a variety of items. However, to produce iron objects requires a high heat and a knowledge of how to work it. I don't think that one would find many iron bracelets or rings on a shipwreck. They had to be made by someone, but by whom? Were they obtained in trade? Were they made by the Natives? And if so, how did they learn to make iron artifacts?

Also, the diaries from the Pérez expedition clearly state that many of the Haida people they saw had red hair and blue eyes. The Spanish had seen Native Americans before, and were aware that normally the people had brown eyes and black hair. They apparently realized that something was different about the people they met, and so they noted it in their journals.

In 1779, the Native men at Bucareli Bay, carried iron knives with an "unusual handle." One of the Spaniards describes these handles as "terminating in a V shape with spirals at the end." Eight years later, in Prince William Sound, the British fur trader James Colnett not only saw the same type of dagger with a similar handle, he included a sketch of one of them in his journal. Knives with similar handles were common among the people of Interior Alaska even into historic times. In addition, the people of Bucareli and the people of Interior Alaska used the knives in exactly the same way - both as a hand-held knife or mounted on a shaft as a spear point. An example of this kind of dagger can be seen in the Athabaskan display at the Alaska State Museum. By 1792, Jacinto Camaño was convinced that the Natives were making these knives. We have to wonder where or how did they learn to make them? Did the technique spread north along the coast? Or were they manufactured elsewhere and traded to the local people?

The journals contain a few other strange observations. For example they said that the Natives had a musical instrument like a "German" or horizontal flute, and knew about stringed instruments such as a guitar or violin. If these observations are correct, when, how and where did the Natives learn these things?

A few years ago, a man claimed that two Spanish shipwrecks had been discovered in the Bucareli Bay area, and could be dated to 1527. However, he has not produced any hard, reliable evidence of these supposed shipwrecks. If it turns out that these are truly sixteenth-century shipwrecks, it might explain many things regarding the Northwest Coast. If there were survivors, it could explain how the Natives learned to work iron or why the Haida seem to have had some genetic differences.

And so we are left with many clues, hints and suggestions that perhaps there was some kind of trade with Europeans or with ships from Asia or Siberia, prior to the historical record. When did this trade begin? It is still one of "history's mysteries."

• Wally Olson is professor of anthropology emeritus at the University of Alaska Southeast.

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