Southeast sagas: Chief Johnson remembered

Native leader was a keen trader and wise in the ways of Western property rights

Posted: Wednesday, September 24, 2003

One of the lesser-known Tlingit leaders who resided in Juneau during its early years was George Johnson. This leader is also known as Skookum Johnson, Chief Johnson, and Gut Wain or Geet Wain. Johnson had links to Tongass, Metlakatla and Ketchikan as well as Juneau.

According to an article in the June 8, 1937, Ketchikan Chronicle, Chief Johnson was born at Tongass village near Cat Island. A history compiled about 1970 by attorney Bruce Davies of Ketchikan says that Johnson inherited his position as head of the Ganaxadi in 1902. He married a woman from Sitka, and they had five children. However, all the children died before their mother's death at Ketchikan in 1937. The couple embraced Christianity and was among the first to join the Salvation Army.

Johnson was involved in the 1887 migration of several hundred Tsimshian from Old Metlakatla in British Columbia to New Metlakatla on Annette Island in Alaska. The move came about after a falling out with church authorities in Canada. Rev. Paul J. Mather recalled for the Chronicle in 1938 that "Chief Johnson at that time camped on Cat Island and he contacted the scouts sent over from British Columbia by [Anglican minister] Father [William] Duncan to locate a good spot for the Tsimshian Indians to migrate to. Chief Johnson told them about a deserted Indian village at Metlakatla [15 miles south of Ketchikan] and directed them there." Johnson joined the newcomers in establishing the village and even erected a tiny log cabin of his own there. Throughout the first winter he was in residence, selling apples and oranges out of his little house.

Johnson was sufficiently wealthy that he commissioned the Chief Johnson Totem, erected in Ketchikan in 1901. It was also called the Kadjuk Pole because it represented the heritage of the Kadjuk House of the Raven clan. The pole measured 60 feet above ground, with six and a half additional feet planted in the ground.

Rev. Mather, a Tsimshian and also a carver, recalled that the totem was carved by John Norwlsky, assisted by Billy Dickinson. Mather attended the two-day potlatch on the banks of Ketchikan Creek.

"Over 500 people were present at the raising of the pole," Mather recalled. "A ditch was dug into which the pole was rolled. A hole 18 feet deep was ready for the planting of the pole. Three lines were placed high up on the pole, but these were used only after the pole had been pried and pushed up to a partly erect position entirely by hand methods and main strength. Fifty to 100 people worked in getting the pole in position."

The totem was created in memory of his deceased mother, and a potlatch was held to dedicate it, as was traditional. Edward Keithahn mentions Chief Johnson's pole several times in Monuments in Cedar, one of the best-known books about totems. Keithahn calls it "probably one of the most photographed totem pole [sic] in Alaska," and reproduces a Case and Draper photo of it. Some time after the pole was raised, a clan house was built behind it, with a whale painted on the front. However, it burned down.

According to Keithahn, the Kadjuk pole stood near the Federal Building at the junction of Mission and Stedman streets. At the top of the pole was the Kadjuk himself, a mythological bird based on the golden eagle. "Because of the extreme high caste of this bird, a great expanse of [33 feet of] undecorated pole separates him from the more lowly creatures carved below. It may also symbolize Kadjuk's mountain habitat," Keithahn wrote.

Below Kadjuk sat the twin birds Gitsanuk and Gitsaqeq, servants of Raven who were sent to fetch embers so that man would have the use of fire on Earth. Raven spreads his wings beneath them. The large female figure holding two salmon by their tails is Fog Woman. Raven fell in love with this beautiful woman who controlled both fog and salmon. Raven and wife were the first to catch, clean, smoke, dry and store a winter's supply of this fish. When he had sufficient food laid away for winter, it slipped Raven's mind that his wife was responsible for his wealth. Nothing she could do pleased him. Finally, in a fit of pique, he hit her with a salmon's backbone which pierced her side. Fog Woman fled toward the beach, and he was unable to catch her before she drifted out over the waves. In revenge, she caused the dry fish to come back to life and swim out to sea - leaving Raven's cupboard bare.

In an Alaskan steamship company pamphlet titled "A Trip to Wonderful Alaska" (c. 1920), a Juneau landmark cited as one that passengers could view from the rail as the ship maneuvered up Gastineau Channel was a wood- frame house owned by a Tlingit. It was "the big house built by Chief Johnson or Yosh-Noosh, head of the Raven branch of the Taku tribe." The pamphlet contains an etching of the house, a two-story dwelling backed up to a hill, with a dormer extending over an attic window on the front of the roof. (The hill may well be that on which the Governor's House stands.)

The pamphlet goes on, "He attained the rank of chief from years ago by giving a great 'pot latch' which cost him in blankets and other finery and furs, distributed to the tribe, more than $20,000. He was a man of powerful physical build and possessed of great power of endurance. He could understand and spoke fairly good English, but frequently pretended that he could not, when his interest could be thereby served in driving a bargain, in which he was very keen. He made a fortune in trading with the various tribes as far west as Yakutat."

The Chief Johnson house made headlines on Nov. 29, 1946, when it suffered damage from a minor fire. It was described as on Gastineau Avenue near Juneau Cold Storage. (The house no longer exists.)

George Johnson inherited his title from his uncle, also called Chief Johnson, who once owned all of Carroll Inlet. The elder Johnson died near Killisnoo in January 1904 on a trading expedition by canoe. A source reports, "A spaniel jumped into the water as they neared the beach, upsetting the canoe. The party escaped drowning, but Johnson was so chilled by the experience that he died on the beach from heart failure." There was apparently a third Chief Johnson, Kock-Teesh, who was killed by another Tlingit in 1898 (Ketchikan Daily News, May 23, 1963). The speed of this succession has caused some historical confusion.

George Johnson died in 1938 at Juneau, and funds were solicited to return his body to Bayview Cemetery in Ketchikan for burial.

Johnson was knowledgeable of the Western way of distributing property. On Jan. 29, 1938, anticipating his death, he signed a will leaving the totem in care of Rev. Paul Mather, George Keegan and William McCall, so that the pole would be preserved, and the area around it would be declared a historic site. The Alaska Native Brotherhood paid $314 in back taxes on the property, and it was deeded to the federal government and the U.S. Forest Service. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, the Forest Service hired 250 Pacific Northwest carvers for a Civilian Conservation Corps project of repairing or duplicating totems; the Chief Johnson Pole was among those repaired, and its grounds were landscaped.

Threatened by decay, the Chief Johnson Totem was taken down in 1982 by Ketchikan Museums. It was replicated by carver Israel Shotridge, said Richard Van Cleave, Registrar of the Museums. Shotridge repaired his work in 1993. The layout of Ketchikan's streets changed slightly during urban renewal in the 1960s, Van Cleave noted, but the replicated 55-foot totem still stands in approximately the same spot as did the original.

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