The Squaw Has a Word for It!

by Grace Verne Silver

An Alaskan Indian woman -- a despised squaw of a despised race -- gave me a new lease on life. Travel is broadening, people say; but not, I'm sure if travelers persist in looking down on the 'natives' as so many do! They can teach us a lot, whether they live in Alaska or the South Seas. After all they live; they've solved the problem of living to their own satisfaction. Have we? Can we do so?

We often travel to "get away from it all"; I was doing just that. When our bunch of "round-trippers" were doing the sights of Mission Street in Ketchikan we stopped to gaze skyward at one of the few authentic Indian made totem poles. Too many are white-man made!

In the background a house perched precariously on the rocky wall. A rickety flight of steps led up to it. Indians live in white man's houses, pay taxes, can vote, even buy liquor in Ketchikan. They're free! Some people say they gave them full citizenship so they could legally sell them liquor, restrict their hunting and collect taxes; that may be true, because they comprise more than a fourth of the population and, well, you know, "business is business", even in Alaska! A small girl, maybe four or five, preceded her mother down the wobbly stairs and about ten steps from the bottom fell head first. Much crying ensued as the mother rushed to pick her up. As soon as she was satisfied the child was unhurt and the wails ceased, she said to the youngster in English (for they're educated, too!):

"Now you go right back up those stairs and come down again without falling!" When the child protested, expressed her feat of falling again, the mother relentlessly commanded:

"All right; then go up and fall down again, if you can't come down without falling!" She did not fall; smiles replaced her tears as she rejoined her mother. The latter drove her moral home:

"There now; every time that you fall, remember you got to go back and do it over, and do it right!"

She never heard of psychology; or depressions, or mental suggestion; but she had words for them just the same.

"Get up and do it again!"

I needed the lesson worse than her child did.

There's the world's best scenery in Alaska; there's a thrill in seeing gold come out of the ground; there's a brave colony at Matanuska; there's salmon and boats and a whole catalog of points of interest; but the things that have stayed with me since my return are squaw's words, here and there. There was the squaw in Fairbanks who rebuked her less than sober husband in words of simple meaning, tones of unutterable scorn, as she said,

"You boss, huh? You boss?" A feminist there, if ever I saw one! And, believe me, he cringed from her; never think the squaw is a downtrodden female -- not unless she marries a white man!

Unforgettable is the memory of the scorn of the modern Alaskan -- especially the women who came late to the north country -- for the "natives." In Alaska a native is an Indian, regardless of where born; a white man is not a native of Alaska even if born there. In time, like the modern Virginian aristocrat, they may take pride in tracing their lineage from some Indian daughter of a "chief." They're all chiefs after their daughters marry white men, it seems! Nowadays to be a half breed is a stigma of shame; to be a native -- there's nothing lower. It seems as though white women are both cruel to their darker sisters, and silly in prejudice. Were I am Alaskan man I'd prefer one of the modern educated Indian girls to come soft white girl from the states, homesick, unused to hardship, unequal to northern conditions, expensive, requiring outside clothes and doctors and frequent trips "outside" for the winter. The annual Alaska tragedy is not the winter, but the migration of selfish white women to warmer climates, while the men remain, from economy or necessity, to face the long winters alone or with Indian or Eskimo casual "friends."

Another squaw had a word for it, too -- a word that meant perseverance. We were watching the salmon fighting their way upstream. We were back again in Ketchikan -- the first and last stop usually made by Excursionists, and I treasure this last memory more than anything else. Standing on the little bridge above the falls, or rapids, for they are no more than that, a dozen of us watched salmon struggling up from the sea to their spawning grounds. It almost seemed as though for every foot they gained they slipped back three. Buffeting the white water, disdaining, for the most part to use the "fish ladder" a kindly government provides for them, every tourist who sees them for the first time is thrilled, or dumb, at the spectacle.

To get to the spawning ground before they die; to surmount all obstacles in their way; to fulfil their destiny. Luck they don't know they are spawning only that their babies of the future may fill our tin cans! The rest of our group passed on up the trail; but I'd noticed an Indian woman and a small boy watching, too. They sight is so common that Indians rarely pay special attention, unless they wish to net or spear a few. Soon I learned her reason. I heard her say to her son:

"See that big one" -- pointing just below the falls where the water was roughest. "See him jump up -- up -- down again -- way back -- see, he's lost twenty feet; now he'd back." I suppose they watched that one salmon for a half-hour, while I watched it -- and them. The boy was excited -- worried -- grieved when the big fish was gashed on the rock. Finally he was exultant, he exclaimed:

"Look -- she got over -- it's all smooth water from now on!"

Mother Squaw looked hard at the boy -- shook both of his shoulders, not too hard, but commanding attention:

"Yeh," I heard her say, "and you know why she got over the falls? Because" -- another shake -- "she never gave up! And you remember that. Don't you ever give up. Never. And you will get some place you want too! You got to know as much as a fish, ain't you? You got as much guts as a salmon? Yes?"

She had never heard of psychology either.

 

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