The Schieffelin Brothers Yukon River Prospecting Trip of 1882

Tanana woman returning from the hunt, 1882. Source: AKDC

Browsing in the Alaska Digital Archives I found an interesting photo album documenting a prospecting trip up the Yukon River by the Schieffelin Brothers, Ed and Al, who just a few years earlier had founded the famous desert mining town of Tombstone, Arizona.  Two pictures from this album struck me as particularly interesting, though the whole thing is worth browsing.

The first of these is the remarkable picture above, showing a Tanana woman with a long-gun, powder horn, and a couple of large rabbits.  While anthropologists and archaeologists have grudgingly revised their “Man the Hunter” stereotypes in recent years, it is nonetheless rare to see such a frank portrait of a competent woman with her prey.  I’ll be using this one in class, starting next week.

Winter-time fish trap set up on the frozen Yukon River, 1882. Source: AKDC

The other picture shows something I had never seen or heard of before: a winter-time fish trap with a large conical basket, entirely constructed and operated on the ice.  Such a trap would leave no archaeological evidence whatsoever, yet could be a vital source of winter-time subsistence and fresh food – think of all those Omega-3’s!  Such traps are conceivable all over the NW Interior and should be considered as a possible part of the winter-time subsistence round.  Maybe they are,  and I just have never heard of them — but certainly it is a cool device.

So – an interesting older photo album with some insight into early historic life in a very remote part of the Northwest. I don’t know much about this prospecting trip but I imagine there is more information about it out there – for now, the pictures speak for themselves.

Caption reads: "The Black Showman {sic} of the Tanana: Saw his wife and children engulfed in Forty Mile River - committed suicide by jumping in the river. His wife and children all rescued by boatmen when there boat overturned- Shaman drowned."

16 responses to “The Schieffelin Brothers Yukon River Prospecting Trip of 1882

  1. Ah, but in the first photo, its only small game (as I heard from some early male profs). There certainly WERE many taboos in many societies against women touching weapons, let alone hunting, since their baneful influence could cause the weapon to miss in critical times from then on (I’m sure this was a very handy excuse for inept hunters).

    The second story is a tragic result of jumping to a conclusion!


    • Right – only small game, shellfish, fish, and plants – probably 90% of the calories all told. Mind you, bear teeth necklaces sure are purty.

      It strikes me in the last couple of weeks on this website we’ve seen:

      Tlingit women and children catching and cleaning fish from a boat they operated all by their lonesome (while the men “were in the saloon”)

      A Tahltan woman making and using stone tools:

      And now, today, a Tanana woman hunting/trapping and handling (sayitaintso) a long gun IN OPEN AND BLATANT DEFIANCE OF ANTHROPOLOGY, dammit.

      Either NW women were unusually awesome, or the hearth-and-home stereotype needs even more revision than it’s been getting.

      No wonder the Shaman drowned himself at the thought of being all alone!


  2. 90% of the calories? Big game is, surprisingly, well worth chasing after even if you have to go dozens or hundreds of kilometres to do so (see the last Am. Antiquity, only place in archaeology I’ve seen Sports Illustrated as a reference).

    The taboos on women hunting must have varied considerably in what was and wasn’t allowed from culture to culture; but also they must have varied a lot in their implementation, the same way that the various kinship rules on who you could marry seemed to be observed in the breach when the anthropologists actually got down to figuring out who was who in families and communities.

    Women were clearly hunting; but was this an accepted normal practice or were they expected to feel guilty about it? I expect this varied to some extent by the level of complexity; in simple societies, people tend to do whats needed to get by and get along; but in complex ones there are considerations of social position and specialist shamans or priests that exploit fear and guilt for control. I’m thinking that in a small family band, the woman only has to say “well, you would have starved last week if I hadn’t shot those rabbits” even if there was a stricture against her taking the gun. Whereas the Nuu-chah-nulth chief’s wife, who not only couldn’t go near the weapons or the shed-out-on-the-island-back-of-town, but had to lie in bed perfectly still or turning over slowly while her husband was out hunting whales (lest the whales get frisky), had much less option to go out for a stroll because the whole community was watching, let alone taking the canoe out for a spin and seeing if she could harpoon a seal.


    • I dunno, I tend to read those ethnographic accounts of the Nuu-chah-nulth whaler’s wife (hardly a typical woman, by the way) as being pretty much adhering to normative “what to tell the anthropologist” stories and thus emphasizing extremely strict restrictions. But in any case if it is the supernatural power of the woman that means the whale gets caught, then same difference.

      As it stands though, this picture pre-dates most of the ethnography from the area and so why wouldn’t we take it as an everyday occurrence? Isn’t this somehow “authentic”? We only overlay guilt onto it because of the “Man the Hunter” thing which stems from a biased reading of biased (male-written from male consultants) ethnographies.

      So I don’t buy the guilt thing, that seems to me to be a projection from the big-game perspective. If there is a lot of ethnography that explicitly talks about women hunting and making stone tools then I’d like to see it – otherwise, you know, live and die by the text and if they are wrong about the women hunting they might be wrong about the women hiding under mats and any number of other things that get filtered through the eyes and tongues of men.


  3. qmackie – Just to add to the list in a not distant context: Your brothers in a 1984 report (Heritage Churches in West Central British Columbia) note that when the Stony Creek Roman Catholic church was built in 1929 the senior women in several village families puchased the church windows. They name seven women (others probably involed) who paid for the windows through the proceeds of trapping.


  4. BTW, jumping to conclusions, who is to say that the women cleaning fsh operated the canoe? It is more in keeping with the ethnographic record that they were expected to show up when the canoes came in from their early-morning fishing and do the fish butchering and processing, while the men relaxed for a while – whereever.


  5. Thanks APM – of course Catholicism thrives on guilt so no wonder women trappers would empathize with it!

    Morley – well there are no men to be seen in the picture so either we appeal to (probably over-generalized) notions of who did what when, or we allow that women might have been rowing that boat.

    I just noticed the “Saloon” sign painted on the distant shore – I had thought of the picture as being on some random beach but maybe it is at a village site after all.


  6. I think that picture has a dog in it – there is a blur in front of the kid to the right that has got to be something moving quickly. I guess it could be a guy darting out of the picture in case anyone thought he might be working.


  7. In every successful exploit exhibited by a man there are always the subtle underpinnings of a woman working twice as hard. Isn’t there a saying out there to that effect?

    Or maybe it’s something like “Behind every successful man is a woman constantly reminding him to pick up his socks and take the garbage out”…

    The women were probably out fishing and trapping because the men were sitting around talking about various ways of making tools just that much more awesome. Since it’s the material culture that archaeologists are studying, maybe the men get credited with all of the hard work and technological advancements?


    • “Behind every successful man there stands a surprised woman”

      We need to be careful of “presentism” in archaeology, that is, projecting our comfort zone about things like appropriate gender roles onto the past. There is actually very little evidence in the archaeological record for who did what – artifacts don’t come out of the ground labelled, or in pink and blue, and it should rightfully be treated as an argument, not an assumption, to say something like “men did the preponderance of the hunting”


      • Heh. True, but the superimposition of present-day cultural norms such as gender roles upon older, less clearly-defined systems can produce something akin to humour, provided it is interpreted that way.

        When are they going to come up with a “tongue-in-cheek” font, anyway?


  8. I should probably add that I’m not by any means including myself in this group of women, nor am I a feminist theorist (I just get a kick out of the image of two or three guys tinkering around with a composite harpoon or something while a disgruntled woman wanders out back to throttle a rabbit).


  9. This may sound like heresy but I’d like to suggest here that any single person capable of feeling empathy and using imagination can come up with multiple perspectives.

    One must never assume that were I to have “a(n) incorrible tinkerer” I would feel inclined to throttle a rabbit, and, this being the only scenario I am able to come up with therefore ascribe that behaviour systematically to all ensuing analyses. This is only one possible outcome, and it might make a pretty good stew.

    Out of curiosity, and in a similar vein, why are cultural anthropologists so insistent that people are completely bound by their respective viewpoints? Does existing within a culture completely obliterate the ability to quantify and neutralize cultural biases?


  10. Hmmm and the strength of cultural forces acting on the will of individuals must vary by culture and individual. Cultural norms and rules are more easily applied to situations of plenty. (re Morley’s examples). My thinking is that no person is going to lay around and starve adhereing to a cultural rule when there’s good hunting to be had.


  11. Hi M Berkey,

    Yeah, people generally become more flexible under stress (not always of course — I guess there is the famous example of the Greenlandic Norse clinging tighter and tighter to their cows and refusing to eat fish and seals, then getting wiped out by the little ice age).

    I think overall, people are more subtle than anthropologists have given them credit for historically – I mean, culture is not a set of rules, but a set of dispositions. Rules tend to arise when an outside questioner provokes “naive theorizing” on the part of the cultural practitioner –

    “who hunts?”

    “oh….. uh ….. men hunt!”

    The Anthropologist writes that down and is very content.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s