“The Canoe Rocks” Is a Goldmine of Tlingit History, and Occasionally a Minefield

A Review of Ted C. Hinkley’s “The Canoe Rocks: Alaska’s Tlingit and the Euramerican Frontier, 1800–1912”

This year I am taking a sabbatical from my work as a high school history teacher in order to write a book on the nineteenth-century history of the Lingít (Tlingit) people. (I will use the Indigenous spelling, Lingít, for the rest of this article, unless it’s in a title or quote.)

I felt the natural starting point for my work would be to make sure I read the only book I know of that addresses the exact same topic—The Canoe Rocks: Alaska’s Tlingit and the Euramerican Frontier, 1800–1912, published by Professor Ted C. Hinckley in 1996. There are many other books that have been written about Lingít culture and history in general, and many books that include information on nineteenth-century Lingít history as part of addressing the history of Alaska as a whole. However, Hinckley’s book appears to be the only one out there that specifically focuses only on the history of the Lingít during the nineteenth century.

the only published monograph on nineteenth-century Lingít history

Strengths

Before I get to the critiques in the rest of my review, I think it’s important to first highlight the value and strengths of The Canoe Rocks: This book was quite possibly “the first professional ethnohistory” published about any group of Indigenous people in Alaska, which is quite the milestone (and quite telling, given that it was published in 1996). It also became abundantly clear to me as I read the book that Professor Hinckley conducted massive amounts of research on this history—not only research done specifically to write The Canoe Rocks, but research that spanned the entirety of his career.

In the book, Hinckley cites and refers to almost all the scholars and secondary sources that I would have expected based on my own research, (minus work that’s been published since 1996, of course), but he also thoroughly delves into numerous archives, personal papers, government reports, newspapers, and other records that I might never have thought to look into myself. The Canoe Rocks is 435 pages long, (a point I will discuss later), and nearly every page is packed with information, stories, and quotes derived from a multitude of sources. It is truly a goldmine of knowledge about Lingít and Alaska history, something I might hazard to call góon xʼúxʼu (a book of gold).

Hinckley reveals in his preface that he “toyed” with the idea of writing a book on the history of the Lingít “as early as the 1960s,” which was at the beginning of his career as an academic. However, he seems glad that he waited until nearly the end of his career to write the book, after he had already published two other books about Alaska history — one about the Americanization of Alaska through the implementation of U.S. law and government, (not the cultural Americanization of Native peoples), and the other about John G. Brady, a trader, missionary, and governor of Alaska. As a result of waiting, Hinckley was clearly able to fill The Canoe Rocks with nuggets of knowledge from decades of research, including all the details from U.S. government reports and the perspectives of Governor Brady that he must have gathered from his previous published works.

I should also make clear that The Canoe Rocks isn’t valuable only because it is filled with so many facts and details: Professor Hinckley does make strong arguments about the uniqueness of Lingít people and their history, and the key factors that contributed to the transformations of their economy, culture, and politics during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Most of these arguments are ones that I largely or fully agree with, and will likely echo when I write my own book.

I do recommend that if you are seeking out detailed information on Lingít history in the nineteenth century, and especially from 1867–1912, you should check out Hinckley’s book. There are, however, some other considerations about the book to keep in mind, as I will now explain.

Of the many topics Hinckley addresses in detail, one is the formation and actions of the “Indian Police” recruited by U.S. officials from among the Lingít. In this picture from 1881, Lingít leader (and head of the police in Sitka) Anaxóots is seated next to Mary Klan Tech, daughter of another leader in his clan, the Kaagwaantaan. The other members of the force who are standing may be Ḵ’alyáan, Sitka Jack, and Dick Tagich. (See here.)

Weaknesses

When it comes to the weaknesses of The Canoe Rocks as a book and scholarly work, I believe the most important can be categorized into three types:

  1. Issues of readability,
  2. Issues of scope and focus, and
  3. Issues of imprecision and insensitivity.

Issue #1 is the easiest to explain, and perhaps the most fundamental: Even if they were excited at the start, I do not expect there are many people out there who would want to—or even be able to—finish reading The Canoe Rocks. As I mentioned, the book is 435 pages long, including the notes at the end of each chapter, and those pages are dense, filled with historical details, references, and arguments. (For another review I wrote on a mammoth tome about Indigenous history, see here.)

Hinckley writes with a high level of academic vocabulary, and he used a number of words at various points in the book that I had never seen before in my life. Even more critically, Hinckley seems to expect a pretty high level of background knowledge from his readers, as he makes regular references to other parts of Alaska, U.S., and world history that he does not explain in detail. As I read The Canoe Rocks, I repeatedly thought to myself—“If I hadn’t already done so much reading on Lingít history, I don’t think I would understand this!” While I do enjoy and appreciate the tone of Hinckley’s writing, as he often points out historical ironies and makes witty asides, there are also many cases where that witty, knowing tone lacks clarity and would easily leave many readers confused.

Readability is key, and it’s one of the main reasons I’m writing my book. I believe it is important for wordy, contemplative, and highly academic works to exist, and I would never want to see scholars stop expressing their most profound thoughts with all the vocabularly they require. However, I also want to make sure there’s a book about the struggles and transformations the Lingít people went through in the nineteenth century that can be read by practically anyone—high school students, adults who don’t read much, summer visitors to Lingít Aaní—anyone who would benefit from learning about this history. (And I think that’s pretty much everyone!)

Issue #2 with The Canoe Rocks is that there are potential problems with its scope and focus. By this I mean that it’s not always clear that Hinckley is focused on what’s most important about Lingít history, or that the evidence featured in his book is what’s most worth looking at.

I first learned about Professor Hinckley’s work when I was writing my undegraduate thesis nine years ago, which focused on Lingít-American interactions between 1856–1896. Most of my thesis was written in a mad rush from January to May during my final semester of college, so while I did read some of Hinckley’s academic articles, I only had time to skim over The Canoe Rocks. Based on my “skimming” and the academic reviews I read, I included the following assessment of the book in the introduction to my thesis:

Despite its ambition and generally successful execution, Hinckley’s work suffers from a few weaknesses, particularly a lack of details on specific cultural changes, vague periodization, and a penchant for fixating on individual Americans to the neglect of Tlingit voices. Perhaps even more seriously, The Canoe Rocks appears to present an image of progressive, uninterrupted Tlingit acculturation and assimilation over the late nineteenth century, as if it were a natural and predetermined result.

It may have been poor scholarship that I critiqued a book without having read it from cover to cover; I’m perfectly willing to own up to that. However, now that I have read The Canoe Rocks from cover to cover, I can say with certainty that I still stand fully behind this assessment.

Aside from a few other things I listed in my thesis, it might be best to summarize what I see as the biggest problem in this way: For a book that was supposed to be the very first “professional ethnohistory” written about the Lingít people, sometimes it feels like the Lingít are not the main characters in the story.

It can be incredibly difficult for historians to write about a group of people during a time period when they did not leave many written records about themselves: Almost all information written about the Lingít from the 1700s into the late 1800s was recorded by visitors and colonizers in Lingít Aaní, and even when there are purported quotes from Lingít people in the historical record, those messages were often transmitted through translators and then recorded by non-Lingít writers. Nevertheless, as I read The Canoe Rocks, I felt a great deal was being written about these non-Native observers and participants in Lingít history, including how their own views of Lingít people changed over the years. Meanwhile, the actions and changes in thinking among the Lingít themselves—as difficult as some of them may be to surmise—were left with much less consideration.

For example: There is little doubt in my mind that the two most-mentioned individuals in the book are John Brady (the American missionary, trader, and governor Hinckley had already written a book about), and Sheldon Jackson (the most famous—or infamous—American missionary and government official Alaska has ever seen). Famous Lingít leaders such as Ḵ’alyáan (Katlian), Sheiyksh (Shakes), or Tillie Paul do not receive nearly as many mentions (even when you include the multiple men throughout the period who bore the names Ḵ’alyáan and Sheiyksh). I did not count up mentions throughout the book, but there is an index that makes comparisons easier: In the index, the greatest number of entries are all under “Tlingit,” of course, but among all the different entries under this heading, the single largest is “Tlingit—Euramerican opinion of,” which is telling.

Again, it is undeniable Professor Hinckley spent decades of his career conducting research into this history, and all of that effort shows in the level of detail he is able to share in his book. However, for a book meant to tell the history of an Indigenous nation, in many cases it fails to highlight Lingít voices, thinking, and decision-making. Future work absolutely needs to make up for that deficiency.

Here is one group of Lingít whose voices are lacking in the historical record, but whose lives and choices are very much worth contemplating: These people are Taant’á Ḵwáan (Tongass) inhabitants of Kadúḵx̱uka (Tongass Island) who agreed to work for the U.S. Army in building and supplying Fort Tongass in the late 1860s. (The photograph was taken by Eadweard Muybridge in 1869 and is held in the collections of the Tongass Historical Museum in Ketchikan.)

Issue #3 may or may not be a dealbreaker for you when considering whether you should read The Canoe Rocks, depending on your perspective. In short, the last major category of issues is that some of Hinckley’s book features inaccuracies stemming from a lack of cultural knowledge, and many people could deem other parts of his writing to be racially insensitive.

There are a number of places in the book where I think confusion could have been avoided if Professor Hinckley had possessed just a little more knowledge and received just a little more guidance with the Lingít culture and language. The most egregious issue of this kind may be how Hinckley constantly focuses attention on Lingít ḵwáan, (groups of people living in a particular region, usually centered on one or a few large winter villages), and neglects to differentiate between the different clans within each ḵwáan. I wonʼt explain the issue at length, but through the late nineteenth century, ḵwáan had no political significance whatsoever. Clans were the core political groups that Lingít people belonged to. However, non-Native invaders and visitors in Lingít Aaní often didnʼt know what clan a Lingít person belonged to, and only knew the place they were from, (their ḵwáan), so the information available in written records is murky. In fact, Hinckley himself points out on multiple occasions how observers didnʼt understand clan dynamics, but then goes on to ignore—or simply doesnʼt try hard enough to explain—how clans were the most important actors in different events.

This is more of a pet peeve of mine, but Hinckley also spells the word as “kwaan” in his book, not ḵwáan. That might seem perfectly fine if a general reader wonʼt see a difference, or if the publisher doesnʼt want to deal with a special character like Ḵ, (although you can replace it with KH instead), but hereʼs the catch: “Kwaan” is a different word in Lingít, and it means smallpox. Hinckley inadvertently writes about how the “Stikine smallpox” did this, and the “Chilkat and Chilkoot smallpox” did that, and so on throughout the book. As members of Gen Z might say, itʼs cringe.

The words ḵwáan and kwaan may look the same to the untrained eye, but the differences in spelling and pronunciation are pretty significant! (source)

You donʼt have to know anything about the Lingít language to cringe at other parts of The Canoe Rocks: Hinckley makes the choice to include various racial slurs throughout his book. Some of the slurs are so out of date they are largely forgotten and wouldnʼt offend most people, but others continue to be highly offensive up to the present day. Usually these words are in direct quotes from historical figures whose views Hinckley certainly does not endorse, and in some cases he may have pointedly decided to include these slurs to illustrate the perspective of the speaker. However, I think itʼs worth asking whether itʼs valuable or appropriate to put such words in writing, even in quotes. For example, the N word is used quite casually at one point simply to give a general description of the racial attitudes of Governor Alfred Swineford. It really shouldnʼt be necessary to print the word in order to make that point.

Now, I should make clear that Professor Hinckley was a member of the Greatest Generation and veteran of the Second World War who passed away in 2004. His experiences and perspectives were incredibly different from mine—and, I expect, from virtually anyone who might read this article—which is vital to keep in mind when considering the choices he made in his writing. Itʼs also unquestionable that he deeply and genuinely cared about learning and promoting Indigenous history in general, and Lingít history in particular.

Nonetheless, just as would be the case with any source, it is important to investigate the points of view an author brings into their work, and the potential biases that may affect it. One last aspect of Hinckley’s writing that stood out to me is that he openly identifies as a Christian in the text of the book, and he uses words like “fortunately” and “mercifully” when describing historical events. Using those words may seem harmless enough, but they surprised me when I read them, as they express some level of personal opinion about how history unfolded, which most historians would avoid. Regardless, it’s critical for all of us to keep these factors in mind as readers, writers, and thinkers as we form and constantly evaluate our views about our history and society.

Final Thoughts

I don’t expect many people will read this article, so if you’ve made it this far, gunalchéesh! Whatever its audience might be, I felt it was extremely important for me to write this review as I start my book-writing process. I want to make it clear why I believe I should write a new book on the “Lingít Nineteenth Century,” or the span of time from the late 1700s to 1912 in which the Lingít nation confronted, profited from, struggled against, and adapted to an incredible series of unprecedented challenges.

Ted C. Hinckley’s book The Canoe Rocks: Alaska’s Tlingit and the Euramerican Frontier, 1800–1912 provides substantial amounts of research and information about this history, and presents key arguments about how the Lingít were, in many ways, uniquely resilient and successful through all the trials and tribulations they faced. However, The Canoe Rocks is not a widely-read or even widely-available book: It is mostly held by university libraries, not public ones, and it is rare enough now, (26 years after publishing), that the cheapest used copy currently available on Amazon is being sold for around $60, with others priced at over $100. I want to make sure that there is a shorter, more readable book widely available for a general audience that will educate people on the critical lessons of Lingít history. I also want to make sure such a book reflects the latest research and perspectives, and treats this history with all the accuracy and sensitivity it deserves.

Aside from making my “pitch” and justifying the existence of my future book, I also want to ensure that I acknowledge that, as I conduct my work, I will be standing on the shoulders of giants—not least of all Ted C. Hinckley. I could never replicate all the work Professor Hinckley put into researching Lingít history, delving into government reports, newspaper records, and the personal papers of key observers. I am, and will continue to be, heavily indebted to him.

In 1898, Lingít leader Shoo-we-Kah was quoted as saying, “The canoe rocks; we do not know what will become of us.” Now, 124 years after he spoke, we know that the Lingít have persevered as a strong and vibrant nation. Knowledge of Lingít history and culture should keep expanding, thanks to the tireless efforts of Lingít people, allies, and scholars. I feel honored that I have the opportunity to (hopefully) make some small contribution to that work. Watch this space for updates on my progress!

Gunalchéesh for reading, and please leave a comment below with any reactions or questions you might have!

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Peter Stanton

I’m a history teacher writing a book on the Tlingit 19th century. Waashdan Ḵwáan. Kichxháanx’ yéi xhat yatee. (American settler in Ketchikan) Tw: @peterstanton