Alaska Shorts: An Excerpt from Wealth Woman by Deb Vanasse

The excerpt that follows tells of events leading up to the marriage of Shaaw Tlaa (Kate) to prospector George Carmack, who took credit for the discovery of gold in the Klondike.

…both [Shaaw Tláa’s husband] Kult’ús and
her daughter fell sick, most likely in the late summer or early fall of 1886. As
with each wave of disease that passed through coastal villages—smallpox,
scarlet fever, measles, mumps, influenza—the long-haired “Indian doctors”
proved mostly helpless, no matter how many blankets were offered in exchange
for their assistance.

As a traditional remedy, there was Skookum
Root, coming from a plant that grew high in the mountains, with a sturdy stalk
and glossy, long leaves. When digging the root, Shaaw Tláa knew to speak to it
with respect: “Grandmother, I want you to do your best for my husband and
daughter. Do your best. I’m picking you for medicine.” When the Skookum
Root failed to cure Kult’ús and their daughter, Shaaw Tláa likely called on the
missionaries, despite conflicting ideas about whether they cured or caused such

But nothing could save her husband and
daughter. Statistically, their deaths were part of a mortality rate that,
according the governor of Alaska, indicated “the gradual extinction of the
native people.” In grief, Shaaw Tláa blackened her face with charcoal and joined in the
mourning songs which, with their slow, sad tempo, made a trail for the dead to
find their way to the afterworld. Of the food shared by her coastal relatives, she threw some in the fire, feeding
it to the spirits of her departed husband and child. Following cremation, their
ashes were stored in a wooden chest inside a spirit house, surrounded by a
fence to keep their restless spirits contained.

Despite her loss, Shaaw Tláa bore her
grief stoically, knowing that if she cried too much, the souls of her husband
and child would lose their way to the other world. On the fourth day after her husband’s
death, she hung his moose hide belt in a spruce tree to ensure that her next
husband would live long. After a Crow woman combed and washed her hair, she was
free from a widow’s restrictions, though for a full year neither she nor anyone
else was to mention the name of her husband or child.

By tradition, the elders of the Wolf moiety—or
Eagles, as they are called on the coast—would have decided whom Shaaw Tláa
should next marry; in all likelihood, her new husband would be a relative of Kult’ús.
But Shaaw Tláa’s mother had already lost too many children. She sent for her
daughter to come home. It was there, on the inland side of the mountains, that George
Carmack would become part of Shaaw Tláa’s life—but not before he first married
someone else.

Co-founder of 49 Writers
and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has
authored seventeen books. Among the most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to
writing books that rise above the rest; Cold Spell, a novel that
“captures the harsh
beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated
family bonds; and the “deeply researched and richly imagined” biography  Wealth Woman. After thirty-six years in Alaska,
she now lives on the north coast of Oregon, between Astoria and Seaside.

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