Centered around allegations of witchcraft and sorcery, the strange case of Mary Moses – or Klantosh, as she was known to her tribe – could’ve been the last official “witch trial” in North American history…had the District Attorney been able to find a law that was broken by the witch in question.
The following newspaper account was published in the Harrisburg Telegraph on November 11, 1915:
Juneau, Alaska, Nov. 11.– That witchcraft still exists among the natives of Alaska, was brought out in the United States District Court before District Attorney J.A. Smiser here. A complaint of the practice of witchcraft among the natives of Killisnoo was made some time ago to W.G. Beattie, superintendent of native schools for Alaska. An investigation in the Killisnoo village led Superintendent Beattie to bring a number of the tribe to Juneau for examination by District Attorney Smiser, with the result the witch was found, but no law could be found on which to base a complaint against him.
From the testimony of the witnesses examined before the District Attorney the story of the witchery centers around a blind man, his fifteen-year-old daughter and her grandmother. For several months the blind man has been announcing himself as a witch and has claimed responsibility for practically all the deaths that have occurred in the village of Killisnoo for the past five years.
According to the story of the little native girl, Mary Moses, or Klantosh, as her Indian name is, the first time she knew that her father was a witch was one night a “long time ago” when she was awakened in her sleep and felt cold. She called her father and asked for more covers, which he brought, and while covering her over, she says, he told her for the first time that he was a witch and that he wanted her to learn to be one too in order that she might carry on his work when he died.
In order that she might learn the secrets of the practice she said her father told her she must visit with him an old graveyard across the bay. Mary stated her father told her to take hold of his foot and in a moment they “flew” across the channel to the cemetery. While there she said they were able to look through the earth down into the graves and could see the bodies in them. After wandering about the graves for a time her father transformed himself into a white duck and on his back she says she rode back across the channel. Mary told the District Attorney that that night she learned many things about witchcraft.
The girl’s story was told with straight-forwardness and without contradiction and the reason she said she wanted something done with her father was because she feared he would kill her grandmother with witchery. The child’s mother is dead and she is apparently very fond of her grandmother, and is evidently sincere in her fear of her father’s powers.
The only charges against her father are based upon the firm belief that he is a witch and in that connection he is accused of being responsible for everything in the way of misfortune which has happened in the Killisnoo Indian village. In the eyes of the law, Mr. Smiser says, it does look a little like hypnotism, but nothing tangible has occurred which can be reached by law.
In his remarks before the District Attorney, Superintendent Beattie said: “The question of witchcraft is one of the most difficult problems we have to handle among the natives. The existence of witches is a certainty with them, and there is absolutely no possibility of convincing them that there are no such things as witches. It isn’t stubbornness on their part, it is simply and sincerely their belief that there are among their tribesman persons who have power to cast a spell over others on their number.”
The Tlingit tribe, like many other indigenous tribes, holds a strong belief in magic and witchcraft. Every Tlingit had a personal guardian spirit or tu-kina-jek. Spirit doctors, or ichet, received more powerful spirits and therefore could treat the sick with herbs, discern the presence of evil, predict the future, and protect the community from evil forces. Witches, or nukw-sati, sought evil power and used it to harm others.
Sorcery was a powerful method of working harm to individuals. The Tlingit believed that people could be harmed if a certain procedure was followed. Thus if a piece of some dead person’s body, such as a bone or hair was put into a man’s food, he would become ill. Performing spells over objects closely associated with a man’s body could also bring him harm. Some sorcerers could inject sticks or stones into a man’s body to bring about illness or death. A sorcerer could also bring one bad luck in hunting, fishing, or in love, and could even make another person commit crimes such as stealing or murder. Most members of a Tlingit community went about in great fear of witchcraft. It was said that if a sorcerer were discovered in action he would be killed immediately by his own clansmen. An interesting fact is that no informant had ever heard of a witch or sorcerer being caught in action. They were always caught by the aid of dreams or by engaging a shaman.
If a man believed that he was bewitched he would take careful notice of his dreams. If he observed, in his dream, an individual trying to hurt him, then that individual must be the sorcerer, and steps would be taken to bring about the death of the evildoer. In cases when dreams failed to reveal the sorcerer, the shaman would be resorted to.
The shaman would hold a performance to discover the sorcerer. The unfortunate man would then be tied with his hands and feet together behind his back and left on the beach or thrown into a pit where he died, or he might be killed outright by being choked to the death between two logs.
The employment of shamans in the discovery of crimes such as murder and stealing lent itself to abuse among the Tlingit. Men would steal and later claim that they had been bewitched by a slave and thus escape the penalty. Rivals were often exterminated by paying the shaman to name them as sorcerers in cases of murder where the murderer escaped detection and in cases of illness.
Taking into account the importance of status and the use of shamans in crime detection, it appears that there was a law for the strong and a law for the weak. Men of high rank and great wealth could, through the shaman, commit crimes and still escape punishment. People of low status and slaves were in constant fear of the powerful families and the shamans they employed. – American Anthropologist – April-June 1934