“Wealth Woman” offers a unique, female-centered view of the past
BY CINTHIA RITCHIE
For the Alaska Dispatch News
Much has been written about the Klondike Gold Rush. It was, after all, a time of greed and excitement, desperation and get-rich-quick schemes, all perfect fodder for a good, long tale.
Yet, little has been penned of the women who made up the gold rush era.
And even less of a Tagish Indian named Shaaw Tlàa, later known as Kate Carmack, whose 1896 discovery of gold in Bonanza Creek sparked the frenzy that became the gold rush.
How refreshing, then, to discover former Alaska author Deb Vanasse’s “Wealth Woman: Kate Carmack and the Klondike Race for Gold,” a blend of narrative nonfiction and biography that offers the first in-depth look inside Kate Carmack’s life.
The book is a formidable feat of research (the endnotes, for instance, take up a good chunk of the last section) that weaves letters, photographs, interviews and newspaper articles into a vague but coherent outline of Kate Carmack’s life.
This, as Vanasse mentions in the Preface, was far from easy. Since Kate could neither read nor write, she left very little of herself behind.
“I’m also a novelist, and I must admit to a temptation to fictionalize Kate’s story,” Vanasse says in the Preface. “It would certainly have been easier than sifting through sands for facts that others had overlooked.”
While Vanasse’s commitment to stay within the bounds of historical fact holds strong, she thankfully sprinkles in small details that add an intriguing flavor, such as when she describes a photograph of Kate leaving Dawson City:
“Though in one hand she clutches a white handkerchief—has she been crying?—her lips turn in a slight smile.”
The book opens in 1898, when the Roanoke, a ship loaded with gold, pulls in the Seattle dock as a crowd of by-standers presses forward, eager to hear who has struck it big and who has returned broken and empty-handed. Kate is onboard, and a black and white photograph included in the book shows her standing on deck with husband George Carmack (also known as “Lying George”), and their daughter, Graphie.
Looking at this photograph it’s impossible not to wonder if Kate, said to be one of the richest indigenous women, has any idea of how her world is about to crash down.
**subhead**Complexities of gold
Before Kate married Carmack, back when she was still Shaaw Tlàa, she lived with her Tlingit husband, Kult’us, along the eastern arm of Chilkat Inlet. Vanasse weaves myth with history to paint a picture of Shaaw Tlàa’s early Tagish life.
“As waterfalls splashed melted snow from the mountains, the “Kahaakw.ish” moon brought an end to the long northern winter. Sandpipers scurried over the tide-exposed shores of the northern Lynn Canal,” she writes.
After Kate’s husband and daughter die, most likely from disease brought to their village by visiting Europeans, Kate marries Carmack. Soon after, Wealth Woman makes her appearance.
In Tagish folklore, the Wealth Woman floats through the forests clutching a baby while bestowing riches in exchange for a complicated series of tasks. When Kate’s brother, Jim, finds himself visited by the Wealth Woman as he travels through a pass called Shash Zeititi, or Grizzly Bear Throat, he’s told that everything will turn golden. This sets the stage for the first significant gold find, and the events that follow are so confusing and complex that it’s impossible to know who first spotted the gold: Kate? George? Jim? Whatever the case, George finagles the claim in his name and reaps the majority of the wealth.
Parts of “Wealth Woman” are difficult to read. History can be ugly, and Vanasse doesn’t soften the blow. She chronicles instances of anti-Indian actions and sentiments, along with slanted (and badly written) newspaper stories. Other sections are mired down with too many facts, too many details. Instead of moving Kate’s story forward, Vanasse includes long and intertwining descriptions of Anglo-Indian relations and agreements, military history and background details of people with no close ties to Kate. As a result, Kate’s story often stalls. It becomes very, very quiet.
Of course, Vanasse, had a limited amount of information to work with. Yet it often feels that by sticking to straight facts, Vanasse forsakes a valuable connection. Kate’s story is so vague that readers never get a chance to know her, to root for her, to feel her.
And this, then, is the irony of “Wealth Woman.” It’s a book about Kate Carmack’s life yet, since there’s not enough known or recorded about her, it veers towards other things: A factual and fascinating account of the Klondike Gold Rush era and, unfortunately, the familiar story of a man who marries one woman, finds someone else, ditches the first and does everything in his power to make sure she’s left with nothing.
After George leaves Kate and their daughter stranded in California (he marries a former prostitute while still married to Kate), Kate eventually finds her way back to her Tagish roots and settles in Carcross, where she lives in a small cabin and gets by however she can. She dies of the Spanish influenza in 1920. She dies with no material wealth except for a pair of sealskin gloves and a gold watch. Yet, according to the Wealth Woman legend, she died with riches, in her homeland, amidst the smells and beauty of a familiar and much-loved landscape.
As Vanasse writes at the end: “She was a good woman, the Tagish people say of her still—a good woman, who came from good people.”
Cinthia Ritchie is a freelance writer and author. She blogs about writing, books and Alaska life at www.cinthiaritchie.com.