I’ve been trying to find pictures of some of the artifacts mentioned in To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey, and one of the most important – the moose-hide tunic given to the leader of the expedition, Colonel Allen Forrester, by one of the most powerful chiefs (or tyones) of the region – is proving difficult. And it’s bringing up other, more basic issues, too. Who the heck are the Midnooskies?

Now, the book is fiction, of course. Historical fiction mixed with magical realism. But it’s based on the real-life 1885 expedition of Henry Allen (nice name link there!) up the real Copper River, which is in approximately the same region as the story’s Wolverine River. And the Midnooskies themselves are the people referred to in Allen’s report. I started with the dentalium, but quickly fell down a rabbit hole.

In his description of the Old Man in To the Bright Edge of the World, Colonel Forrester mentions dentalium ornaments.

At his neck is a bizarre ornament, similar in pattern to the dentalium shells many of the Indians wear, but instead made of small animal bones, teeth, shiny bits of glass & metal.

He describes the dentalium ornaments worn by the Midnooskies at other times, describing Skilly thus: “as wild an Indian as I have ever seen. A tube-shaped shell, called a dentalium, pierces his nose.” The moose-hide tunic that Forrester is given by Ceeth Hwya is “beaded with dyed porcupine quills & dentalium shells.”

This was one of those things that I was sure I had seen but just didn’t recognize or know the actual name of, and you probably have seen these pieces as well.

dentalium on a Hidatsa woman
Hidatsa woman wearing dentalium ornaments

Most of the North American dentalium shells, historically speaking, originated along the Pacific coast, and were culturally important to people from Alaska to southern California. (Now, apparently, they are obtained along the coasts of Asia and are smaller and more brittle.) Many of the pictures I found of dentalium ornamentation seemed related to Plains tribes like the Sioux and Lakota. However, I found this photo labeled Hidatsa, and it turns out that Hidatsa, according to this list, is another name for the Midnoosky (search the document for Midnoo… and you’ll see Hidatsa right in there with all the alternate spellings for Midnoosky).

Dentalium is a type of seashell, from scaphopod mollusks, and from what I read, they would sometimes wash up on shore, but were also harvested from deeper waters off the coast. They were used as trade goods of high value and prestige.

In looking for some ideas of what the Colonel’s moose-hide tunic might have looked like, I found several pictures of Athabascan men’s moose hide tunics from late 1800s, but none that said they were Midnoosky.

The fanciest one, and the one, to my mind, that seems ornate enough to have been owned by the tyone Ceeth Hwya and given as a status gift to the Colonel, is actually Tlingit. However, nothing was said about any particular images in the decoration on the tunic, and whoever the Midnooskies were, they weren’t Tlingit. I remain dissatisfied with my findings on this subject. My impression from the book was that the tunic was decorated more than just at the yoke and cuffs – and it was distinctive enough that the people they met for the rest of the trip immediately recognized it, associating it not just with the Midnooskies, but with Ceeth Hwya in particular.

As far as I can tell, the Midnooskies are distinct from the Athabascans, and are now more commonly referred to as the Hidatsa. Midnoosky is the name referred to in the official report of Henry T. Allen, whose 1885 expedition provided inspiration for To the Bright Edge of the World. The name Athabascan comes from a place name given by the Cree people of Western Canada, and in 1826 Albert Gallatin (a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson who shared his interest in the native peoples) assigned the name Athabascan to all the inland peoples of northwestern North America, based on similarities in language. Note – inland. The Midnoosky / Hidatsa seem to have lived closer to the coast (hence the stronger connection to the dentalium shells). Since Gallatin’s Synopsis of the Tribes was written well before the Allen expedition, it seems likely that if Gallatin had lumped them in with the Athabascans, Allen would have referred to them as such rather than as Midnooskies. But I could not find any reference to the name Midnoosky in Gallatin’s Synopsis. The closest is the Ugaljachmutzi of Prince William’s Sound. My guess is that “Midnoosky” was the English language version of the name given these people by the Russians, or that it is a shortened version of Ugaljachmutzi, or some combination of both.

Please note that I am only an interested amateur researcher. One of the parts of this novel that really resonated with me was something written by the modern day museum curator Josh Sloan:

It is a paradox, though. Where can we go to learn about Alaska’s people, how they lived and worshiped and dressed and spoke before living memory? The explorers are witnesses to the before. The Colonel’s diaries, like the writings of Meriwether Lewis and Captain Cook, are a kind of cursed treasure. I have to say, when I read the Colonel’s description of the men’s copper earrings and the red dye on the faces of the women, it was an incredibly moving experience. It’s ironic that such details would be preserved by the very man who would set off so much change.

I mean no disrespect by any of my ramblings or the various conclusions I’ve reached. If I am showing my ignorance, please correct me!

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. This is an interesting posting. About the Midnooskies, I have a feeling they are probably the Ahtna people, an Athabaskan-speaking group. The Hidatsa people lived in the Dakotas, and I don’t think they got as far in their travels as coastal southeastern Alaska. Ivey says on the copyright page that one of her sources was a collection of accounts by a Russian missionary who describes the ways of the Dena’ina and Ahtna people. In the novel itself, she cites a Russian who talks about the Mednovtsy Indians. I suppose Mednovtsy was the basis for Midnoosky. It’s only a conjecture that the Midnooskies were the same as the Ahtna. Take a look at https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ahtna and see what you think.

    • Very interesting! Thanks for sharing – I think I missed that note from Ivey about her sources. One of the things that surprised me was the popularity of dentalium among groups like the Sioux and Lakota from the Great Plains and other inland areas, but perhaps it had to do with the rarity of an item derived from the oceans.

      • Years later, but this is correct: ‘Midnooskie’ was the original name given to the Ahtna Athabascans by English-speakers ca. 1880. The name ‘Midnooskie’ derives from the Russian ‘mednovsky,’ meaning ‘of Copper.’

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