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Makah Chief Yelak’ub: From Cook to "Antagonizer"

By the time the Japanese sailor Otokichi landed on the shores of Cape Flattery in 1834, the Hudson's Bay Company had already established a network of forts and trading posts throughout the northwest region.

One of the members of the Makah tribe Chief Yelak'ub was only a few years older than Otokichi, but he was already a leader fighting every inch for the land and rights of his people: A lesson for Otokichi, who would later have to confront the West and its arrival at his native shores of Japan.

In 1827,Yelak’ub (Yellow-cum or Ellacoom) was only ten years old when his father, a prominent Makah trader arrived with his son at the entrance gates of Hudson Bay Company's Fort Langley asking to see the Chief Trader Archibald McDonald.

The father, Josechal sensed that the world of his ancestors was changing and that to cope with these changes, he “wanted his son to learn English and to gain a better understanding of non-native culture in order to benefit his people’s commercial dealings with the newcomers.”

The trade at Fort Langley was brisk, and there was always help to be had in the kitchen, which required minimal skill and ability, so Archibald McDonald hired Yelak’ub on, and with his father’s departure, Yaluk’ub would be on his own in the company of the Hudson’s Bay Company men.

It would shape his own views of the non-native groups he would encounter throughout his life—a view that would in some ways go counter to what his father hoped for.

Inside Fort Langley, besides the small log cabin that housed the fort’s administrators and the store, there was a separate building where lower-ranking men slept with “an excellent cellar and a spacious garret, a couple of well finished chimneys,” and a smaller shorter building with two square rooms, perhaps for dining. A fireplace heated each room, and a kitchen was adjoined at the rear.

There tending the fire or gathering water, not many of the men would have noticed Yelak’ub. In fact, Paul Kane, an artist from Toronto who documented his travels with detailed portraits and landscape would later comment that Yelak’ub had “a very plain and unprepossessing appearance.” (Unfortunately, the portrait of Chief Yelak’ub by Paul Kane was lost and never found). If they did take notice, he was likely treated poorly because of his age, race, and lowly position in the kitchens.

Despite being son of a chief in his own village and probably possessing his own slaves, Yelak’ub himself learned that in Hudson's Bay Company territory, he was considered no more than a servant as he performed menial tasks that the slaves in his family were ordered to do.

How could his own father put him in this position:forced in servitude and ordered about? To carry the firewood, to haul more water, to tend to the fire. Despite his youth, Yelak’ub was not as soft as the traders would have wanted. In fact, he didn’t always do what he was told by some of the more brusque fur traders, who considered him “impudent” and his people “ugly customers.”

At Fort Langley, it was not uncommon that “the white men administered beatings and kicks to insolent natives.” In one case, a Quaitland native was “rather insolent on the wharf, for which he got a few Sound kicks from a Mr. Annance."

Another member of the tribe, Mr. Skaniwa took offense to this and “spoke a great deal before the Indians,” until a white man thought it necessary to administer him “two or three knock down blows which soon brought the great man to his Senses.”

It was a lesson after all and “He [Mr. Skaniwa] will undoubtedly be the better of it, for he has been taking great footing on the protection he has in the Fort - not however as he ought, by Showing gratitude to the whites.”

Like Flattery Jack, one particular Musquiam was also said to be “rather impudent” when he came to the fort. In a journal entry of one of the men at Fort Langley, he noted the particular incident involving Mr. Annance's foot once more:

One of them asked for some of the deer to eat in a very rough way - No notice was taken of [him] for Some time, until he became troublesome. At last Mr. Annance asked him what he had to give for a piece. "Nothing," says he, "but I have a Cock," putting his hand on it. "Perhaps you want it." No Sooner Said than he got Such a kick on the very Spot, which Settled his talk - and [a] Couple more Sent him down the hill. They went all in a very short time - They are the very people who were so insolent to the Deceased Mr. McKenzie & party last winter - We Can't help having a bad feeling towards them - and little passed them with impunity. {We are determined to allow them but little indulgence, & certainly nothing with impunity.}

The coarse humor (no doubt, common at the fort) was probably not the only reason for the physical assault, but rather the idea that the Musquiam thought he was the equal of Mr. Annance, a colleague that he could joke around with. That kick was a reminder to him and his whole tribe of their position in hierarchy of races where Whites were at the top.

While among company men, he was little more than “Flattery Jack” who hailed from the coast Cape Flattery, named by James Cook in 1778, for as he wrote, “…there appeared to be a small opening which flattered us with the hopes of finding a harbour...On this account I called the point of land to the north of it Cape Flattery.”

And Jack? His original name was Yelak’ub, but being a few syllables too many for the likes of the burly English fur traders, the “Yak” became the more familiar “Jack.”

He would have known that the White Men were here to stay, and instead of fighting them, he would learn to adapt to the reality turning away from the whaling traditions that sustained his tribe for thousands of years. He saw the future with the more lucrative business of trading animal skins, dentalia shells, and slaves.

Trading had always been a way of life well before the Europeans arrived, so traditionally to barter goods with Hudson’s Bay Company was akin to trading with just another tribe. But as the number of non-native settlers arrived requiring large swathes of land to develop agriculture, Yelak’ub would witness the decline in the control of his homeland, a stalwart leader that believed that Makah land was a birth right of his people and that any tribe, including the Hudson’s Bay Company, encroaching on their land would mean retaliation in some form or other.

Once considered an “impudent” teen, Yelak’ub was later labeled as an “incorrigible scoundrel” as an adult, one “who by force of mental power and rascality had made himself of some importance in the tribe.” He would deter settlers from settling on Makah land and hold tightly to his tribe’s innate right for fishing and hunting on its own land, and on its own terms.

He did all he could to hold back the growing force of settlers. He was viewed as a leader by some and an “antagonizer” by others, including a fellow Makah tribe member Chief Kleh-sitt.

In December 1851, when a British ship the Una wrecked off the coast belonging to the Makah, Yelak’ub probably took charge and salvaged all he could—a lesson he learned from Chief George and his forefathers. It was rightfully his property after all according to traditions.

Chief Kleh-sitt, however, quickly sent messengers to Hudson’s Bay Company to apologize for his people’s conduct and offered to pay for the lost property. Regardless, the governor at Fort Victoria sent a “well appointed force to demand restitution and compensation from the Cape Flattery chiefs.” When the force arrived at Neah Bay, Kleh-sitt explained to Charles Dodd, commander of the expedition, that punishment at already been administered to those who plundered the Una, including the execution of ten and the live burning of the one who set the ship on fire.

Even without the evidence, Dodd accepted the chief’s assurances and departed without firing one shot. The same scenario repeated itself in other situations— Yelak’ub would act in behalf of his people, while Kleh-sitt appeased and apologized for his tribesman's actions. As researcher Joshua Reid wrote in his book THE SEA IS MY COUNTRY:

While these two chiefs disagreed over how to deal with the expanding settler-colonial world, they embodied the power of indigenous leader to both interrupt and enable colonial processes such as trade, surveying and settlement.

In 1853, both Kleh-sitt and Yelak’ub would lose their lives to a smallpox epidemic, along with three quarters of their people, a population of 2000 people down to only several hundred. The living was so overwhelmed by the numbers that the bodies were buried in pits, abandoned on the beach, or dragged to the waterline at low tide so that the current would take them out to sea.

Without the leadership of such influential Makah leaders for the next generation to promote its interest, the tribe continued to lose its hold of its land, its traditions, and its sovereignty.

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