Witchcraft in Alaska

Killisnoo, Alaska, as it appeared in 1899.


The indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest have played an important role in Native American folklore, from Chinook tales of monsters such as the Sasquatch-like Skookum and the humanoid sea monster of the Inuits named Qalupalik. A tribe inhabiting southeast Alaska, known as the Tlingit, has also played an important role in the folklore of the Pacific Northwest.

The Tlingit tribe, like many other indigenous tribes, holds a strong belief in magic and witchcraft. In 1915, a peculiar case evoking memories of Salem, Massachusetts, came before the court in Juneau, 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- a blind man who was said to be able to fly and transform himself into a duck.

The following comes from a newspaper article from 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."

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