The Tsimshian Sewing Machine


Pedradas sewing roomThree mornings after leaving Seattle,  I stood on the bow taking it all in as we pulled into our home base for the 1965 salmon season, the Annette Island Packing Company cannery, in the Tsimshian native village of Metlakatla, just 50 miles north of the Alaska-Canada border. Backed by snow topped mountains, the cannery, like many up and down the Northwest Coast, was a collection of low buildings built on pilings above the water with a long dock in front, to which a fleet of fishing vessels were tied three deep.

So began my introduction to what was the core industry of the Northwest Coast, especially Alaska for almost a hundred years. With the fishing season opening in just a few days, it was a beehive of activity: fishermen working on their nets and finishing up painting and preparing their boats for the season, cannery workers scrubbing the floors, mechanics testing and repairing the long line of machines that assembled the cans, cut and washed the fish, filled the cans, then sealed and cooked them.

A tidy native village spread out along the shore south of the cannery, with children playing on the gravel beach and dogs wandering freely. Noisy, busy, Seattle seemed a world away.

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0088.JPGWe got right to work, sliding in to tie up under the ‘hoist’ – the crane that would unload the freight that we had filled our hold with down in Seattle. I soon realised that the arrival of a boat loaded with freight from Seattle was a big deal in an isolated native village like that one. Most of the stuff in our hold was pallets of supplies for the cannery itself. But many of the smaller packages that had been dropped off, sometimes late at night, were all for individual villagers: prescriptions, that box of Granny Smith apples that I had wondered about, and dozens of boxes, mostly from Sears, dropped off by friends or taxi.

For, as I discovered, the doorstopper thick Sears & Roebuck mail order catalog was a core staple of life in these isolated communities. Metlakatla did have a post office, but if you could get a friend or even a taxi if it was a big order, to drop off your order to a boat headed up from Seattle, it got there faster and cheaper.

So barely had we gotten the lines on the dock when a procession of shy native women and gruff native guys began coming by, either down the ladder from the dock or by outboard skiff alongside to ask for a package and I’d rummage around in the big storeroom and deliver it. Most said a quiet thanks and moved on.

The oddest delivery that we received down in Seattle was on deck when we got up one morning: an old fashioned foot-powered sewing machine, without any indentification or information on who it was for. So I just lugged it up into the big storeroom and kind of forgot about it. Then late that first afternoon in Metlakatla, a battered wood skiff pulled alongside with a rough looking older guy and a grandmotherly looking woman with white hair in a bun and a shapeless blue pattered Mother Hubbard dress. They were by far the oldest natives I had yet seen.

She said something that I didn’t understand, and it took me a moment to realise it wasn’t English but Tsimshian, the local language. Then she said “sew-ing,” making an up and down motion with her hand and I got it: that old sewing machine was hers.

The man passed me a line and jumped aboard. I pointed into the storeroom, where you could see the sewing machine amongst the cases of pop, cereal, candy, cookies, etc. and he came out with it in his arms, beaming.

“Ah,” said the woman, crying out in a joy that you could understand in any language, and passed me up something covered with a cloth: a pie still warm from the oven. The man set the old Singer on our deck by the rail, clambered back aboard the skiff and I passed that old machine carefully down to where he already had a blanket on the bottom of the skiff to receive this precious possession. And without a word, they were gone, to some cabin, I supposed, so far out of town that the power lines didn’t reach. Or maybe they just liked the old ways.

Skiff traveling in channel with two folks aboard