Political Cartoonist at Chemawa Indian School, William John Harris

William John Harris was born in Juneau Alaska March 29, 1884 to Richard Tighe Harris an Irishman, and Kitty a member of the Tlingit tribe. Richard Tighe Harris is the purported founder of Juneau, Alaska. The political cartoons of W.J. Harris represent a very early example of native people venturing into industries they are not normally associated with. There was not cartooning as a class at Indian schools yet Harris was able to learn, on his own how to draw cartoons. His talent is evident in the few images I have been able to find so far.

Cigar Box top with Founders of Juneau, Harris original founder, Juneau is the man who named the town (courtesy of the Alaska Digital Archives, University of Alaska Anchorage Archives and Manuscripts Dept.) Tillicum is a word in Chinuk Wawa meaning Indian.

W.J. Harris and his brother Richard Harris Jr. (b. 11/10/1885) both attended Chemawa Indian School in Salem, Oregon from 1898 to about 1907. W.J. Harris learned to draw on his own while attending Chemawa and became a noted Northwest political cartoonist. His drawings show a keen understanding of Native culture and Political realities in Alaska. The University of Alaska has a significant collection of the Richard Tighe Harris family papers with some biographic information.


William John Harris, (Oregon Sunday Journal, August 14 1904)

Salem, Oregon; drawing published by Chemawa Indian School as a postcard “1908 Chemawa’s 28th Anniversary… Cartoon by an ex-Chemawa student.” ( see the Alaska Digital archives University if Alaska digital collections, Harris collection) But the Image was first published in the Chemawa American twice during 1908, and tagged to become part of the commemoration. (Historic Oregon Newspapers Chemawa American February 28 1908)

Chemawa American February 28, 1908, full-page image noting the benefits of Chemawa Indian school to native students, At first glance, the takeaway may be about Salem, but it is clear in this full-sized image, it’s about Chemawa.

Alaska-Yukon Magazine 1909 (thanks to Ink and Snow Blog)

Interpretation: The exposition is meant to call attention to Alaska: prolog to colonization


William John Harris is profiled by The Oregon Journal in 1907

Interpretation: students are learning to play in a band while Natives are living in poverty, commentary on the priorities of the Americans.  (Oregon Sunday Journal, August 14 1904)

In 1904 Harris happened to meet Mrs. S.A. Evans, a reporter of the Oregon Journal article, while on a train through Gladstone, Oregon. Harris was drawing sketches for members of Chemawa Indian School Band, which he was a member of, and the reporter struck up a conversation with Harris. Harris explained how his father founded Juneau, Alaska, which was originally named Harrisburg, and how he taught himself how to draw by copying the styles in magazines. Harris was learning carpentry at Chemawa Indian School but much preferred practicing drawing. Three examples of Harris’ drawing are featured in this article.  (Oregon Sunday Journal, August 14 1904)


Interpretation: Time is running out for the Tribes of Alaska, Uncle Sam is beginning to carve up the area and Indians are feeling the effect of colonization, beer-drinking, settlement etc. Harris’ father struggled with Alcoholism as suggested in their letters. (Oregon Sunday Journal, August 14 1904)


Interpretation: perhaps Teddy Roosevelt is being played or teased by natives in Alaska? (Oregon Sunday Journal, August 14 1904)

A letter to his father in May 1904 notes that he is drawing cartoons for the Salem Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon) and is making enough money to pay for some expenses( letter # 133 May 15, 1904). Numerous letters note that Richard Harris Sr. was struggling for money in his later days. An investigation of the Capitol Journal for 1904 revealed at least two cartoons, one published May 16th the day after his letter to his father, and the other June 28th 1904.

SCJ May 16 1904, Interpretation: Money and rich people buy elections, Very relevant to today!


SCJ June 28, 1904, Interpretation: The GOP Governor Chamberlain is on a road to a second term, coincides with road building in the state, which could be the issue to get the second term.

The biography in the Harris papers at the Alaskan Digital Archives states that Richard T. Harris died in 1907, and his son William John Harris went on to become a guide and painter in Juneau, Alaska. Richard Harris Jr. was noted in the Chemawa American as leading a Brass band in Juneau in 1907. Both boys are said to have had large families themselves.

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