Okay, this is the weird Alaska story. I started in grad school in St. Louis University’s English Department, but
almost immediately realized the extent to which I didn’t care about Thomas Aquinas. St. Louis U. is a Jesuit school, but they apparently failed to realize that Thomas was a Dominican and went right on inserting his theology into every single class. I switched to another grad program at another university, but not before seeing, and thus remembering, St. Louis U.’s oddly hideous mascot/logo, the billiken.
The school’s athletic teams are called The Billikens, and there is a billiken statue on campus. The image always struck me as creepy, a little demonic, exuding some unwholesome sadness despite its vapid grin. To say that I didn’t like it is a generous understatement. It did, and does, have an effect similar to that of turning over a rock. I’d really rather not see what’s there.
Fast forward many years. I’m in Juneau, Alaska, on the last leg of a delightful trip. And suddenly I’m surrounded by billikens. At the Alaska State Museum I rounded a corner and was confronted by a pinlit case of 59 of them, carved in ivory. There were billikens in every shop, and an entire shop devoted to nothing butbillikens. Supposedly they were a “mystical” figure native to Alaska, traditionally carved in ivory by “Eskimos” during ancient winters. But the billikens bore none of the traditional native designs and looked more like an evil twin of the Buddha, a twin who somehow escaped the notice of an entire history. And how did the strange little image wind up on the stationery of Jesuit academics 3,000 miles away?
Nobody knew anything about the origins of the creature. The staff at the museum didn’t know. The Tlingit teenager at the billiken shop was clueless, as were five other shopkeepers. So I dashed off to the Juneau library, where the librarians also didn’t know but were delighted to fire up two laptops and find out. (I love librarians!) Their research and later my more extensive efforts together reveal a strange story.
One night during the very early years of the 20th century a young St. Louis art teacher named Florence Pretz supposedly had a dream. (It may or may not be significant that the date of this dream falls securely within the spiritualism craze that would only fade away in the 1920’s, but the connection did occur to me.) Florence dreamed of the figure that would be named “billiken,” and upon awakening, drew it. (It is also similar to a pixie figure illustrating popular doggerel poems by a Canadian poet of the time.) She said, or billiken marketers later said she said, that the creature was, “The God of Things As They Ought to Be.”
Florence patented billiken in 1908, becoming the first to patent a god, and the thing became a national craze. Women gave each other little ceramic billikens for luck, men wore them as watch fobs. There were billiken teacups, jigsaw puzzles, buttons, coin banks and keychains. And in the middle of all this, a St.Louis merchant happened to travel to Nome, Alaska, where he contracted with a native carver named Angokwazhuk for a shipment of hand-carved ivory billikens. Eager for work, many native carvers jumped on the bandwagon, cranking out thousands of a figure with which they had no connection whatever. Thus was born the wholly erroneous story of billiken as an “Eskimo” deity, a story alive and well in the shops of Juneau to this minute!
At some point a St. Louis jokester pointed out that the Jesuit university’s coach, John Bender, looked like a billiken. Cartoons were penned, and the fond decision to name the school’s athletic teams “Billikens” was made.
Then around 1920 the billiken craze evaporated overnight. Popular billiken songs were forgotten and a million little statues and charms vanished into boxes of junk that would later be buried in landfills. Billiken was a symbol of the prodromal “pop therapy” spun from vague counter-Freudian ideas just taking root in the mass mind of the time. “Think positive and things will be as they should be.” Positive thinking is notoriously unreliable, and time obliterated billiken, leaving only a Midwestern university athletic department and a groundless Alaskan myth no one in Alaska can explain.
And one tourist with St. Louis roots wondering where that disturbing little image really came from.