Chapter 6, Pt 2: Nicolai's Anger
|"Watching the White Man work" -- National Park Service--WRST-- Collection|
He could see the narrow boat approaching Eskilida’s camp just down river. The distinctive outline of Doc Billum wearing his top hat was unmistakable. Four other men on board actually operated the paddles of the primitive craft. After he checked the camp for fish, he would sometimes, but not always, head across the wide channel toward Taral. In the last few visits the Doc’s boat had skipped the lower camp. He must have known that no one was there.
When Nicolai realized that the Doc was looking his way, he jumped up and waved. He knew Doc would see him. As the boat approached the grassy promontory Nicolai noticed that the men operating it were young--probably sons and nephews of the Doc. All appeared to be teenagers.
It’s good to see that some of our men are out there helping us. At least the Doc has help. Wish I could say the same. Even my own son has gone off somewhere.
The narrow craft finally beached. The Doc stepped off first and headed immediately to Nicolai to greet him. The others waited near the boat for instructions from their leader. Doc brought the news which Nicolai feared.
“The white men have found that they can get what they want with their alcohol. Our men have fallen prey to this curse, as have some of our women. The whites seek gold, pelts and scarce game and fish. But mostly it is gold. Some have even asked our men to lead them to the tsedi.”
“Is there anyone across the river?”
“No one at Eskilida’s camp, not even your brother or any of his sons or your sons. They have all left for something they call a party upriver. It is like our potlatches in that there is much singing and dancing, but it is also unlike our ceremony, because there is not much food. The men swear at each other, fight and try to show how smart they are while acting stupid.”
Nicolai did not want to hear this. He sat back down on the drift log. Billum sat next to him on the log and signaled the others to approach.
“No wonder the white men are calling us siwash. We give them good reason to laugh at us and take advantage while pretending to be our friends.”
“I have to get some of them back, skell’eh.”
Doc Billum shook his head sullenly as he noted Nicolai’s deep concern.
“I will take you upriver. You may regret it. Do you have any fish here?
None were left at Eskilida’s. We spotted fish at Tonslahti, but my sons are hungry now.
We will pick up some of the fish on the way upriver.”
“Udzisyu, bring the men some thloo ka," he shouted.
Billum turned around. Surprisingly, the older woman who was quite some distance away, heard him. She waved at him and then shouted some words to two of the children. Billum could not hear her though the sounds of the river and the winds, but he was impressed to watch as two young girls each removed several dried fish from the poles and brought them to the six men at the river bank.
“Udzisyu has always been there for me. She runs this camp by herself. Sometimes I don’t feel needed here anymore. I should have gone out hunting instead of waiting, but I really believed they needed me here.”
Nicolai smiled as he told this to Billum. The oldest girl went first to Nicolai to offer him the piece of salmon of his choosing. He declined and pointed to Doc Billum. The Doc accepted one piece of fish which one of the girls cut into pieces. The younger girl went to the four young men and passed the other pieces to them. They devoured the dry fish hungrily.
Udzisyu followed the two girls with a large kettle that had come up the Copper River many seasons before. She was a heavy, but pleasant-looking woman who appeared to be older than Nicolai. Her eyes revealed that she was wholly dedicated to the man. She went about her work silently and with a very slight smile. She stirred up the coals of the fire which was at the feet of Nicolai at the base of the drift log and began to heat up the water for tea. Nicolai asked her to leave the pot with the tea. She sent the children away for the cups, then returned to her work. When the two children left, Nicolai continued.
“I have seen no one for days. My last hunting party was all very young men, much like your boat crew. They may not have gone where I sent them. The women and children here can tend to themselves. They have enough fish for a while.
“My women are skilled at defending themselves. I have seen to that. We need to leave now and find the rest of my men. I had hoped they would be hunting. Even if I go out on my own to provide for my family, I can’t hunt for everyone. Winter is coming too soon and the game has left for the distant hills.”
The Doc had come with the four men because he needed them if he was to work his boat back upriver. The Copper was fast-moving and unforgiving. The long, narrow craft followed an upstream course which headed toward the northwest to avoid the extreme undercurrents where the Chitina River met the Copper just upriver from Taral. A water witch at the confluence of these two great rivers had taken the lives of many unsuspecting boaters who failed to appreciate the deadly hazards of this part of the river. All of the victims had been white prospectors and trappers.
Once Billum’s boat was safely out of reach of these life-threatening, madly swirling waters, the Doc pointed the vessel back to the eastern shore. The first stop would be the camp of Tonslahti, which was on the lower bank of the Kotsina River.
In a few years, the railroad would come through this area. The surveyors would choose the narrowest point just down river from the confluence with the Copper as the best place for the trestle crossing. This relatively narrow choke point was the only logical location for a railroad bridge, especially if it was to be a wooden trestle.
It was also one of the best places to dip net for salmon. The Natives dipped out the thloo ka by means of grass or spruce root nets. With the coming of the railroad the primitive dip nets would be replaced by the highly-efficient Columbia River fish wheels.
Tonslahti was in the best position to take advantage of the salmon runs through the area because it was just upstream from the narrow point, channeling the salmon. At least one family was always at Tonslahti to tend to the fishing and the smoking of the thloo ka. Today the camp was deserted. Some salmon still hung on racks over an untended and nearly dead fire as though whoever had been there had left in a hurry.
Nicolai’s anger was beginning to build again. This was a particularly bad time to waste any food--waste he could see with his own eyes. He directed the young men to take most the thloo ka aboard the boat. After a brief rest and a supper of fish and rice, which Doc Billum had obtained from the trading post at Lower Tonsina, the small party resumed their arduous journey, working their boat up the Copper River.
The boat party was heading toward Billum’s traditional grounds at Tonsina, where he provided a ferrying service for the white people who had built a trading post and a temporary town at the river confluence.
The western bank between the Kotsina and the Tonsina Rivers rises steeply into high, rugged, treeless mountains which mark the northern-most point of the Chugach Range. Sections of the bank are tree-covered all the way down to the river. The rest of the bank consists of stretches of tall cliffs which are loose and sandy, and which extend hundreds of feet upwards until meeting the rocky base of the mountains.
The eastern bank consists of a series of sandy bluffs which are not quite as tall and are more regular in height. Along the top of the abrupt rim was the traditional route which had begun to fall out of use. At the top of the bluffs is a relatively flat, large plateau which is choked with brush and punctuated with mud volcanoes. The plateau is steeply cut by fast moving glacial streams originating from the glaciers beyond the foothills which mark the end of the plateau and the beginning of Uk’eledi. The long smooth mound which is the active volcano is enormous, lying under a deep blanket of bright white snow which can blind the eyes from a great distance on a sunny day. It cannot be seen from the Copper, which lies between the steep bluffs that run very close to each bank in this section of the river. Uk’eledi last erupted thirteen years before just as the Lieutenant Allen party was leaving the valley after having confirmed the existence of the tsedi which would ultimately bring in the powerful big business interests of the east coast. Soon Uk’eledi would blow again. Significantly enough, this time it would mark the discovery of the Bonanza copper outcropping. Some would argue that it would also signify the end of the old Ahtna way of life. At this moment, though, all was peaceful.
The Copper River spreads out below the steep sandy bluffs into many braided channels. The multitude of low-lying islands are heavy in the growth of brush and small trees. Drift logs are everywhere, usually caught up in the sandy banks of braided river terrain. The islands provide many excellent camping opportunities, but one must be constantly aware that the Copper River can rise very quickly and flood these islands. The journey of several miles had been strenuous because of the swiftness of the river. Nicolai and Doc Billum helped the young men paddle. All were relieved to finally turn the boat away from the main channel of the Copper River and into one of the larger channels of the Tonsina.
Upon pulling into the landing, the Doc began to feel greatly embarrassed. He had brought Nicolai to his own camp where, as was now quite loudly apparent, the party was well underway. The moment the boat entered the Tonsina River channel the men could hear the drum beats. Nicolai stepped off the boat first. Billum followed him. The younger ones stayed with the craft. In the advancing shadows of the northern Chugach Range, Nicolai spotted several new log cabins he had never before seen.
The noise of drum beating grew louder as the two men walked up the path. Soon they could hear the loud singing of several drunken people. With the sun dipping below the tall Chugach ridge just beyond Billum’s landing, it had become chilly, but a brightly burning fire was just ahead. A large number of men and several women, both white and Native, were dancing and singing to songs which Nicolai had never heard.
Must be white man music. Skell’eh was right. I should not have come. I can do nothing here.These men will not listen to me or anyone else. They follow a different leader now.
It is the c’uniis--the demon in the form of the utaeni.
Utaeni c’uniis--the demon whiskey. That is the new enemy.
He was angry in the same manner that the Bible has sometimes described its prophets of old--the ones who come across their followers engaged in some kind of despicable act forbidden by God.
Nicolai kept his thoughts to himself as he walked among the people scattered around the roaring fire. All of them were drinking, already drunk, or passed out. Even the last hunting party of young men he had sent out was here. Every one of those men was passed out and unaware of Nicolai’s presence. Most everyone else he had wondered about, both the young and the old, were there. Even one of his own daughters, who had taken up with a white man at Copper Center was there. Helen was drinking with the the others. Nicolai would not speak to her at all. Several other Indian women were there, many in the arms of the scraggly-looking white men, much to the disgust of Nicolai. The women acted in the same obnoxious and disrespectful manner as the men. No one attempted to stand up in deference to the chief, though several of them showed surprise and embarrassment and turned away as if to hide.
Nicolai was obviously not the chief there. The Utaeni c’uniis was the only chief.
A white man stood up unsteadily and headed toward Nicolai with a bottle of whiskey. Nicolai turned toward Doc Billum, who stood in the distance, between Nicolai and the boat. The young crew of four remained with the boat, thankfully choosing not to join in the party. Nothing good could be accomplished there. A moment’s glance had told the whole story. If Nicolai wanted to keep his boat crew, he knew he had to leave now. Not waiting for the white man to reach him with that bottle, Nicolai headed briskly back to the boat.
“Father! You’ve come. This is no place to be. I’m returning with you!”
It was his son Goodlataw.
“See-ya, I did not see you. You’re joining us?”
“You came for help, sta’. We will have more hunters soon. They will become weary of this, but I am returning with you now.”
Nicolai embraced his son. One returning with him was infinitely better than no one. All the better that it was his own son. Already Nicolai felt better, even though the victory was very small. Maybe it was not. It was his son. The tyone had much to contemplate. Winter with its possible starvation was now on the horizon. It was unavoidable.
The Doc, not forgetting the initial purpose of his trip, began throwing off the smoked salmon the men had taken from Tonslahti. His crew helped, keeping only enough for themselves for two or three days. If the men and women were going to be drunk and make fools of themselves among the whites, at least they would not starve. Nicolai and his party had seen to that.
“Tonslahti. We will stay there tonight. ”
“That’s good. We left enough thloo ka behind for our people will eat and be satisfied.”
“We need to net more thloo ka. If there is still a run going past Tonslahti, we had better stay there to take as many as we can. Food is running short.”
The Doc agreed, and the crew was underway. They took the east channel, choosing to stay as far away from the white man side as possible on the way down river. No one had directed the course. The young men themselves chose the river route back downstream. The late afternoon shadows had not yet reached the far bank, enabling the boat to return within the warm rays of the fleeting sun. The cold shadows began to overtake Tonslahti as the boat approached the landing.
Nicolai did not want to return to Taral. He needed to be alone with his son and his small crew to contemplate the very situation he had tried to avoid. The need to catch the salmon was just an excuse. But it was a very practical one.
“In a few days, the party will be over. I will return then, unless you need me here longer,” Doc Billum volunteered to Nicolai.
“You can leave me and my son at the Kotsina after tonight if you wish, Skell eh. I need to be alone for a few days. We will take the boat left at Tonslahti to return to Taral. At least now I have my son to help.”
The cold of the shadows moved quickly to replace the rays of the warm sun as the party pulled in to shore. A small pile of dry firewood had been stacked up near the fire pit. The young men wasted no time building up a much welcomed fire on what was becoming a very cold night. Winter was close by, but there was almost no winter food cache for Taral or anywhere else. The chief no longer felt like a chief. For nearly thirteen years he had dominated the lower part of the country. All the other chiefs had always consulted him on important matters. Those days were over. The respect he had worked so hard to gain and hold had been lost in a mere instant with the advent of white men and their alcohol.
Nicolai, though not really that old, felt ancient tonight. He saw himself as very much a part of the past. He had become a relic even before he was an old man. Never again would there be a true chief, much less a tyone. Nicolai was destined to be the last tyone of his people, except he had already become a tyone more in name than in fact. His people were lost. Nicolai was lost. He felt very alone tonight and knew he would need time alone to ponder the problem. His immediate concern was the matter of having enough food to survive the winter. The problem with the alcohol was more serious, but he would have to try to deal with that later, if at all.
“Skell’eh, have the men gather up wood, heat up some lava stones and find a water container for a sezel. It will help me think.”
“I will help them, Father.”
“The men feel very badly, Nicolai. As do I. We will join you in the sezel. You need us to be with you.”
Nicolai was quiet for a moment as he considered Doc Billum’s words. “Can I have silence in the sezel?”
“Yes, Nicolai. Everyone knows you don’t like talk in the sezel. The young men will be quiet. We are with you, Nicolai. You will always be our tyone. It matters little what the others say or do. We believe in the old ways.”
Nicolai had thought at first that he needed to be alone, but found himself grateful to have the sympathetic company. The youngest man would tend to the water and the others to the fire and rocks. All would sit in the hot sezel in complete silence, joining Nicolai so he would have the spiritual and moral support the men realized he needed.
It occurred to Nicolai that the scene he had witnessed at Tonsina must have been going on since late spring when the first whites arrived. He held no particular hatred for them, but they had introduced a new host of problems when Nicolai’s people already had enough just trying to survive.
No one ever became prosperous in this valley, unlike their Tlingit cousins who had the benefit of a much milder coastal climate in which to prosper. Life was harsh and unpredictable along the Copper River. The only good thing out of all this was that the trade had come to the Indians. They no longer had to work their way down the Copper River when it was iced over in March to bring native copper and pelts to Alaganik to trade for other goods. Everything was so much easier to obtain.
Regrettably, this included the alcohol.
No one had confided with him about all these strange and wild parties of the white man--not even Billum, whom Nicolai trusted so highly. The thought occurred to Nicolai that even the Doc had held back from him this knowledge of what was happening to his people. That was not good. Even though he had grown to suspect the worst, the tyone had been taken by surprise. This was at a time when everyone would be needed to participate in the hunting and fishing as winter approached. Nicolai once again found himself sitting on a drift log facing the smooth-flowing river. The wind had ceased, but it was cold. His son had built a small fire at his feet and the son sat beside him, tending the fire and heating water for tea, but saying nothing. Nicolai turned around to look back at the Doc and his crew. Billum was idly stirring a stick in another fire his own sons had built, looking at nothing in particular. Doc knew that the tyone knew. That long-standing relationship of friendship and trust had been violated.
No matter now. Such things were secondary to survival. It was upon Nicolai, as usual, to try to provide for his people. Yet he would never look at Doc Billum, or his men, or even his own daughter in the same way. He was not even sure about his son. At least Goodlataw had chosen to return with him without any prodding. Nicolai never saw Goodlataw until his son approached him at the landing, asking to leave with him.
He was sure that in some way they had all abused his trust. Worse, all had dishonored tradition, bypassing the long-standing authority of a tyone whose authority was based on the confidence of the people who had granted him his power, which sometimes meant the difference between life and death, thirteen years before.
He had earned his position the hard way, as had all the old-time chiefs, by proving that he was better suited than anyone else to protect and provide for his people. He was still protecting and providing for them, but now only reluctantly because he could see no else to take his place. Not even his son could do that. The tyone was extremely agitated.
Forget the minor violation of friendships, confidences and trusts which had been built up over these years. Nicolai began to look more critically at himself.
|Where was I while all this was happening? |
I should have known. Maybe I did, but just did not want to admit it to myself.
Maybe I am too proud of being supreme chief to admit that if I look around me, I no longer really am. I should have known. I should have. I should have done something. Acted. Tried to gather my people back from this new illness, this madness which has infected our valley.
But even if I had acted earlier, would they listen? Would it have mattered? What could I have done before now? Why did I fail to act? I should have known. I probably did know. Yes, I knew something was wrong. But I have never before had to follow my people to make sure they did the right thing. Either it is done or it is not.
I am not my peoples’ parent. But I feel like a parent tonight, like I am already burying my sons and my daughters. What am I to do? What am I to do now?
The chief caught himself. He was engaging in useless self-doubt. He was still needed by his people. Maybe now more than ever. His role as tyone was not yet over. Not just yet. He turned his thoughts to his beloved Denyii Tsedi Na where he had grown up. He needed to bring a sense of peace to himself. The Tsedi Na, land of the mountain sheep and goats, where one could look, seemingly forever upon the distant world from dizzying heights which few Indians or whites had ever experienced was the place which would bring him his peace. Tomorrow he would begin to craft a plan.
“Nicolai, get up! The sezel is ready and it is cold out here! The young men will not enter until you have taken your place inside. Nor will I,” Billum shouted.
“Nor will I, father.”
Nicolai looked into the eyes of his son gratefully.