03 November 2010

Ch 9, Pt 1 of 5, "Nicolai's Raven Story of Creation"

Chapter 9, Pt 1 of 5:  Nicolai's Raven Story of Creation

The images on this page can be clicked
for a larger view

Lt Allen drawing of Taral

Lt. Henry Allen's 
drawing of a lodge in Taral.

The dominant structure at Taral was a long low log
cabin which was partly sunken into the ground. It contained a central
fire pit and resembled the more sophisticate Tlingit community houses.
The primitive, canvas-covered building had long served as a clan
gathering place. It occupied the same spot where similar structures had
stood since well before the earliest Russian incursions.

Several lesser primitive structures faced the larger one from across the
firepit without obstructing Nicolai’s commanding view of the river.
These were small log houses, canvass-covered pole structures, sezels,
pole caches, and smokehouses. Except for some of the log cabins, many of
these were temporary summer homes that had already begun to fall down.
Even the log cabins were leaning toward the central gathering area. One
of them no longer had a roof. Others had sod roofs or the remnants of
canvas covering. Nicolai was the only one living at Taral in the last
few years. The effect of all these empty buildings as it turned dark was
very ghostly. It looked like a place of the dead--a true spirit camp.

Weeds, tall grass, and scrub brush had moved up to the edges of these
lodgings. Wild rose was everywhere, as were birch sapling, alders and

Beyond the open grassy area the dark spruce defined the safe limits of
the old village. The ancient leaning structures lined one end of the
open grassy area without surrounding it. These were the homes where our
people lived when the Americans took over Russia’s interest in Alaska.

The fire roared upward, illuminated the clearing. The predators of the
night, if they were watching us, loomed in the dark line of trees just
beyond the farthest pole structures, just beyond the reach of the
protective flames of our fire. The predators feared not only the fire
but the deadly powers of the great chief himself, who resided
comfortably in this wild environment.

On this night in September of 1910 the ground had already started to
turn frosty. The air was clear and cold and the stars were just
beginning to appear. The skies were hinting of an early showing of the
Northern Lights--theyaa-kaas. To the south of us, the moon illuminated
the white-capped Spirit Mountain in a ghastly light, though the moon
itself could not yet been seen.

Taral took on a supernatural aura which would have been frightening were
it not for the reassuring presence of Nicolai. The three of us boys were
completely entranced by Shee-ya and the magic he wove. The aura only
enhanced the effect of his story.

Hanagita Ridge
Hanagita Ridge to
the east of Taral
.    --old USGS photo

We wore the robes which we had taken from the sezel. Michael and I, like
Nicolai, were only draped from our sez--rawhide belt--around our waists
on down, though I made sure that the much younger Charles was covered
since I did not want to have to answer later to Mom if the kid caught a
cold because of us. Michael and I were both determined not to cover
ourselves above our waists until Nicolai had done so. He was small, wiry
and well-built with a thick chest and muscles built up from many seasons
of hard work from years of hunting, fishing, and wood gathering. He was
just plain tough. No younger man had ever beaten Nicolai with fists, and
none ever would, though a few foolish ones had tried. Michael was
determined to be just as tough and capable of winning against all the
odds as was Nicolai. Michael admired the shee-ya to the point of
hero-worship. Michael as Cap would go on to do just that. Cap carried to
his own death the true spirit of Nicolai.

But it was getting cold out and we were both beginning to wonder just
how tough we would have to be just to sit with this man.  As it
turned out, he had been sitting in front of the flames in a trance. When
he finally looked up, he pulled his robe around himself. The two of us
were relieved to be able to quickly follow in covering our upper bodies.
The frost advanced toward us and the fire, and we were getting cold.
Nicolai smiled at us when he realized what he had inadvertently done. We
could relax. He was finally ready to speak.

Johnny and Michael, you came
here as boys, but you will leave as young men. It is good that you
brought young Charlie. You must learn early that it is better to work
together. The three of you are special--more than you know. It is time
for you to understand the way of your people. When we elders are gone,
you must take our places. The old ways of our ancestors will soon be
gone forever. You must know this and accept it, for I cannot change what
has happened, nor can you--no matter how much we may all wish this

Although Nicolai’s observations about the great change were undoubtedly
long-held conclusions, it was only now that he was finally saying the
words. I suspect that whenever he got together with the other elders,
such as old man Eskilida and Doc Billum, that this was probably the
topic which dominated their conversations. These elders had all come to
realize that they must find some new direction for their people, but
first the elders had to agree among themselves how they would do this.
It was left to them as to determine which path our people who lived
along the lower Copper River would follow. Whatever their final decision
would be, this would be in turn followed by the elders on up the river
all the way to Batzulnetas and Mentasta.

Chief Eskilida
  Chief Eskilida at his fishcamp, CRNW
MP 126  --Cordova Hst Society, 95-72-74

We needed the wisdom of the elders if we were to survive in the new
world which was arriving as the railroad approached Chitina. Because
Nicolai was the traditional chief of the lower-river Ahtna, the other
elders relied on him to begin this process Nicolai wanted the elders to
retain their esteemed, if unofficial positions, as heads of their
respective families and clans, because respect for the elders was a key
to our survival as Ahtnas.

They were needed more than ever as each one held gatherings so all could
discuss how to live within the new world which had arrived at our
doorstep uninvited as though we did not even exist.

Nicolai had only a few grandsons. I was the oldest, followed by Michael
by only a few months. I was half-white, whereas Michael was of
full-blood. Sometimes I suspect that Nicolai viewed me as a kind of
bridge for our people into the new world. He would always make time for
me, though he never had as much to say as he did on this particular
night, I know that he wanted very much for all of us to continue what
Native traditions we could into the new world.

As a half-white I had spent much of my youth fighting both whites and
Indians. Sometimes I thought I was accepted more by the whites than by
some of my own fellow Ahtna people. It wounded me greatly, but my heart
and my ultimate loyalty has always without question been with my Indian
family and my clan. It was a conflict I have had to deal with all my
life--a problem and a hurt which would never be resolved.

Nicolai was particularly pleased that Michael and I were so close. From
age six when I was moved back to Chittyna village to live in the
Goodlataw household, we found that we had much in common, most
especially our ability to fight well together. No one but a fool would
take us both on. We learned to enjoy a good fight--even with the odds
stacked against us because we became such skilled fighters. Later on,
because of his unique fighting skills, Michael as Cap nearly joined the
Golden Gloves competition.

But we were not bullies. We protected the weak from those who truly were
the bullies. We even found ourselves protecting a hapless white kid from
being pummeled to death by some of our own. We only defended the honor
of our ancestry that we knew was rightfully ours.

Shee’ya saw beyond our sometimes foolish pugilism to the need we would
both have to survive in this tough world with the help of the strong
lifelong friendship which existed between us. This was the meaning of
sla’cheen. He was fond of pointing us out to others as the best example
of how much stronger we as a people could be if we only stuck together.
He was right. Michael and I would prove that many times over the years.

No comments: