By Andrew Cremata
Long before the Klondike Gold Rush, the people that called the Upper Lynn Canal home understood that everything in nature possessed its own spiritual essence. A world alive with spirit creates a connection that transcends mere appreciation, even if defining the true nature of ‘spirit’ remains elusive.
In traditional Tlingit culture, shamans provided a link between humans and the natural world. Shamans undoubtedly possessed a keen understanding of the delicate interplay between microcosm and macrocosm. Indeed, the very nature of their belief provided them with a unique language designed to preserve balance and manifest desire. An animal imbibed with vitality and genius has a story to tell. The ability to hear its story and understand it would give the entire clan a distinct advantage for survival, especially living within a tremendously unforgiving landscape.
In other words, Tlingit shamans were keen observers with a peculiar knack for practicing thaumaturgy. They understood that life strives toward increasing complexity. Certain insects only thrive at certain times of year within a very specific environment in an event referred to as a ‘hatch.’ It takes a whole lot of insects to feed a few fish and a whole lot of fish to feed a few humans. Breaks within these natural cycles could spell disaster, and what better way to maintain organic equilibrium than to approach the natural world with sacred reverence?
The Tlingit’s spiritual relationship to the land is nowhere more identifiable than in the place names they bestowed upon significant geographical features. Not only do these names provide indigenous peoples an enduring relationship with the land, but they also embody acquired knowledge spanning generations. In this way, the very mountains and bodies of water that surround us express their own spirit.
The personal relationship with nature enjoyed by the Upper Lynn Canal’s traditional people was supplanted by the empirical analysis employed by imperial settlers. While it’s true that both the shaman and scientist use observation to craft a worldview, only the shaman claims the extraordinary ability to listen. What the scientist fails to realize is that an animal or mountain deprived of its spirit can no longer communicate.
There is no better way to erase identity than through the process of renaming. There is a local traditional story of a mythical woman who transformed herself into stone. Her name was Kanagoo. It is said that this woman causes strong channeled winds to blow within the fjord, which in turn makes the seas become rough. The name of these windswept seas? Sha-ka-Géi or, as we call it, Skagway.
William Moore tried to name it Mooresville because of course he did. I for one am glad he failed.
It seems likely that what we now call the Dewey Peaks possessed a traditional name, but it’s now a secret only the mountain could tell. We call them the Dewey Peaks because they were so named during the Klondike Gold Rush after Admiral George Dewey, who on May 1, 1898 earned a decisive victory over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay during the Spanish American War.
Unfortunately, the mountain never once was able to meet its namesake. Even worse, Admiral Dewey is a man barely remembered for his notable military exploits even though a mere century has passed. In another century, Dewey likely won’t even merit a Wikipedia entry.
Any lover of the outdoors inherently understands that open spaces, places, and the animals that inhabit them are all capable of expression. After spending many years hiking a certain trail or fishing along a narrow riverbank, a person gains a deep understanding of its very nature. Anyone discounting this wisdom as the product of mere observation has never heard the call of the wild (and it’s no coincidence that Jack London’s canine protagonist was animated with its own spirit).
The only way to summon nature’s ancient chaotic voices is to listen. After a while, they begin to coalesce into a harmonic rhythm that’s both balanced, loving, and unforgiving. Within that space is a voice that bestows the gift of belonging.
While the last Tlingit shaman walked upon this land almost a century ago, the voices they were trained to hear haven’t been entirely silenced.
Sometimes insects land on the surface of the lake and trout rise up from the bottom to feed. This is when fishing is easy. At other times, the lake is perfectly still and may even appear totally devoid of life. In quieter moments, after some time spent methodically casting and retrieving, a silent voice whispers a secret that feels like inspiration, and the mind inherently and instinctively knows that the next cast will result in a trout.
Sudden momentary and unexpected tuning into this primeval vibratory current is even better than catching the trout. Now imagine that the Tlingit shaman could use his gift of elemental tuning for acts of enchantment like bringing rain or bringing a healthy salmon run before the onset of winter. The empirical modern mind will disregard such claims but the indigenous people of our region survived for more than 10,000 years without upsetting the delicate equilibrium of their environment.
Will we be able to say the same when we reach the cultural ten-century mark, 9,878 years from now? How about in 50 years?
I recently read an article about how four out of the five Alaskan salmon species are getting smaller. Theories abound and two possible culprits include global warming and hatchery pink salmon, which are the sole Alaskan salmon species retaining their historic size. All of the theories had one common element — human consumption.
Everyone knows that major changes in our collective lifestyles are way past due. Even a young child knows what happens when an adult sits on the other end of the teeter-totter. Without balance, all systems will meet the same inevitable dire fate.
But enough of the doom and gloom. Considering the events of the past 14 months, I’m guessing everyone would appreciate a little enchantment in their lives.
While hiking and fishing around Skagway and Dyea, I’ve been trying to imagine what life was like in these valleys 1,000 years ago, 5,000 years ago, and 10,000 years ago. How stories and place names and families animated the world around them into a rich tapestry of interwoven threads traveling through space and time.
Sometimes, on calm, windless mornings when my mind wanders far enough into oblivion, I could swear I hear voices.