49 Writers World Tour of Southeast Alaska with Sherry Simpson
September 21, 2014
A Deep Hunger for Dryfish
May 1, 2013
In the part of the world that is Lingit Aani – Southeast Alaska – the histories and the futures of the people and the salmon are woven together.
The original people of this part of the world count their histories by the movement of the glaciers. Along with the movement of the glaciers comes the movement of the salmon. Along with the salmon come the seasons and the tides. In, out. Back, forth. Leave, return. Leave. Return.
After the end of summer, after the summer’s rush, when everything has been gathered and stored and collected against the coming winter, all anyone can do is wait. Count the firewood, ponder the weather, await the coming night.
When people become still, they hear the life-filled forest and the life-filled ocean preparing themselves for the coming cold. Enough of summer’s romance: hemlock and spruce now tuck their hands to their bellies. Clouds now mask the moon. Berry bushes, no longer charming, spend their attention on turning their last few fruits into seeds. Even the mosses cease their creeping.
All these living things know they will lose ground, vigor, life, before the time comes to press forward again. In the meantime, they can only wait.
Some generations ago, there came a white tide that threatened the people who are original to this part of the world. The places where they live and move were mistreated, damaged, destroyed, and taken from them. The people themselves were harmed, their numbers weakened, their health reduced. They were displaced, their belongings diminished. They were forced to abandon their original homes. Where once they were rich and powerful, in only a generation or two most of their power and wealth were made no more than memories.
With the growing white tide, true history became difficult to keep. Language and style and fashion and fishing grounds and smokehouse sites and clan property and family keepsakes and at.oow and indeed the very spirits with which the coming generations had always been entrusted and called upon to provide for and nurture and keep warm and protect were all but forgotten.
The original people were told they must speak the new language. They were told they must wear the new clothes. They were told they must gather from the ocean for profit and not for balance, and they must look upon fish as things and not as salmon-people. They were told they must join the white tide. They were told they must obtain the new form of education and they must teach themselves this new way of thinking. They were told they must associate being successful and being educated and being modern with the new white tide. They were told that they owed it to their futures to turn away from the teachings of the past.
And thus it came about that winter fell upon the people and collapsed the many generations.
After some years, the original people became weakened and sickened and were almost overwhelmed, whereupon great interest was born in the hearts of those who had come with the white tide. The very idea of original people stirred curiosity and even dedication in the hearts of the white tide people. The white tide people pledged to devote their lives to saving what was left, and they pledged to recreate what they felt could not be saved.
The white tide people began to study everything about the original people. They became authorities on everything about the original people. They spoke of the original people, and they spoke about the original people, and they spoke for the original people. They wrote books about the original people and awarded themselves degrees on the study of the original people. They sat on panels and lectured in halls. The white tide people taught the original people about themselves and revered the very idea of original people.
In the middle of these generations, throughout the passing years, there were those of the original people who harbored the constant hope that their lives and their deaths would provide sustenance and strength to coming generations in the same ways that their salmon relatives provided sustenance and strength to their generations.
The seasons turned and turned again, and the original people harbored a constant, deep hunger every time the wind whispered hints of approaching dark. In every darkest season, the original people continued to raise their voices to call out for dryfish, and they treasured the seaweed and berries and all the riches stored alongside the fragrant dryfish that sustained them until the spring arrived. And more importantly, they treasured the riches that were carried to each winter’s celebrations so that everyone would be made aware that their wealth and their generosity and their generations were imperishable.
Some generations ago, the salmon of this part of the world with whom the original people identify and upon which so much of their wealth once relied were so great in number that they thickened the streams. But the places where the salmon once lived and moved have been damaged, destroyed, taken. The salmon of this part of the world have been harmed, their numbers have been weakened, their health has been reduced.
Now the white tide people study the salmon and bemoan the loss. They speak of the salmon, and they speak about the salmon, and they speak for the salmon. They write books about the salmon and award themselves degrees in the study of salmon. They sit on panels and lecture in halls. The white tide people revere the very idea of what salmon once were, and they have pledged to save what is left.
In this part of the world, the history of the original people and the history of the salmon are woven together.
Even when summers are finished, all people in this part of the world know they must remain vigilant. All people know that our relatives the bears and the wolves are eager to add one more layer to their stored fat, preparing for the coming cold just as they must do.
Shallow borders that invite sunlight along the shore soon have scant purpose. Open spaces soon reveal only grey shadows, and then for only the briefest portion of the day. The inviting smells of the wet forest are soon covered with the blanket of snow that keeps everything safe and fresh and alive until the time comes for rebirth.
As winter approaches, it is time for all the people in this part of the world to build up more nourishment than at first would seem to be needed. As winter approaches, it is time to collect and dry or smoke or jar the last of the fish from the waters and to preserve the berries and roots and greens from the generous land.
And now, the original people of this part of the world have declared that they will become healthy. They have determined that they will regain their own language, they will educate their own children, they will lift up their own scholars. They have offered to share their ways of knowing, and the white tide people have now resolved that they will listen and all will go forward in the same season.
In this part of the world, the futures of all the people and all the salmon are woven together. (Published as "Seasons" in the Salmon Project by Alaska Dispatch, February2014.