Identity is precious enough to protect

Posted: Sunday, February 20, 2005

Ernestine HayesEdge of the Village

The matter that concerns me today is very sensitive. If any reader finds my words unmannerly, please forgive them. My good words are spoken for those who came before me and for those who stand with me now; my poor words are mine alone. It is not my intention to offend.

Those persons who came before us are not gone from us. They stand among us, and they walk beside us. Their spirits are associated with precious owned items we call at.oow. This is as I understand it.

In the old way, an item became at.oow through a meaningful process. The significance of the item was attached to an important event. That item became part of the dynamic history of the clan. It was brought out at special times to be acknowledged by invited guests. In this way, clan members and their opposites were edified and enriched, strengthened and encouraged, comforted and inspired. In this way, the spirits of those who went before us were present and embodied for a time in the at.oow that reminded us of our relation to this land and to one another. As I understand it, this is not a thing to be done lightly.

Within the highly complex Lingit culture, the clan is the property-owning entity. Similar to Euro-American law, the concept of property in the Lingit legal structure includes tangible and intangible possessions. Stories, songs, land use rights, objects, crests, and personal names are examples of clan wealth. At.oow is among the most precious. It contains the essence of the clan's identity. It represents who we now are, who we have been in the past, and who we will be in the future. It ties us to the generations, to the land, to our history, and to one another. This is as I understand it.

At.oow is brought out at ceremonies, especially memorial events, to remind us of the things we must know in order to survive. We gain comfort as we look at them and as we remember our loved ones who also once gazed on these objects. To view them replenishes our spirits. Once again we are close to our loved ones. Once again we are strong. Once again we are reminded of our place on this land and of our place among the generations.

A story is told of a man named Ishi who was said to be the last of his tribe. When his homeland was overrun, he and his family lived in hiding until the day that he crept into a town in California a century ago, hungry and alone. He made friends with his conquerors. He lived at a museum and traveled with scientists and scholars. Visitors came to gaze on him because they were curious and found him entertaining. The people who kept him grew to love him. They thirsted for more knowledge and they hungered for all that he knew. They wanted to feel wonder at a life so different from their own. The people who kept him respected his dignity and studied him only to increase their understanding. But even though they wanted to own every piece of knowledge about him, there were things of which Ishi would not speak. He never told them his true name.

Many people want to increase their knowledge of our culture. Others are curious and wish to be entertained. Some want to understand a different world. Visitors experience wonder as they gaze at the precious objects we exhibit. They feel respect as they touch at.oow we bring out to indulge them. When they leave, they remember us fondly. Perhaps they think they love us. Their knowledge has increased; their understanding has been enhanced. But we must not subject our loved ones to their delight. We must protect the dignity of our loved ones and not lightly bring out our at.oow.

This is as I understand it.

• Ernestine Hayes is assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast, and a member of the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan clan.

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