Remember who you are

Posted: Sunday, April 03, 2005

Ernestine HayesEdge of the Village

Summer is almost here, when Native art is offered for sale and Native dancing is presented for entertainment. It is time to remind ourselves of the meaning of the designs that grace our lives.

Eagles and ravens and brown bear and wolves are more than crests. They declare their own existence. The beings symbolized by these images are elements of essential value. A crest is more than a design to lay on a blanket or post; it traces the design that must be placed upon our lives. To typify the best traits of one's crest will bring honor to the clan.

The qualities of the crest animal are manifest in the person: My mother, Daisy Hayes, and my grandmother, Ruth Willard, gave me treats of raw hamburger rolled into bite-sized balls and sprinkled with salt. A nibble of raw bacon was a second treat often folded into my waiting open mouth. I was made to understand hierarchy; I never challenged my elders. My mother and grandmother considered loyalty and endurance and silence to be part of my wolf clan nature. To them, feeding me raw meat simply encouraged my natural temperament.

My grandmother taught me that I am Eagle, I am Wolf. Remember who you are, she always said. She reminded me that it was not by accident that the Bear came to be my cousin. When I wandered too near the forest for berries or to play, she was sure to tell me that I must speak to my cousin the bear. I must let him know that I am his relative and he is not to harm me. I must tell him who I am.

My earliest memories of my mother include her scowl. Even her widest smile hinted at a harsh unfading frown. Throughout my life, friends who met her were at first frightened by her fierce glare. In only a few minutes, her sharp humor and fearless generosity made friendly work of everyone she met, but she never treated strangers to her smile.

The lines between her brows etched deeply, even in death. I had never understood why my mother at first glance seemed so belligerent. Years after she died, I studied Lingit history and culture. In lectures and in texts, I found discussions of the clan crest and its importance in an individual's personality. Hidden in chapter notes at the back of a book, I found in explanations of clan-owned facial expressions a reference to the Kaagwaantaan scowl. For the Wolf clan, it is a thing of value.

When my grandchildren visit me, I tell them stories. I teach them to sing their own songs. I tell them the words my own grandmother said to me: The spiders are your friends. The wind is your grandfather. The bear is your cousin. Remember who you are.

Clan crests are striking, and they are far more than decoration. Native dances are memorable, and they are far more than entertainment. It is time again to remind ourselves of the meaning of these designs that grace our lives. As we work to recapture what was lost and to strengthen what remains, we must be sure to regain the substance as well as the form. We are fierce, or resourceful, or sociable, or clever, according to the nature of our crests. Our crests remind us who we are.

To be entertained and beguiled by the apparent beauty of Native art is part of the Alaskan experience. But let us not forget the complex culture that emerged from and reflects this complex land. While we admire designs and are entertained by dance, let us also be aware of the substance. We know the meaning of our existence. We remember who we are.

• 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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