Ernestine HayesEdge of the Village
The method by which we count a year's progression is among the many adaptations necessitated by EuroAmerican contact. Because we follow a calendar adopted in the 1500s by papal decree, we mark a new year in the middle of winter. But anyone can see that here in Lingit Aani, the year begins when the salmon come back. Even the Raven pole on the university campus, standing alone in the quiet summer, notices that everything has come alive now that the salmon have returned.
Most ancient holidays mark recurring natural events such as full moons and the summer solstice. Many modern holidays, although now made rigid by arbitrary numbers, follow that pattern: we celebrate a feast holiday at the end of harvest, a renewal holiday at the beginning of spring, and a scary holiday at the approach of long dark nights. Here in what is now Southeast Alaska, the most important natural event is the return of the salmon. We thank and release the first salmon, asking it to swim away and tell its brothers and sisters that it was treated well so they will not be reluctant to come back to the rivers and streams where we wait and watch and where Raven watches and waits for his relative, the Eagle.
The original people of this part of the world, the Lingit, developed a matrilineal society with a richness of culture rivaled only by the richness of this land. The Eagle and Raven occupy a reciprocal relationship and sustain a fundamental balance. Traditionally, an Eagle marries a Raven. When Raven ears are pierced, an Eagle takes up the ceremonial needle. When an Eagle wants a new pole or screen or bentwood box, a Raven is commissioned to choose the wood, to make the design, to cut the cedar. And when a Raven dies, it is an Eagle who acts as pall bearer, who sees to the business of death, who comforts Raven relatives in their grief, who wipes away Raven tears from beloved Raven faces. Each clan and house and individual has an opposite maintaining the essential unity and reflecting the balance that is seen upon the land. When that balance is disturbed - or when it is left unfulfilled - harmony is made difficult. When balance remains unfulfilled, unity will not be achieved. We cannot be made one until we are made whole. The Raven and the Eagle attest to this natural truth. The Raven pole, standing alone on the university campus, knows this truth.
Many agree that the concept of balance is central to a human way of looking at the world. Certainly it is basic to most indigenous worldviews. The essential balance manifested in an indigenous worldview reflects the balance manifested in a healthy world. The reciprocal relationship between people and the land is echoed by their relationship to one another. We become aware that a new cycle has begun when the salmon, upon which our livelihood, our health, and our identity rest, shows its willingness to return, and we are reassured that balance endures.
An elegant Raven pole dignifies the UAS campus, standing alone in the quiet summer, noticing that everything has come alive now that the salmon have returned. But the Raven pole will remain incomplete until it is balanced by the presence of an Eagle pole. Until that time, it remains unfulfilled. In order to promote the balance and proportion so needed at the university, the next major campus art project must be an Eagle pole. Then the Eagle and the Raven will see not only the return of the salmon and the beginning of a new annual cycle upon the face of Lingit Aani, but together they will witness the commitment to balance that the university has pledged to all Alaskans. Then it will truly be the beginning of a new cycle.
Ernestine Hayes is assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast, and a member of the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan clan.