The spirit in sit

Posted: Sunday, July 14, 2002

Many, many years ago, when I began to get some notoriety as a writer, I asked Harvey Milton, a Tlingit elder, if he knew any stories about glaciers and their relationship with our people. His reply was that he wasn't going to tell me anything because I would write about it and get rich. I never pursued it after that.

Kadashan by Bertrand J. Adams Sr.

When the Hubbard Glacier blocked Russell Fiord in May 1986 the event attracted worldwide attention. Major media networks came to Yakutat to observe and report on the phenomenon; even people from Save The Whales coalition were concerned about animals that were trapped in the fjord. As liquefied ice doused off the surrounding glaciers it raised the fjord 12 to 18 inches a day. The fear was that it eventually would spill over the southern end of the fjord and flood into the Situk River, a world-class steelhead-producing river and mainstay for the local people for commercial and subsistence purposes. This, indeed, would have altered the make-up of the Situk River system and transformed it from a fresh-water-lake-fed river into a glacier river.

I remember attending a public meeting the media had with a group of elders; they were interested in finding out how the Natives related to the glacier. No one at that time shared any information. I'm not sure if they didn't know or if they weren't willing to share what they thought might be sacred stories or whether they knew anything at all.

A couple of days later Harvey invited me to his home. "If anyone is going to get rich from this story I am going to tell you it might as well be you," he said.

"A long time ago, maybe a thousand years ago, the glacier extended from Point Manby across to Ocean Cape. That's why you see those shallow shoals that goes across the bay, that's where the glacier ended.

"One time some Copper River people were crossing the glacier to trade with the Yakutat Tlingits. They brought the copper with them to trade. A dog fell into a deep crevice. It never come back. The people, they continue on with their journey and make it across the glacier to Monti Bay. They named it Yak-wa-dot, which means in their language a 'peaceful lagoon to park your canoes.'

"Very soon after that the glacier began to move back real fast. It took maybe three, four hundred years to get to where it is now. Now it move back and forth pretty fast. It always was that way since.

"It's the spirit in sit (glacier) that is causing it to move like that. It's restless, and the glacier will move like that until we have a potlatch for the spirit of that dog to send it to the spirit world of the Tlingits."

In October 1986 the dam broke and the glacier retreated. The trapped animals saved themselves and everything returned back to normal. The glacier continued to retreat and advance. Scientists predicted it eventually would close again and when it did it would be permanent. If the closing will be a permanent one like they think, it will take about two years for the fjord to rise enough to begin spilling into Situk and Mountain Lakes and turn the Situk River into a glacier river. Scientists have theorized that perhaps when the river begins to restore itself that it might improve to be even better than it is now. This may take up to five years, however.

If it takes that long the sports fishers can always go somewhere else to satisfy their quest for jocular adventure, but the people of Yakutat who depend on the resources from the Situk River system will, indeed, have to investigate other places to obtain their subsistence resources and earn their living from other means until the restoration and enhancement takes place.

Perhaps we need to look at this from a realistic sense and figure out a way in which to send that dog's spirit into the spirit world. I'm not sure, but it's something to think about.

Kadashan is the Tlingit name of Bertrand J. Adams Sr., who lives in Yakutat.

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