I once had a friend from Sitka who liked to tell the old story of a man who left Sheetka in his canoe and was gone for so long that he and his crew were presumed dead. Some years later, the man and his crew returned to Sheetka, carrying coconuts.
This story belongs to the powerful Kiksadi clan, ownership which must be acknowledged whenever reference is made to important intellectual property. This same story is told elsewhere; an especially splendid account is in the Dauenhauers' classic book "Haa Shuk, Our Ancestors," published by Sealaska Heritage Foundation and the University of Washington Press. In the Dauenhauers' account, originally told by A. P. Johnson, bamboo is brought back. In all accounts, the man is gone for such a long time that most of the people think him dead, and when he comes back, he brings signs of distant travel.
It is said that the man left two wives, one old and one young. For years, the old wife held to the hope that he would return. The young wife married again, for she was eager and she burned for other pleasures. But the old wife never stopped longing for her lost husband, and every day she walked down to the beach to look for him. She never forgot her love for him, and she continued to believe against all evidence that one day they would be together again.
Throughout history, countless situations have arisen that separated families. War, religion, adventure, famine, greed: there is no end to the happenstance that can result in separation, and in the subsequent belief that lost loved ones will return. In the hurried and impersonal society that has come upon us, we regularly hear news of vanished loved ones, of children and mothers gone without a trace. Alerts are issued, searches organized, rewards offered, signs posted. Faces of suffering relatives are broadcast as they plea for help, for compassion, for the return of their beloved. Now and then a child is returned to its parents, a wife to her husband, a mother to her children. Now and then, against all evidence, loved ones are united once again.
The land and the people that come from the land inhabit a special relationship. The land and the people who belong to the culture that emerged from that land have adored one another since time immemorial. They are relatives. They are like mother and child. They are like husband and wife. The people who still love the land are like an old wife who waits at the shore for the husband that everyone else thinks is dead.
Some of us forgot our loved one for a time. We were eager for other amusements. We burned for other pleasures. We no longer believed that we would one day be reunited with our land. But now we remember that we are not complete until we confess our love for the land and proclaim our belief that one day we will be together again.
Our reuniting cannot be accomplished with corporate holdings. The sharing of love between the land and her people will not be achieved by clearcutting and mining. Knowing our land is in the hands of profitseekers is like knowing our loved one is in a distant place. We are entertained by thoughts of bamboo and coconuts, but it is our loved one that we long for.
We have not forgotten our love for the land. Although now the land seems lost, we believe it will come back to us. Although it appears lost, we search for signs that our loved one will one day be restored.
We go down to the beach in different ways, but we all go down to the beach. We search the horizon for signs of our lost loved one, the land that we believe against all evidence will come back to us. We will never stop longing for our land.
Ernestine Hayes is assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast, and a member of the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan clan.