Commentary: A trap or box of wisdom: Reaching into the unknown

Posted: Sunday, September 11, 2005

Ernestine HayesEdge of the Village

I was born and raised at the edge of the Indian village in Juneau, but when I was a teenager my mother and I moved to Northern California, where I lived for 25 years before coming back home. On my way back, I stayed in Ketchikan for two years. During my stay, I visited Saxman and for the first time saw their stunning collection of poles. Among them was a memorial pole depicting a young man with his arm caught by a giant clam.

This was before the commercial development of Saxman village, and there were no tour guides. But there were friendly residents willing to talk about the poles and their meaning. On a sunny day, lounging on the grass, surrounded by totem poles, listening to distant relatives laugh and tell stories, I learned about someone whose arm was caught by a giant clam, who lost his life, who was mourned and remembered and memorialized in story and in carved pole as a cautionary lesson to those who would reach into traps.

People say that when Tlingits first talked to white men, they were offered food and other enticements. It's said that when they first looked at the white man's rice, they thought that they were being offered maggots. When white men first gave them fermented wines and bottled rum, Tlingits must have thought it was a supernatural drink that made them see the world in a different and meaningful way. When Tlingits tasted their first spoonfuls of sugar, they must have thought it was much too sweet for their mouths.

Who knows what made that young man reach his arm into the clutches of a giant clam? Was it curiosity? Did he imagine hidden riches, secret prizes? Was it hunger? Did he suppose he could cut the giant shellfish and feed his family, perhaps the whole village for a week or a month? Was it greed?

No matter what the reason, clearly he didn't understand the danger. The risk was not simply from the threat of the shell closing around his impetuous arm, something he may have thought would at most cause a tender bruise and he could sooner or later escape. The greater risk was from the inexorable tide.

Often in our lives we reach for unfamiliar treasure. We are sometimes willing to risk our safety for imagined riches. For all of us, the mystery of an unknown prize is part of its appeal. Sometimes our daring is rewarded, and the maggots turn out to be delicious rice. But good fortune is seldom the case, and more often the alcoholic cup turns out to be an addictive poison that kills us and curses our children. More often the spoon of sugar turns into a diet that rots our teeth and gives us diabetes. More often being presented with a new language causes us to forget our own. More often attending a new church makes us forget the spirituality and world view of our own old ones. Too often when we learn someone else's history we forget our own. Too often we clamor for our corporations to mine and log our own beloved land so we can reach into new places and pull out empty trinkets.

Whether from curiosity, hunger, or greed, or because we had no choice, we have reached into the unknown. We are caught in the grip of a giant trap, and now the tide is upon us.

But it is not too late to free ourselves. We can take wisdom from the story of the man who was caught in a deathly grip and because of it lost his life. We can pause to consider the choices we make. We can be mindful of our own culture and our own land and our own history. We can reach not into a trap but into the box of wisdom. By remembering who we are, we can turn back the tide.

• 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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