My grandmother raised me during the years that my mother was a tuberculosis patient in public health hospitals in territorial Alaska. With lessons in song and story, Ruth Willard Hayes defined my world.
One lesson she taught was about my cousin, the brown bear. When I wandered too close to the edge of the forest picking berries into the coffee can she tied around my neck with a thin string, I was to talk to my unseen cousin. "Be kind to me, cousin," I was to say. "Don't harm me. I'm only here for my share. Have pity on me." When my cousin the brown bear realized we were relatives, my grandmother instructed, he would not harm me. Brown bear will not harm us once they know who we are, the old ones have always said.
During those years so long ago, talking to bears was something that only Natives did. Most non-Natives didn't believe in talking to bears. But nowadays, talking to a bear is the first thing naturalists tell us to do. Let them know who you are, forest rangers advise. When they know that you're human, bears will not harm you, the experts have now decided.
A long time ago, a young woman of a powerful clan was disrespectful to a glacier, causing the glacier to advance so rapidly that the people had time only to flee. Because the people of the Burnt House were also there, it is not inappropriate for me to refer to this event. That glacier rushed forward. It advanced very fast, the old ones have always said.
For many years, glaciologists taught that while glaciers sometimes retreat rapidly, they have never advanced with such speed. But a few years ago, the Le Conte Glacier near Petersburg decided to rush forward. Geologists were astounded. Scientists conducted studies. Glaciers advance rapidly after all, experts have now decided.
Tlingit are comprised of a number of social subdivisions, the first of which are Eagle and Raven. Anthropologists like to call these subgroups moieties, but my grandmother called them "sides." The Eagle side and the Raven side. The clans of one side have stories about coming to this part of the land under and over melting ice. Some of the old people used to say that when they arrived here in that manner, other people were present. One of the sides already was here to greet the other side. This history shows that our relationship with this land dates from time immemorial, the old ones have always said.
Not so, said scientists. This part of the world was covered with ice, and life could not have been present during that time. Then they explored the caves on Prince of Wales Island. In karst caves on and around that island, evidence of human occupation dating back thousands upon thousands of years was found, along with the remains of other animals. The remains of our animal relatives. Because of these revelations, scientists were forced to rewrite their theories. People had a relationship with this land even when most of it was covered with ice, experts have now decided.
I remember when the creeks around Juneau were thick with fish. I remember when every nearby stream was clear and clean. I remember when we respected our land and loved it. If you treat something poorly, it will not return, the old ones have always said. Respect everything, or it will not return. Give to the land, or it will not give back to you. But we dig into the earth for money to build roads. We clear-cut our trees for dividends to buy gadgets. We beat up our land for the sake of dollars. If we continue to abuse instead of cherish the things to which we are related, they will not return to us.
Even an expert can see that the old ones have been right all along.
Ernestine Hayes is assistant professor of English at the University of Alaska Southeast, and a member of the Wolf House of the Kaagwaantaan clan.