(Alashka, Part 4)


Nathaniel Tarn and Janet Rodney


In that part of the mouth
where the dome reaches up
the tongue settles in silence,
breath blowing from far down
in soft gusts
that make the snow whirl.
There are strangers in our house,
come to look at our land
& take our picture.
They do not want to meet us
and they will not stay.


For a thousand years
before we came
they lived inside the storm
inside the cloud,
the mist, the rain,
hardly ever came out
until we gave them the sun:
not every now & then
as a great feast to be remembered.
to be counted with
the centuries --
but as a permanence
they could not stand.
And they said no
and became

Down came the storm again
like a hood over earth's head
and ever since then
this region belongs to rain,
raven caw,
eagle screech,
and there is nothing we can do
to change it back.


Let's open this our home,
the poem, where doors
    are alive
    and houseposts talk
& no property is allowed,
      to put it one way
      nothing is ours
      & to put it another,
      everything is:

having got here by following
markers in the forest
the rainworn story
in perishable wood
of a people's passage
thru wet country,
poles of family legend
and the trees, our guiding texts,
from the largest library,
the forest.

It was a question of whether
we should bring Dionysius
to the Pacific
with a new name
or whether
I'd simply watch you
      (or you me)
in a new setting:
    your form

the closest,
most known & most loved
as you perch on an offshore rock
      eyes moving
           fast as fish
darting in & out the waves
your headdress of entrails,
the sea lion on your upper arms
roaring at the moon
      as a bird flies
           out of your mouth
you knees, faces
      talking to the stars,
a frog
      covering your chest --
why not,
      if here also
I can choose a waterworn stone
heat it by fire
      while the tide's out

& give birth
to a slate-colored son.
Because these & all myths
are the very bones of poets
and our skulls are crusted
      with abalone
long before we are done.


"Not one of its former inhabitants was to be seen
excepting about fifty dogs
that were making a most dreadful howling."


What happened was
a glacier taking place
or a lagoon forming,
in either case,
canoes bobbing up
& down on tides
& shores along which
in winter many bears
in their sleeping holes
covered up so only
their ear-tips showed.
What happened was
summer grass
shoulder high,
an abundance of berries,
a town, its strand
(depending on one's attitude)
between the legs -- or jaws --
of two headlands,
at low tide women visit
the lower stretches of the lagoons
gathering cockles,
sea urchins & clams.


You trace
with your index
an almost perfect circle
is just as round as this.

Nothing to do but walk around
tho it's a long way
and risky.

That is your feeling,
of trudging around a bay,
of a shore curving
from birth to birth
it's just a feeling
but when you are young
you start out on this bay
& when the breeze from the old
(as opposed to young)
side starts blowing,
you begin to feel old
& act like babies.

And all the time
the land
helps you
find yourselves.


It happened
that sea otter took shelter
under cliffs in a storm,
families collected
hemlock in spring,
ducks stood
on top of the water,
shaking their wings.
It happens also
that a young man
runs his boat on the rocks
chasing his love
thru the dark
& a bear swimming,
at a girl's glance,
turns to stone.


Like the blues
poverty lurks
in you pockets
or under your armpits,
you tell your children
not to stand lazy
warming hands
in their pockets
or if there is no pocket,
under their arms
because poverty
lurking there
will suck their fingers,
they'll never
make any money.


Here are
rocky slopes
covered with alder
willow and flowerweed,
here are
water filled with floes,
seals stretched out on ice,
a man nearly fell
while hunting bear,
another set up huts
smokehouses, tents,
& hunted seal
while women flensed,
rendered the fat
& stretched the skins,
a third
brought in the seagull eggs
for omelettes.
Here camps were redolent
of seal oil
& the beach was white
with weathered bones.


She's a high class woman,
and this is a weight.

You want someone
to tell you a story
about a woman,
what you mean is
you want somebody
to teach you
the real life,
& everywhere you go
they start telling you
a story about a woman
so you get up
& walk by & on to
the next house
& the same thing
until finally a slave
tells you:
"Never sleep
when it's a stormy night,
just keep busy."

You stay and serve the slave
like he is your uncle
the slave becomes you -- uncle
and you his slave,
and in the real life
there's this story
about a woman.


One of your women married the Sun.


& here is where
ravens are overcome
by Russians fowling,
where the print of a body
in the sand
is like one would make in bed
where two old women
lying in wait for Texans
are turned to rocks,
where families misplace
the hunting grounds
of the first salmon,
where hemlock and spruce
& wild celery stalks
no longer run with sap
& herring spawn,
seaweed and urchins choke
in the foam at the shore's lips.
the hunters sailing
up and down the bay, poaching,
canoes overloaded with seal,
beaches are raised by earthquake
& waves beating the bluffs
wearing a coat of slick
wash down the gold-bearing sands.


Your boys do not sit
on rocks, your boys
are ready
to get up at any moment,
squatting n their heels.
To sit on rocks
makes slow and heavy hunters,
your boys spring up
like sapling
take a cold bath everyday,
even in winter
till they're stiff.
Your boys do not drink broth
from another man's kill,
nor do you
ever drink
too much of anything
because things
that flow to you
will also flow away
if you drink too much
of anything.


You set out over that glacier
with nothing to eat,
it's a long way to walk
with no food.

You think you see
a wolverine,
use it as a compass
you walk toward it
& as you get closer
the wolverine
becomes a little hill,
the closer you get
the more it becomes
a little island
coated with trees.

Come night you build a fire,
prepare for sleep hungry
but a wolverine
is drawn to the flames
& you kill --
its flesh you cut up
& pass around
like Jesus the loaves
so none will go hungry.

Next day you walk on
& see a little rabbit,
use it as a compass
you are walking towards it
& you get closer
the rabbit
becomes a mountaintop.

You come like Moses out of Egypt,
out of a fight/starvation/war
bringing your people with you,
taking a name from the land,
wherever you settle.


You come across a bird
the bird
doesn't want
to be killed
so in place of its life
it gives you its song
& you listen
until you have it
by heart.

You come across a beaver
the beaver
doesn't want
to be killed
so in place of its life
it gives you its song
& you listen
until you have it
by heart,
and so on
with all the animals
until you have them
all by heart,


Return of the Raven:
You think the ship
is a great bird
& take to the woods,
you spy on it
thru tubes
of rolled skunk cabbage leaf.
When the sails
are made fast
it is as if
the bird
has folded its wings.
You imagine a flock of crow
flies out from the rigging.


It keeps happening
just like that
you are so alone
but keep walking
on that glacier
& always see
a man coming
& get there
every time
he disappears.
You even dress up to meet him,
but every time
he's never there.

A bird
all the time
flies around you
pecks your face
wakes you up
& in yr. anger
you club the bird
knock it down
you are so restless
& cannot sleep & the bird
you knock down
is your sleep.

You walk along the beach
gazing at little rocks,
looking for something,
each time
all you see
is little rocks,
you give up hope
of ever seeing it
& look at the rocks,
waiting for sleep.

In your songs
lots of men
are coming toward you
& yr sleep
flies down,
encasing you
with its wings.


Time of sickness,
the deaths
are coming fast
you don't look
& when one dies,
just sits there,
mothers with babies
in their arms, so many,
when you burn them
the air is thick with smoke.

Charcoal along the ground
you poke
with spearhead of driftiron
burn them
& put the ashes
in a little house
on posts.

You go for light
& all you see
is eyes of dead bodies
shining like sparks
you kindle them on the beach
so they'll never
turn to ground.

All your family dies
only your uncle is left
& he nurses you
from his own breast,
he doesn't know
what on earth to do
so he gives you his breast,
and you are raised
on your uncle's breast.


You hear your father
singing in the waves
& one night
he marches in,
you're going to be lucky,
you're not going
to be broke, your father
is going to take
care of you. Tosses
a fish you can catch
& money flows toward you
like silver scales.

Your father sleeps
inside your dream,
the bad dreams
you kill
by talking them into
a jar in the morning.


When they bring your father in
lifeless from the sea
she takes his hand
lays it on her breast,
a silent wish,
Eighth times
around the pyre
then digs a path
& squats
for his spirit
to come in.

She was afraid
she'd lose you as a boy
that just at birth
you'd be a girl,
private parts
breaking open & stuff
running out
& people saying
"his place below
became female."
So she called upon his spirit
to enter her.

& yr. mother
called you her
little husband.


Your wife says to you:
the world was turning with our breath
& now the feather is still
that once moved
with that world.
You always get sorry about things
so I don't tell you
some pieces are rotting
from our house.

Already they have opened the door
& we stand outside
at the corner, our blankets thrown down,
waiting for them
to toss food to us
in the fire,
where the fire sparks
each time
we speak,
since they no longer
can hear us.


You hunt together,
you are great hunters,
your dog leads you
you follow
to see why
he's barking.
You see him
running on the snow,
keeps on barking,
you never catch up,
keep on going,
he keeps on
running and barking,
to that place
the other side of the sky,
where you come to the lightning,
when the tide is out
a body's length.


You've got
a big story
on that crow:
he's like Superman
or the Christchild,
born in moss,
not in furs.

The little lakes are
water dripping
from his mouth
the little drops
run out the sides
of his beak
he is the rock
his mother swallowed,
down there the sea
grinds its teeth in sorrow,
the surf dashing in
among the boulders,
a clam-spitting place
at low tide.

His stories
are like the Bible only
he's a bird
who made lakes
and people and told
the animals
where to go.
He thought of poor people
who can't afford furs
& wouldn't get born
until they bought him
some moss.


This is the way
it always starts:
it bothers you,
hiding inside
your body,
gives you
mostly troubles.
You get sick,
& get strong.
You are infected
with his spirit,
hiding inside.


It's the special time
of care, for days
you don't take food
or drink.
It's early morning,
Back home your wife,
stealing water
makes a big river
in the woods
across your path.
She's so thirsty
she can't help it
she spills some,
makes a big river.
But you don't
lose your power,
you get across,
you and your dog,
leaving tracks
in the snow.
It's wintertime,
river's frozen.


People rowing around
in space
in the air
over there
you see these boats
rowing towards you
thru the air.
You sit down
upon a log, don't know
what to do,
jump up,
start running
pretty soon
they're all around,
they put their paddles
back and forth
then pretty soon
the sun comes round
to that position
where the canoes
are coming in,
driving at your heart.


You die for four days,
your crying wife & kids
watch the body.
First day,
you make a noise
second day,
you make a noise
& in four days
you're back
from that place
on the shore
where you saw --
a big black boat
with sails and --
lots of people on it.


      Museums can be a source of great joy. They preserve and enhance objects as carriers of knowledge. They bring and keep together the great apparatus of scholarship. They favor the compilation of history.

      Museums are also prisons for objects. They legitimize robbery on an almost unimaginable scale.

      Let us work toward the end of this vast exile of matter. Bring back the heads, the hands, the torsos, the pictures, the manuscripts, the furnishings, the weapons, the pots and containers, the gifts and the tools to their original place of emergence. Then travel would once again be meaningful. One could go to a whole Egypt, a complete tally, an entire Northwest Coast.

      There might be an Alashka.

      Archaeologists could begin by explaining to the people among whom they dig what it is they are doing and why. We could build homes for the fruits of the ground on that selfsame ground, instead of hauling them away to foreign stores. Then, perhaps, the people would live alongside their own past and honor it instead of imitating us by selling it.



After months of stubble:
      green trees,
      everything vertical,
jagged now,
           the raven over all.

      I am a child
eighteen or so--
      no one has paid enough
attention to me as a child,
           least of all myself.
Trying to reach
      outside my fame,
some otherness:
well, my old teacher, the Great Jew,
raven of France,
      in love with such as these,
reading his Asdiwal:
           found rock at sea,
      hero in middle,
caught between earth and sky:
                and / well:
what should poor fellows as I do,
      but follow?

      Now I am here,
Alaskan Airlines pamphlet:
"How to look at Totems."
      "Village of Klukwan
      outpost of the Thlingeet
           Chilkat River
      some of the finest
           houseposts & housescreens
      in all Alaska."
Village about as silent as most
Street virtually deserted,
Middle of main street,
old lady being picked up into a car
just as we get there.
We had an introduction from a friend
(most beautiful American woman)
to her grandmother
(oldest American woman)
who makes the last Chilkat blankets
at the village of Klukwan.
Our stars are dead.

Just before Haines,
      roadside cemetery:
one tomb with a Thlineet bear.
      one with the star of David.
You could, Klukwan.
      with your Jewish names
in this Protestant idyll,
      convert to Judaism wholesale
and confound the neighbors!
      Do it for good, nichtwahr?
(I should write to the Chief:)

you could accommodate
those famous housescreens
and charge the wasp a mint
when he came by to see them!
stone faces of Klukwan,
dog in the mner Klukwan
with the big bone
you cannot use.
the big bone rotting
in its trough unseen
either by you,
or other men,
because the museums
all over th world
are full of Klukwan
and the chief
who took the Klukwan things
died mysteriously).

Dead new houses
without eyes,
fluorescent lighting
never turned on
and the streets,
the paralysis!
The synagogues of Poland,
also of wood,
exist only
in photographs now,
and you, Klukwan,
sitting on
the useless bone,
the wood rotting,
the masks leaking
out of their eyes,
drowning out
the legends . . .

You people
with the names of Jews
and the last secrets
of goat-hair property,
how just it is
that I should pay
for my fathers' sins
who paid for
the sins of theirs!
Right, Klukwan?
Do not the Jews refuse
to speak to the Germans
and do you not refuse
with your German Jewish fathers,
to speak with us/
--all white men of one face,
with stone eyes,
of whom no questions are asked,
to find out their kind,
with never the right shade of eyes,
whose eyes, if blue, shld. be brown,
whose eyes, if brown, shld. be blue,
ghosts, all ghosts
after the great destruction?"

I have dreamed of this place twenty-five years,
           so long
even my dreams are historical.
           The omens
have not been good: this block at Klukwan.
           We shall discuss it
all down the coast, get explanations,
how many whites came by to take out Klukwan,
how every day offers are made for Klukwan.
Down the coast they are making plans,
building museums for Klukwan and suchlike places
but Klukwan doesn't send its things to museums,
not make a museum for itself.
           Down the coast, the poles die also,
the great poles lie rotting in the forests
unvisited by anyone, except rats and beavers,
shown no kindness by anyone, no remembrance.

      When it could have been so beautiful, after all,
           the mumbling over,
      the invitation out that everyone should join the clan!
           But the suffering;
                too long.
           and that pride

                     The matter of Klukwan
      sticks like a fishbone in my throat.
           the anxiety . . .
                is terrible.

In plain language.


     What, if anything, have the Native artist and the non-Native artist to say to each other?

     First, there is a group of Native artists, now, in Alashka who are artists first and foremost, and secondarily "Native artists." They are asking many questions. They ask what is the relation to the Native traditions from which they arise and their tradition-bearers. They ask - being, often city folk now - what is their relation to the villagers in their home areas many of whom are working in "folk" or "pop" traditions, frequently degenerating into "airport" art. Do they have anything to do with the little ivory bears or the little wooden totem poles found in every gift-shop in the state? In another direction, they ask what is their relation to other artists: Native artists outside Alashka, in the rest of America, in the rest of the Third World -- eventually the body of universal art itself.

     But it may be too easy for a non-Native artist to describe things this way. He says: "Art is universal, give us yours, give yours to the world." The Native may feel he has given too much already. The museums of the world are full of Native art, much of which was stolen, not given. Are there Native museums full of Native art? Are there Native museums full of world art? Are there any museums of world art in Alashka? How many world artists are coming to Alashka to give and exchange? Few or none. Has Native ownership of Native art - most Alashkan people have had, and still have, strong senses of copyright - been respected? No. Not even by anthropologists, artists, writers. They take these things, put them in their museums, their houses, their books; they teach them, make careers out of them. Ourselves included. It is enough to induce despair in Native and non-Native artists alike. Our anger, and the determination to take back into Native hands the ownership and leadership of ALL Native art wherever it may be. In such senses, the non-Native artist, can only do one thing. Get out of the way. Self-destruct.

     It is also true that most artists, everywhere, have always been ripped off. What the Native and the non-native artists may have to say to each other is this. In many senses, we believe the same things. We are one race and this race is the oldest race of all, beyond "race," beyond "color," beyond "sex," beyond all such divisions. It has always been exploited everywhere, at all times. If we can look ton that, remember that, there is still time, on this one mother earth, to forget the crimes we have committed against each other as humans and hold to the love we might have for each other as artists, poets, singers.

     To give, to accept, to exchange, to share, to celebrate, to praise.



Copyright © 1979 by Janet Rodney and Nathaniel Tarn.
First published by Brillig Works, and now out of print.
This is the fourth imstalment of the complete work.

Return to "White Out," Part 3 of Alashka

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