An Aleut and an Ahtna Oral Narrative from Alaska
(collected by Dr. John Smelcer)
John Smelcer is a member of the Ahtna tribe of Alaska, and one of the last speakers of his native language. He has compiled a dictionary in the tradition of salvage enthnography. His astonishingly varied career has included academics, activism and advocacy, and among his numerous publications he counts poetry, fiction and essay as well as documentary and analytic scholarship. He currently teaches at Truman State University, where he is active in the folklore program. He has graciously consented for these two field-collected tales to be published by the Missouri Folklore Society.
The First Seals: An Aleut Origin Myth
I collected this story in 1987 while interviewing Aleut elders who had been interned by the U. S. government during WWII for fear of a full-scale Japanese invasion of Alaska’s remote Aleutian Islands. U. S. Senator Ted Stevens, the longest-serving republican senator in American history, had asked me to interview Aleut elders to include their personal narratives in the Aleut Restitution Act (1988). In some variations the brother and sister become sea otters instead. I had heard similar versions in Eskimo. In some versions it is a female helper who searches the village for the perpetrator, not the young victim herself. In some versions the girl rips his parka so as to recognize him. In one version she stabs him.
A very long time ago, there were no seals in the sea. There were fish and seabirds and whales, but there were no seals. Back then, there was a village on one of the other islands. In that village a young girl had just turned of marrying age. She was very beautiful. Every young man wanted to marry her. One night, a man crept into her room while she was asleep and forced himself on her. It was so dark that the girl couldn’t see who it was. All the same, she fought back, but she was not as strong as the man. This went on for several nights. Then that girl thought of a plan. The next time the man came for her, she would scratch his face so as to mark him. Sure enough the man returned under darkness, and true to her plan, the girl scratched his face. The next day, she walked around the village looking for a man with a scratch on his face. To her horror, the man turned out to be her older brother. In her great shame, the girl ran to the cliffs and threw herself into the sea. But instead of drowning, she came up as a seal—the very first female seal. Because the brother loved his sister so much, or maybe because he was ashamed of what he had done, the brother also jumped off the cliff, coming up as the first male seal. All seals thereafter came from the two of them.
When Raven Killed Grizzly Bear
(this photo of Ahtna children, c 1900-1903 by Miles, depicts relatives of the author)
This story is a variation of many stories cataloging Raven’s trickery in killing his fellow beings to eat them. In a Tlingit story he runs down the throat of a whale into his belly and eats him from the inside out. In an Iñupiaq Eskimo variation, he tricks an entire village, killing them in an avalanche and dining on their eyeballs and feasting on their corpses all spring. This story comes from my own tribe (Ahtna Athabaskan), and it was told to me by Johnny Goodlataw of Tazlina Village while I helped him put his fish-wheel into the Copper River. I had received a special permit from the State of Alaska to allow us to start fishing a week earlier than anyone else as part of an Indian youth education program I was then directing called Positive Pathways.
One day in the springtime, when there was still plenty of snow on the hills and mountains, Raven was searching for something to eat. He was always hungry, that Raven. He was flying around when he saw Grizzly Bear looking for food on a hillside. Raven had a wicked idea, so he flew down to talk.
“Do you want to have some fun?” he asked with a sly smile.
“What shall we do?” replied Grizzly Bear.
“Let’s slide on the snow.”
Raven went first. He slid on his back down a snowy slope. When he was at the bottom he stood up and shouted to Grizzly Bear.
“That was fun! It’s your turn!”
So Grizzly Bear slid down the slope on his haunches. After that Raven saw an even higher and steeper slope.
“Let’s slide down that one,” he said, pointing a black wing.
But Grizzly Bear thought it looked too steep.
“I don’t know. That looks pretty dangerous,” he said.
To show him that it was safe to slide on, Raven flew up to the top and slid down on his back again. He went really fast and he spun around a few times, but he made it safely to the bottom.
“That was great fun!” he shouted up to Grizzly Bear who was standing at the top, anxiously peering down the slope.
But Grizzly Bear was unsure. He kept pacing back and forth, huffing and snorting, stopping every now and then to look over the edge. While Grizzly was nervously pacing, Raven made a sharp spear using his knife. He set the angled spear firmly into the packed snow at the bottom of the snowy slide so that it would impale the bear when he came down. But the hesitant bear wouldn’t slide down.
“If I made it, you can make it!” Raven jeered. “You’re so much bigger and stronger than I am.”
Finally, goaded by Raven’s taunting, Grizzly Bear decided to slide down. He went faster and faster down the slope. He went so fast that the spear planted at the bottom of the hill went right through his heart and killed him. Even though bears are pretty skinny when they first come out of their dens in the spring, Raven ate him anyhow.