- The Fourth Poem in My Native American Series –
"Tell me and I will forget. Show me, and I may not remember.
Involve me, and I will understand."
Native American Proverb
Long, long ago,
On a vast northern coastline wild and pristine
Sat a young Tlingit boy outside his family lodge
He was known in his native tongue as Aak’wtatseen
The young boy’s extremely loving and hard working mother
Had just given him some pieces of smoked salmon for his lunch
But young Aak’wtatseen took one bite and carelessly tossed it away
He thought it tasted old and moldy and on this fish he would not munch
Instead he raced off back down to the beach to play
Never even realizing that wasting food was very bad
And his total disrespect for this salmon’s ultimate gift
Had upset the Salmon People and made them very mad
So as young Aak’wtatseen playfully frolicked on the beach
A giant salmon soon rose up and whisked him from the sand
He had now been captured by the very angry Salmon People
Who took him to their sea lair – very far from his family on land
Poor Aak’wtatseen’s parents were soon consumed with dread
They scoured the coastline searching for their son for many days
Finally believing that their only child had perished in the ocean
They sadly mourned his loss and their hearts had now turned gray
They never even guessed that Aak’wtatseen had been transformed
He was now a salmon living with the Salmon People under the sea
And a year later as these fish once again returned to the river to spawn
Aak’wtatseen recognized his former home and his heart soon filled with glee
But before he could even signal his parents standing on the beach
His father had very skillfully captured him in a gigantic fishing net
And as his mother began to skillfully carve up his succulent flesh
She found the copper necklace she had given him at birth - and she wept
She now knew in her heart and soul that her son had not drowned
And she wrapped him in a fish sack and sadly placed him in the shed
But overnight another truly mystifying transformation had taken place
Aak’wtatseen had now returned to his human form - he was not dead
This young Tlingit boy had learned a very valuable lesson about salmon
And for the rest of his life he never once disrespected their great offering
He became a powerful Tlingit Shaman who could speak to the Salmon People
And his knowledge and his understanding to his people prosperity would bring
©2005, Ed Kostro
Home to these ancient Tlingit people are the narrow coastlines, islands, bays, and fjords of magnificent southern Alaska. They build their villages on rocky beaches that are wedged between the ocean and the thick green forests that slowly give way to the lofty snow and ice-capped mountaintops. Heavy rainfall in this coastal region also creates a rainforest type environment and a very temperate climate.
Native peoples have been living in this part of Alaska for at least the last 10,000 years, and it truly is an earthly paradise that I would love to reside in myself some day. On one of my trips to Alaska, I had the privilege of donning a Tlingit ceremonial robe and head mask, and dancing with them. It was truly an exhilarating experience for me.
And of all the fish in the sea, Tlingits prefer the Pacific Salmon, and they truly respect it. Every year in this part of Alaska, five different species of salmon instinctively follow one another in succession, swimming inland from the sea to spawn up the coastal river beds – and offering up their spent bodies to mankind - as they have done for countless centuries.
This enchanting ancient story of Salmon Boy is very widespread along the entire Alaskan coast, with slightly different versions told by the Tsimshian, Haida, and Tlingit native cultures. It’s also known as ‘The Prince and the Salmon People’ and ‘Moldy End,’ and it’s referred to in Tlingit by the name of the boy who is the main character, Aak’wtatseen.
According to ancient Tlingit mythology, both land and sea animals were once human beings who were frightened into the woods and into the sea by the daylight that Raven let out of a box. Tlingits believe that people and animals are relatives who can cross into each others’ worlds, and that animals have the ability to appear before people in human form, and interact with us in many meaningful ways.
In some of their ancient stories, animals and humans even marry and raise families. And as in the story of Salmon Boy, humans can be transformed into animals in supernatural encounters, and actually experience life in the animal world, thus truly enabling them to both understand and appreciate it.
While Salmon is the most important sea creature to them, Bear is the most important land animal. They believe that Bear truly typifies the relationship between humans and animals. In nature, a bear often behaves like a human and competes for the same food sources. It can walk on its hind legs, skillfully fish for salmon, and use its paws to pick nuts and berries. When pursuing a bear, the Tlingit hunter always carefully follows an ancient sacred ritual, for he is killing a creature whose soul is akin to his own.
The most important bird to them is Raven, who also moves between the creature and human worlds, bestowing gifts on humans, yet always playing tricks on us. The Raven truly has a dual personality. As a hero, he is credited with shaping much of our natural world. But as a trickster, he is often driven to outlandish deeds by his selfishness, his greed, and his hunger – just as we humans so often are.
These captivating ancient Tlingit people will be featured in my sequel to Cemetery Island, called Ice Mountain. In this book, the main characters, Tom and Margaret Hawkins and their strange tiny dog, Big Mack, are whisked backward in time several centuries, in Alaska.