The Mountain People, part 1

In September 2015, in Alaska, President Obama proclaimed Denali the official name of the highest mountain in North America, replacing its musty designation, Mt. McKinley. Alaskans had long known it. The mountain is an immense presence in the Alaskan interior, visible on clear days from both Anchorage and Fairbanks. People smile. “Denali’s out today,” they’ll say and, very subtly, orient themselves toward him.

The true name of such a mountain is of immense importance. I asked our intern, Will, to look up its meaning; I had always heard it was “Great One,” which hints at Denali’s majesty. He found this citation.

The native Koyukon Athabascan people call the mountain Denali, which is usually translated as ‘The Great One.’ However, linguist James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, wrote in the book ‘Shem Pete’s Alaska’ that the name is based on a verb theme meaning ‘high’ or ‘tall.’

The Koyukon people live much further north, up the Yukon-Koyukuk rivers, deep in the Interior. We found no explanation of why their word had claimed the mountain. The linguist Jim Kari, whose industrious mapping and correction of place names is important not only to Dena’inas, indicated that its root was quite literal, almost banal. “High.” “Tall.” I wonder, though, if there is not more to the name Denali. Let me follow that speculation into Dena’ina country, to Peter Kalifornsky and to Shem Pete, for example.

This year I’ve been working on the second volume of First Beginning, called “From the Believing Time, When They Tested for the Truth.” In this cycle Peter Kalifornsky included a marvelous story called “Susitna Mountain / Shushidnu Egh Dghili.” (You can read it here.) He considered it one of his most important. Here is an excerpt from my text.

In one of the Dreamer’s oldest stories, the Mountain People take their places as the Alaska Range. Startling, immense, they stand behind the old Dena’ina settlements on the west side of Cook Inlet, in a long line that reaches north to the one called Yuneq’di (now also called Denali), and his relatives. Only when Peter had told me of the Dreamer did he begin to speak of these Mountain People. According to the story, they were Giants. They named their own names and lay down on the land to take their eternal positions.

“To begin with,” he said, “a person who dreams dreamed about these Mountain People, that they were going to take locations to be named after them: the mountains. All this has been done and experienced through the person who dreams.”

He saw two points to this story. One was the importance of location. The old Dena’ina were hunting people who moved seasonally around their country from fish camps at the water’s edge to hunting camps back in the foothills. With respect and in their hardihood, they walked into and over the mountains where powerful beings lived; they hunted there. They knew their land with clarity and from experience. They knew where they were.

The second was point was the naming of places. The Mountain People alone named themselves. The Dena’ina respected this and believed it.

“Picture them just the way they are,” Peter said. “You can see them from any direction. They’re a a landmark. These Mountain People were doing all this for the humans, so the humans could have the names for each location: what they describe, what they look like.”

People orient themselves to these mountains. He explained, “We have to take our location by the Mountain People, no matter where we are. If we take off from here, now, we can go anyplace and make a home and stay.”

In the story, Shushidnu, Mt. Susitna, lay down by a river; she is often called “Sleeping Lady.” Peter said, “This Sleeping Lady was laying out a pattern for the name of places: that’s her location. And from the beginning, those Mountain People named this [Kenai] peninsula the Good Land. That’s a good description of how the peninsula lays.

“It came through the Dreamer. It was clear enough. That mountain was called Shushidnu, that one Dghelika’a, T’usi. . . . The people named that country after this dream, and it described what the country was like. When they called themselves Dghili Dnayi, they were Giant People, that Lady and those mountains; and those other mountains were smaller People. They were just like we are: they were all different sizes.”

Shushidnu sent Mountain People to the Kenai Peninsula, as well. They called their place Yaghenen, the Good Land.

“When the Dghili Dnayi named locations, how did they know it was a good land?” Peter asked wonderingly. “According to that name, this peninsula has been a good land right up until today. Before that, through generation and through generation, they lived well. Until the whites came. Something else happened; the oil discovery brought another thing. Makes me think the stories tell us what things will be like for the future. But this goes back to Shushidnu. Shushidnu is the one who’s giving this order: ‘These other people will go across the Inlet.’ They answered her; they explained that they would be the Good Land. They’re the whole peninsula.”

The story reads, “And one person said, ‘I will be up above, a great mountain.’ He is Dghilika’a, Mt. Redoubt. And he said. ‘My relatives will be all around me.’ These are the smaller mountains, Shchnaqal’in.”

Shchnaqal’in comes from shqilaqa, “relatives,” Peter said. The word breaks down in this way: shqi, from sh, “me,” “I.” Qi, “addition,” “more.” Laqa, from lachq’u, “Let’s go for the truth.” And qa, from qatl’na, “feet.”

“Can you figure it out?” he asked.

“’There will be more of the true ones like me at my feet’?”

“Right!”He laughed delightedly.

“This language could go very far back. How old is this planet? Mt. Susitna is a very important mountain: Shushidnu. It means ‘me,’ ‘That’s I.’ The river’s name is ‘by me;’ ‘I have this river by me:’ Susitna River. Another way to put it: ‘Something by me that I love.’

“You can imagine what she meant: pretty! She just loved that location. And the mountain looks just like what the story says, a Sleeping Lady.”

Denali seen from Air Force One over Alaska. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Denali seen from Air Force One over Alaska. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Part 2

“About Susitna Mountain / Shushidnu Egh Dghili”

The Mountain People, part 2

The native Koyukon Athabascan people call the mountain Denali, which is usually translated as ‘The Great One.’ However, linguist James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, wrote in the book ‘Shem Pete’s Alaska’ that the name is based on a verb theme meaning ‘high’ or ‘tall.’

Mt. Susitna and the Susitna River are at the head of Cook Inlet, further north and east than the country of Kustatan (pronounced, roughly, Kusk-a-tan}, Tyonek, and Polly Creek, where Peter’s stories came from. His fragment of the Susitna story, he thought, might not be quite the same as the one known to Shem Pete, a well-known storyteller of the Susitna Dena’ina people. It is a noteworthy point, as it shows both priority and deference given to the recognized owners of different stories. It places his own story, as well, as particular to his own elders.

In the Susitna River country there was a large settlement, even into the earlier part of this century. Peter said, “You know how that Susitna River looks, going in and out. Up on the higher land is where the village was, into the beginning of that pass. They say that was a big settlement, the biggest settlement of all the Dena’ina villages.”

In the 1940s, Susitna people were nearly wiped out by disease. The survivors were taken down to Tyonek, where Peter’s uncle Simeon Chickalusion was chief. Their descendants intermarried with Tyonek people and survive there now.

“According to my story, about the people moving in and out, that was not explained,” Peter said. “The only thing she said at that time was, ‘The people will love that place and it will be useful to them; but they will pass away.’ Not that they would ‘die out’: there would be no one left there.

“What Shem Pete’s father expressed there: he could have taken it from the Mountain story. But it did happen. There was a big settlement there, and then in the ’40s, they got sick.

“This story was not completely told to me. Somebody like Shem Pete may have a very different story than what I heard.”

He was deferring to Shem Pete, who was born at Tsat’ukegh, or Susitna Station, about 1898; he died in 1989. His father was a chief and is said to have been a medicine man. Shem Pete often recounted the story of the great sickness and how his father warned the people that it was coming.

“And he told them Susitna Station people, ‘And pretty soon all you people gonna die and not even one going to be alive around here.’ I never seen him. ‘You people all gonna die,’ he said. They pret’ near clubbed him.”

There were more than six hundred people in that country then. He warned them that measles would come, “‘And this your skin gonna be stretched allover your body, see. . . . And after that pretty soon you people gonna hear about a fight down in the states someplace. And that sickness come from down south. And that gonna kill lots of people. You people used to walk about on the trail, are just gonna lay down and you people don’t know how to die. You people gonna die though.’”

The great flu of 1918 was the beginning of the deaths.

Shem Pete’s father warned the people not to eat white man’s food, but to put up Native food. He warned them of the airplane and the train and of motors after that. He warned them to use what money they had to buy matches and ammunition.

“‘There’s gonna be whiteman just like this sand,’ he picked it up in his hand, the sand. ‘You fellows gonna be no living one place. Few here, few there, all over scattered along like little berries between them white people.’”

But people did not want to believe such a prophecy.

“Well, it’s true. What now, not even one Indian of all the young people in Susitna. There’s nothing. There’s nobody left. So just few ones that were left, in 1930’s Chief Chickalusion of Tyonek pick us up, about dozen of us altogether. He put them in dories and take ‘em down to Tyonek.”

About two decades before that difficult time, the boy Peter had been told about the Mountain People by his mother’s relatives, the Chickalusions. I wonder if Shem Pete had told anyone listening his own story about the Mountain People. Could “tall” or “high” have referred to the giants who lay down to become the Alaska Range? Is there a Koyukon story about Denali? Peter Kalifornsky said the name, the word, meant nothing in the language he spoke. The name for this mountain in his Dena’ina is Yuneq’di.

Part 1

“About Susitna Mountain / Shushidnu Egh Dghili”

Another Dena’ina Love Song

Here is another of Peter Kalifornsky’s three songs, with the lyrics as he wrote them, and our translation. You can read it and listen to him also in From the First Beginning. He sings for us and tells us how he made the song: how it came to him while “thinking about nothing.” “They lived life by the imagination,” he used to say: “the power of the mind.”

Un’i ada ndgheshnini
ndahduh k’ushu qch’aninyu gushaninyu
un’i ada ndgheshnini
ndahduh quk’e’ushh k’ushu qch’aninyu
shgenaga k’ushta beq’aynizdilnik h’qu
un’i ada ndgheshnini

And our rendering.

Come, let me welcome you with love,
You, from your far-away home:
I want to welcome you.
Where the sun rises, where
You don’t understand my words
Come, let me welcome you with love.

“Another Dark Night Come Over Me”

I’ve been indexing the raw files of Kalifornsky’s cassette tapes, which he recorded at home in 1988, and just found this beautiful, painful lament.

Peter Kalifornsky’s great-great-grandfather, Qadanalchen, made this song sometime between 1811 and 1821, at Fort Ross. The Russians took — in several senses – a number of Kenai and Kodiak hunters south with them, as hostages as much as foragers. These men lived in the Indian village on the shore below the gates of the fortress.

Peter tells us:

And this is my great-great-grandfather’s ‘homesick’ song, that he made this song when he was taken out to Fort Ross during the Russians’ time. When he get homesick, he would sing this song. They claim that’s the story about him, by the old people.

Qadanalchen K’elik’a* “Another Dark Night Come Over Me.”

           Ki q’u ke sha nuntalghatl’.

           Q’iłdu ki, qint’a hk’u.

           Shesh t’qełani.

           Shi k’u ki.

There’s a translation:

          Another dark night come over me

          Over back home looks impossible to return.

          But do your best for living.

          That, I am, too.

That was his homesick song.

The Dena’ina is from K’tl’egh’i Sukdu, A Dena’ina Legacy, The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky, published in 1991 by the Alaska Native Language Center, in which they promised to preserve his spelling. But PK sings the second line in reversed phrases, so I’ve matched the writing to his singing. (The ANLC version is below.) Curiously, I have found no text for this song in the manuscript he gave me, though it should have appeared with the other songs and words in the recording that contains it, which match their placement in his ms.

ANLC version:

           Ki q’u ke sha nuntalghatl’.

           Qint’a hk’u, q’iłdu ki.

           Shesh t’qełani.

           Shi k’u ki.

Note to the ANLC text: “Peter Kalifornsky’s great-great-grandfather, Qadanalchen, composed this song while he was at Fort Ross, California, sometime between 1811 and 1821. It is said that he was not sure he would ever get back to Cook Inlet, and to ease his loneliness he would sing his song. As he sang, he would take from a small bag a bit of soil he had brought from his home village, and he would rub the soil on the soles of his feet. This was a customary Dena’ina practice to ease the pain of homesickness. (K’tl’egh’i Sukdu, p. 253)

         *Qadanalchen’s Song, as translated by ANLC.

A Voice Is Heard at Fort Ross

Peter Kalifornsky’s great-great-great grandfather was Kenaitze Dena’ina and was called Qadanalchen. He came from the Kenai peninsula, Alaska, Russian America. In 1811, a century before his descendant’s birth, he accompanied, though perhaps not of his own will, Russian hunters to Fort Ross, on the California coast, the furthest-south Russian settlement. He remained there for ten years, returning to his people; twenty years later, the Russians closed the fort, which they sold to John Sutter.

On March 8, 2014, I gave a presentation about From the First Beginning at Fort Ross. On the big screen in the beautiful, cathedral-ceilinged auditorium was projected the multi-touch book for the iPad and Mac, which I had just launched, and I demonstrated how to tap and scroll as you read the book, so that you could approach it from various angles. You might call up a scanned manuscript page or a series of maps. You might tap on a Dena’ina word and its meaning would appear on-screen. As you read a story, you might tap an underlined phrase and up would come a screen-bubble with further commentary by Peter Kalifornsky, or another story related to the one before you, or a link to our conversations later in the book.

There is a page — one, so far, but more will be added — where you can tap a button and hear Peter Kalifornsky’s voice. He is reading aloud from the last section of the chapter in which he has explained to me his theory of writing and meaning in his native language. It is a marvelous passage, I think.

Hank Birnbaum, program director of the Fort Ross Conservancy, remarked that this may have been the first time since Qadnalchen’s time that this language was heard at Fort Ross — unless Peter Kalifornsky himself had spoken it (he must have, I thought) when he visited Fort Ross in 1979. That language, the Dena’ina as spoken by Peter Kalifornsky, will never be heard again from a living person. But Peter Kalifornsky left instructions. Twenty-five years ago, he recorded himself reading all his own stories and texts — and reading also from my essay. He gave me copies of his cassettes; finally, I had them digitized. Listening, I was honored and humbled. I had discovered this one file only while building the iPad book. It was as if a sound of approval had been made by him long-ago, but heard by me only lately.

You may listen and follow the text from which he read.

Dena’ina is full of what we call nouns or naming words, but it forms them differently than this language does, just as it represents in its complex verb structures aspects of time, movement, position of speaker, position of what is being spoken of, and other signs of relationship. In writing, Peter sees patterns of relationship he had not noticed when he spoke. Writing has its own delight. Meanings and forms of words play off one another, as figured speech. They want a quick mind to understand them or they laugh at their hearer.

One day he laid out a pattern, showing me different forms but, equally, enjoying the pictures and sounds the words release in the mind.

“When an animal has been killed, he ‘swells up,’ dneldum, from gasses.

“When an orchestra starts playing, the music ‘swells up,’ k’neldum. That sound ‘bulges out.’

“That one point you can see, the other one you hear, in that form.

“Then you hear splashing water. You ever hear a beaver on a lake? When the beaver flaps his tail, it makes a splashing sound. Tudałdem: his sound.”

Some time later, we were speaking of pattern and change, and he expanded on this pattern of words. I asked if there is a word for “change.”

Nałshtunen dnelnish, he wrote. “ ‘Our mind gets twisted around by something’: either it goes blank, or something in it changes. What makes it do that? Words like that are complicated to break down. Nałshtunen: ‘our mind goes blank’; ‘I wonder…’ Dnelnish: the pattern that we recognize.

“It’s hard to break down. Dnelnish goes into dneldum, the music form. Nish is a verb by itself, nishich’ k’din’un: ‘he came to the end of his life.’ Someone’s sick; they’re expecting him to die, no hope. When he passes away, ‘he came to the end,’ they say, ‘as music comes to the end.’ Something that rings in our head becomes blank.

“Music is a pattern. And in thinking, something appears in our mind. It’s like that pattern.”

This enchanted me. No wonder that old Crow taught them how to sing! I laughed.

He let out a peal of laughter too. “That old Crow, he’s got his head full of dneldum. Music playing in his ear all the time.

“So when a man gets into the form nałshtunen dnelnish, he can’t recognize anything. He’s lost.

“So the people who go to sleep and don’t wake up anymore: nishich’ k’den’un, the music stops playing.”

–from From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking > Ch. 1 “Then Came the Time Crow Sang for Them” Peter Kalifornsky on Writing and Meaning


Folklore is not anonymous

“I wrote that story, yes, in my native language. It’s written; and all I was fighting for was to preserve my native language. But what we’re getting into – how to read the background – gets complicated. From the beginning, the stories were put forward for a people to study, the nations and what-not.”

                             — Peter Kalifornsky