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