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”