with Rose High Bear
Though the circle of the seasons seems constant and unvarying, the circle of a people can be disrupted, re-arranged, forever changed. We try to comprehend such moments of change through the study of history, culture, politics. But sometimes a clearer picture emerges when we view such changes through the eyes of a single person. Rose High Bear shares memories of her grandma, a granddaughter’s story – Gramma Sophie.
Nakai, Black Lodge, Canyon Symphony Orchestra
Far From the Water (aria for Native American flute and orchestra)
Two World Concerto
R. Carlos Nakai
Rose High Bear:
The thunderous crack of spring ice resonates from the riverbank. Most of the people are still at hunting camp and miss the raging flood of ice, water, and frozen debris as it twists its way through our small deserted Dine village.
Spring breakup. It’s part of the rhythm of life on the eroding, constantly changing banks of this great sub-arctic river, the Kuskoquim. Our elders come to know their river, their grandmother, as she endlessly weaves her way past our village. They spend their days listening to her, watching her, traveling on her, feeling her many moods and seasons, as she flows beneath the Alaska mountain range hundreds of miles downstream where she enters the Bering Sea.
The villagers have predicted the time of ice breakup for thousands of years. And on this warm, clear day in May, they see that very little riverbank is lost. The ice jams gradually clear and river camp is set up once again. By early June, we’ll be setting out fish traps, smoking fish, gathering roots, berries and medicines, and fortifying winter dwellings and food caches before a winter that comes too soon. The people settle at river’s edge and vigilantly tend fire in the fish houses. They depart and return – day after day – fishing, hunting, gathering. They raise their grandchildren to learn of these ways, so they can know this power that gives the people life and then swiftly takes it away.
Diné women, a storehouse of endurance, gather the wood and keep the fire burning. We carry the water and prepare the meals from the abundance of caribou, moose, wild sheep, fish, spruce hens, arctic rabbit, ducks and geese. We fish, even ice fishing in the winter, and maintain the snares and trap lines for small game. We skin the hides of the animals using all the parts for food, clothing, home and ceremony. We flesh, stretch and tan the hides, and sew our family’s garments of caribou, with fur on the inside for the winter and without its fur in the summer. We gather and preserve and prepare the berries for meals and for potlatch – low bush cranberry, high bush cranberry, blueberry, wild raspberry. We gather roots and medicines during their seasons and know how to doctor our families. We feed our ancestors’ spirits by throwing a portion into the fire and we say a prayer as the smoke travels skyward.
Our Dine ancestors, ancient migrating inhabitants of the sub-arctic, share this vast tundra wilderness with few outsiders. Our closest neighbors are the grizzlies and Dall sheep of the mountains, the migrating caribou and the wolves of the foothills, and the moose, and of course, the mosquito nation that live along the forested waters.
Another ancient inhabitant, raven, watches over the people from generation to generation, and imparts love, wisdom and hard lessons. Raven stories are told in the Athabascan language in their correct sequence without a word or phrase missing or out of place. The elders gather at winter solstice to tell raven stories.
…Now inside her enit sits raven, in the form of a woman. And she begins to think, that raven. All night long while it is dark, she does not sleep. She is thinking. Then she goes out. It is dusk. And then it gets pitch dark. There is no sun, nor any moon. So it gets really dark, but she goes anyway. When she is tired of flying, she becomes woman again. When her wings hurt, she becomes woman. Finally it becomes light, as if the dawn is breaking. Then it becomes like day. And then she sees a big village. As she flies, she sees many people. And then she becomes woman again. She goes near the village. She goes among the people, but they don’t notice her…
Honor Song for an Older Sister
Heartbeat: Voices of First Nations Women
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings
My full-blooded Alaskan Dine Gramma Sophie, migrates to Old McGrath in the early part of this century. She travels by dogsled from her birthplace, Anvik, up on the Yukon River, with her new Dutch husband, William VanderPoole, the territory’s constable. They winter travel along the Old Iditerod Trail and settle in Old McGrath to raise nine children, with fifty grandchildren and many more great-grandchildren to follow.
Grandma is among 167 natives who fluently speak our dialect of Athabascan. Transcending syllable and sound, Gramma Sophie’s redeeming qualities shine through and have a quiet, but commanding effect on all the generations following her muckluk steps. She raises her children and grandchildren well as we learn to share guardianship of these old ways, honor our ancestors, guide and feed our families, respect our neighbors, and enjoy life.
I remember how tall Gramma stands at four foot ten. I close my eyes and I am again on the bank of the Kuskoquim. Mom reminds my little brothers to bring Gramma water and firewood before nightfall. How little and weather humbled is her one-room cabin nestled at the edge of the riverbank – no electricity, no running water, very little insulation from the arctic chill.
The door opens. Gramma is standing there in the shadow of the doorsill. How much I missed her all these years? Her arms reach out from yesterday into the brightness of sunlight, covered by the knitted blue wool of her favorite old sweater. It’s worn in the front and at the elbows by so many hugs of grandchildren, berry picking at blueberry hill, all the wipes of her hands to dry them from washing and fixing and cleaning.
I join her inside her cabin. The wrinkles of her smile and a glint flashing from her eyes envelope me. I drop my gaze to the ground. I watch her tears flow and listen to her tell me time after time in broken English how they took me away as a young child to be raised with the white side of the family, and how mom cried.
Then Gramma rises, and leans lightly on my arm and her cane. We walk to the cemetery. She whispers prayers and pours whiskey on the grave of her youngest son.
An Eagle Above
Chase; Peter Buffett
Now it is 1983. The shrewd black-winged trickster, raven, sacred creature chosen to speak for Creator, perches just above the cemetery and eloquently eulogizes my Gramma Sophie as she begins her final journey home to the spirit world.
This is Rose High Bear, granddaughter of the late Sophie VanderPoole, Alaskan Athabascan from McGrath, Alaska.