Saturday, May 20, 2006

Salmon poem

Nora Dauenhauer, the Tlingit poet and scholar, has a poem "How to Make Good Baked Salmon from the River" on the Poetics and Politics website. It's dedicated to Simon Ortiz, and it reminds me a lot of his poem on how to make chili. She begins:
It's best made in dry-fish camp on a beach by a fish stream on sticks over an open fire, or during fishing or during cannery season.

In this case, we'll make it in the city, baked in an electric oven on a black fry pan.

INGREDIENTS Bar-b-q sticks of alder wood. In this case the oven will do. Salmon: River salmon, current super market cost $4.99 a pound. In this case, salmon poached from river. Seal oil or hooligan oil. In this case, butter or Wesson oil, if available.
And so on in that vein. But it's a recipe and a cosmology lesson in a recipe. Her serving instructions:
After smelling smoke and fish and watching the cooking, smelling the skunk cabbage and the berries mixed with seal oil, when the salmon is done, put salmon on stakes on the skunk cabbage and pour some seal oil over it and watch the oil run into the nice cooked flakey flesh which has now turned pink.

Shoo mosquitoes off the salmon, and shoo the ravens away, but don't insult them, because mosquitoes
are known to be the ashes of the cannibal giant, and Raven is known to take off with just about anything.

In this case, dish out on paper plates from fry pan. Serve to all relatives and friends you have invited to the bar-b-q and those who love it.

And think how good it is that we have good spirits that still bring salmon and oil.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Orthodox Athabascan village

Eklutna village is an Tanaina (or Dena'ina) Indian settlement about 25 miles northeast of Anchorage just off the Glenn Highway near the head of Knik Arm. It's noted especially for the Athabascan "Spirit Houses" in its Russian Orthodox church cemetery, which reflect a blending of Orthodox and Native spiritual practices. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia gives a few details:
The Eklutna area was the site of many Athabascan Indian villages as long as 800 years ago. Today's residents are descendants of the Dena'ina (Tanaina) tribe. A railroad station was built in 1918, and Russian Orthodox missionaries arrived in the 1840s. Brightly-colored "Spirit Houses" in the Russian Slavic style now lend character to Eklutna.
But by far the best online resource on Eklutna is a personal webpage put up by an Alaskan identified only as "sunhusky" who has a wealth of pictures and well-informed explanations about Anchorage, the nearby Mat-Su valley and other southcentral Alaska attractions.

From the Sunhusky website we learn "the name Eklutna is the Anglicized version of Eydlytnu, which is Athabascan for 'village,'" the village site "dates back to about 1650 although it was probably inhabited much earlier than that," and it overlooks "the mudflats of Cook Inlet’s Knik Arm, which was where a string of fish camps and villages once stood." All this seems to check out with the information of Eklutna in Shem Pete's Alaska: The Territory of the Upper Cook Inlet Dena'Ina, which I read through pretty thorougly at the Border's in Anchorage. Of the church, dedicated to St. Nicholas, Sunhusky adds:
The first impression you’ll get is that [the Spirit Houses] look like tiny doll houses. They’re decorated with primary colors, usually reflecting family heritage. This custom developed as the Russian Orthodox Church adapted the native Athabascan’s custom of placing the remains of loved ones in bentwood boxes under the trees. The colors and geometric patterns aren’t chosen randomly, however. They distinguish different families, which was the only way early families had of marking the gravesites before they could read or write in Russian. The section you will see within the small fenced area isn’t the entire graveyard. It’s part of what is actually a much larger burial grounds which is largely hidden by the trees and brush to the rear. I noticed that the overgrowth makes it much more difficult to see with time, which is perhaps as it should be. It was the visible spirit houses that were the draw to tourists, however, and the village opened up the tours largely as the best means of protecting the burial ground from those who would trespass. Even today, while you are allowed to take photos, you are requested to stay on the sidewalk that circles this section of the cemetery. One of the things you’ll note is that while some stay brightly painted, others are allowed to follow the natural course of events and are slowly going the “ashes to ashes” route.
There's a lot else at the Sunhusky website, which for some reason I've had a hard time finding with search engines, all of it fascinating.