But it was the old Tligit prayer words, Chief Donawaak spoke as he descibed the fish being lifted to the light, that made Hanson, Navajo quiet and reserved, sit up, pencil straight in his chair. 'Those words, that you spoke,' we have those same words in our Navajo sacred language. Its an ancient form of Navajo, few people can speak it today.' The room grew still then filled with a thick presence of love. The men looked at each other and laughed quietely; they had found the moment of relationship, never mind that it was thousands of years ago and who knows what part of North American that the Tlingit and Navajo tribes were last One People, but the Language knew and seemed happy to remind us. Then Hanson said what seemed to be a non sequiter, 'We know about that sacred tree too and I would like you to come visit us in Navajo land, soon'. To my utter amazement, Donawaak nodded his head in agreement. I had no idea how this understanding had been achieved and despite questioning Hanson as we drove to pick up my little girl, what I understood was something about indigenous peoples confusion that leads to cutting down trees, bringing them in a house for Christmas. I also realized I was taking a trip to Navajo land very soon.
That's what lead to Mr. Hammond and I flying to Arizona for a ceremony. He was Raven Chief and I had been adopted into the Ravens, maybe that's why all the mischief ensued. It started out well, the weather lifted and our Alaska Airlines flight made it out of Juneau but when we got to Arizona, Chief Donawaak's bags did not arrive and we were headed to the Reservation, quit remote from the airport which made it unlikely we would see that bag before our short visit was over. Then I learned that Donawaak's high blood pressure medicines and his priceless, ancient Chilkat blanket were in the case. My heart nearly stopped.
With several long distance calls back to Alaska, we replaced his medications at a local pharmacy but there was nothing to do about his clothing and robe. And we left Flagstaff with Austin wearing only the thin maroon, golf sweater and small brim fedora he'd worn for the flight. It was cold in the high desert, light swirls of snow blew across the hardpan and swirled about the tufts of dried grass. The winds blew through the thin walled reservation house in big drafts of bone chilling cold. Maybe that's why I got to learn how to make a sacred fire. Austin looked over my shoulder as I chucked in shavings, kindling and pieces of mesquite into the stove and when he saw that I was about to light it, he stopped me, spoke to me about the meaning of the fire, about it's warmth and light and intelligence. Talk to it he said, feed it and tell it your love. I stopped, ashamed that I'd not known to do this and so grateful to be taught the right way to relate to it. I kept that Fire going throughout out our four day stay. In the morning, when the sun came out, we walked out to survey the dramatic vista of our Chimney Rock surroundings - enormous red fingers of Earth pointing to the sky. In the distant, still desert air, the soft bleating of sheep could be heard. When we spoke, our words hung in little clouds in the cold desert air. Two hogans stood adjacent to the Bureau of Indian Affairs house we were hosted in.
On the second night, we entered one of the hogans for an all night ceremony designed to heal Donawaak's heart problems. A few years earlier, he'd been fishing out on his boat and suffered not one but three deadly heart attacks. Somehow, he managed to get to shore but talked about his arms feeling like lead as he tried to tie off his boat. From that moment forward, he made a commitment to leave his successful fishing career behind and to dedicate all of his life and resources towards the creation of a Chilkoot Culture Camp to teach children of all backgrounds about the precious Tlingit culture that his Grandfather had taught him. During his heart failure, Austin, said he remembered the words of his grandfather, "Son, this culture I've been giving to you, don't die with it. Pass it on."
What Austin didn't know is that setting up the camp would mean reclaiming traditional lands with contested jurisdiction - both the State and the Native Corporations claimed to own it. He persevered only to be cast out of his Salvation Army Church who quoted the Bible to him, reminding Austin of the teachings to 'put aside childish things' and then divorced by his wife who stayed in the Church and remained committed to the westernizing process of the Village. This ceremony was meant to lift some of the sorrow and to heal the physical ailment.
About midnight, the Navjo Medicine man, looked at Austin and I, and said that the Spirits had shown him the missing blanket. He'd seen the blanket; deciphered the symbols on it and advised Austin not to worry the suitcase would be delivered tomorrow. He and Austin acknowledged the spirit of the river and waters encoded on the Chilkoot blanket. They seemed to be looking right through time and having a lovely conversation with Austin's long departed Shaman Grandfather who'd used the blanket in healing rituals.
As they spoke, I noticed a strange anxiety coming over me and then, a terror as I realized I was standing beneath the ocean in deep, dark, dangerous, indigo waters moving swiftly towards a huge luminous triangle. Nothing could stop the progression of my movement or fear. Closing in on the glowing object I saw and viscerally knew it was a single tooth of the feared sea monster, Wasco. In a split reality moment, I glanced down at my chest; my heart was beating so hard that the calico fabric of my ribbon shirt visibly rose and fell with each throb. I couldn't speak or ask for help because the second I saw my shirt, I was plunged back into the depths. The huge jaw opened. I blacked out in fear and in an instant perceived myself in a huge bubble of air floating upwards to the surface. I had survived; I had been initiated into the Water's, into their Mystery and teachings but I didn't know that. All I knew is that I'd been scared nearly to death and when I opened my eyes in that hogan what did I see but the eyes of the Medicine Man, sweat dripping from his face and hair in wet and stringy clinging to his worn face. He'd been there with me all along; he'd seen the sea monster and me with it.
At dawn, it was clear that Austin had gotten his prayers answered and that he would have the health to complete his cultural work with the young people. I found myself interpreting the words of the Navajo ceremonialist to Austin and Austin's words back to the Navajo. Only later I realized we had all been speaking English with slight Navajo or Tlingit inflections. None of us even questioned it as we seriously moved through translation efforts.
The dying fire crackeled and popped in the sacred quiet of ceremonial dawn. The Medicine Man told me about White Shell Changing Woman, how there was or would be a time when the Earth was dying because of too much Sun; too much fire (I understood the Story to pertain to the global environmental devastation). White Shell went on a fast to Fajada Butte where she got a message - a vision. She gathered up her twin boys, and told them they had to go on a walk, a migration to find the life giving rains and that they must not eat anything on the way. They walked west to the ocean but on the long journey, one son found and ate an egg and told his mother, "I'm changing. Put me in the ocean." She did and he transmorphed into a giagantic sea monster. The People of the coast gave her a ride in their canoes to the 'island farthest West'. Her Sea Monster son accompanied her canoe on the voyage. She had promised the Navajo that when she arrived to the island that she would send back rains and to this very day, when the clouds and rain move in from the West, the Navajo say, 'It's that sacred woman.'
Then in a closing remark, almost off hand, the Medicine Man looked at Chief Donawaak and I and said, "There are four sacred mountains. One of them, you know about and still respect in your Land. The other is deteriorating and people are forgetting. The third is unknown and one is beneath the waves. This, One, beneath the waves is rising and will be seen again. That White Raven, that's been seen and that you've been talking about is from that mountain. He's a messenger sent to tell us, 'Change. The time is coming'.
Just before we left Navajo land, the suitcase was delivered. We loaded it back in the car and headed for the airport. Winging our way home to Juneau, on a nearly empty Christmas Eve flight, we wondered and laughed about lost medicines, and lost bags. Chief Donawaak, who liked to tease, leaned over and whispered conspiratorily, 'When we get back home, you take my hat and give it to Julie, who'll be picking me up, and tell her, 'We lost the medicines, we lost the bag and we lost Mr. Hammond. This is all that is left." Then the plane wheels hit the tarmac of the ice fog enshrouded Juneau Douglas Airport and we were home.