As we enter this particular Thanksgiving day, with the unfortunate pall of not just smoke but, mistrust, fear, anger and racial tension sparked by the events in Ferguson Missouri, I remember the time that I first experienced myself as a stranger in a strange land, a very obvious young, unexperienced, 20 year old white kid in the Tlingit Native community of Kake Alaska.
I want to share two stories from that time. One, my own, which is how I cam to be there, and how I was treated. And the other, a Tlingit folktale that I heard told many years after I’d left, and then found even many years latter in written form. This story has guided since it ‘found me’ but I have resisted telling it in deference to sensitivities about cultural appropriation. But my personal connection to this story feels so strong, and now that I have seen numerous retellings in print and on the internet, my feeling is that this story is screaming to be told at a time like this, a time when we simply cannot remain as strangers to each other.
Off on an adventure, I’d landed in Petersburg Alaska in the early spring, totally broke and desperate for a job, any job. In a small cafe, a Vista volunteer working in Kake, suggested that I take a boat to this island community and try a get a job as a deck hand on a fishing boat since the Halibut season was not far off. The conversation was overheard by some of the locals who exhorted me mostly as follows…”Don’t do it kid. Those natives will throw you overboard and you’ll be food for the sand fleas.” They truly were trying to dissuade me. I don’t know if it was providence, stubbornness, curiosity, or simply my desperate financial straights, but an hour later I was on my way to Kake.
Here’s how I was greeted. After being introduced by that Vista volunteer to one of the prominent families in the village, I was offered a place to sleep on one of the village fishing boats and a place at the table to eat with the family every day for several weeks until the fishing season started. Some inquiries were made and when fishing commenced, I had a job. I was the greenhorn and I mean true greenhorn on a halibut boat where the next youngest member of the crew was 80 years old. No doubt I was somewhat of a curiosity , but the point is that as an outsider, I was welcomed and embraced, and this proved to be just the first of many years of my experience of native hospitality. Had I listened to the bigots, and yes, that’s what they were, and not ventured to the village, my life might have proven to have been very different.
Now the folktale. It’s important to remember that I did not encounter this tale, from this village until years after I left.
The Man Who Entertained the Bears
A man of the Raven clan living had grown very old. His friends were gone, passed away and he felt sad to think that he was left alone. He began to think about how he might leave that lonely place or even end his own life. He thought that he might paddle away to another village, but then said to himself, ” I will be a stranger there and if the people there see that I am alone, they may think that I have run away from my own village, or been banished for some disgraceful thing.
It then occurred to him to go to the bears and let the bears kill him. The village was at the mouth of a large salmon creek and there found a bear trail and lay down right in the middle of it.
“ Let the bears find me here at eat me,” he decided.
Soon after, as he lay there, he heard the sounds of twigs and bushes breaking and saw a large number of grizzly bears coming toward him. The largest bear was in the lead, a huge old Silvertip- the tips of his hairs were white as that old mans hair. Suddenly the man imagined the sound of his own bones breaking and thought that perhaps being eaten by the bears was not such a good idea.
Very quickly now the bears were close upon him. He jumped up. The Silvertip stoop so that they were facing each other. The hair on the man’s next stood up. The fur on Silvertip’s neck stood up.
“I am here,” said the man, summoning his courage, “to invite you to a feast.” I have come to invite you to a feast tomorrow, but, if you are going to kill me, I am willing to die. I am alone. I have lost all of friends, my children, and my wife.”
At this, Silvertip grunted, turned about and led the other bills back up the trail.
“I think they have accepted my invitation,” the man thought.
When he got home he began to prepare for the feast. He cleaned and made his house a welcoming place, then he told the other people in the village about his encounter with the bears and invited them all to the feast.
“You have done a very foolish and dangerous thing,” they replied. The bears are our enemies. We will not come!”
For the feast, the man prepared dishes that the bears would enjoy, salmon, berries, and more. The next morning he saw the bears coming from the mouth of the creek. The other villagers saw them too, peeking from their doors but afraid to come out. But he stood still to receive them. brought them into the house and gave them seats, placing Silvertip in the middle of the house and the rest around him.
The feast began with large trays of cranberries preserved in grease. Then tray after tray of salmon and other foods were passed from bear to bear. When they they were finished, Silvertip rose on his hind legs and began to address the man for quite some time. Then he turned and led the other bears out towards the forest. As each bear left, it licked the paint with which that the man had adorned his arms and chest with.
The next day, the smallest of the bear came back, but it seemed to the man to be in almost human form and spoke to him in his own Tlingit language.
“I was once a human being. I was a young baby, lost in the forest. The bears adopted me, protected me, and taught me their ways. Now I am mostly a bear, but I still remember my childhood language. Silvertip asked me if you understood what he said to you at the feast yesterday?”
The man replied, “I felt that he was thanking me, but no, I did not understand everything.”
“He was telling you,” the bear man said, “that he is in the same condition as you. He too has lived long and has lost all of his friends. Many are the ways in which we are the same. He had heard of you before he saw you. He told you to think of him when you are mourning for your lost ones. or when you are lonely.” And with that the bear man returned to the forest and his companions.
(Here’s a link to the original English version of the story. http://www.samstudies.org/anthology/library/periodicals/bae/b39
I’ve shortened and adapted it slightly but trust that the intent and spirit of the story has been conveyed. Again, this is offered humbly and with thanks to those who have told and may continue to tell the story in and around Kake. Please know that my time there was a turning point in my life, a time when I began to see and understand my place in the world in a much broader way, way that opened up a whole new way of seeing, thinking and relating)
This story was narrated to Swanton by a man named Kasank, who added this commentary to the tale.
“From this we learn,” said Kasank, that when when we give a feast, no matter if a person may be an enemy, it is good to invite him to the meal and become friends just as this man did with the bears.”
This story began working on me as soon as I heard it. I was early into my storytelling career and discovering that for me, storytelling was not so much about performance as it was about encounter and being together with people in an authentic and convivial way. It lead me to work with my wife and storytelling partner Liz and a great group of friends to create community events we have come to call F.E.A.S.T! Families Eating and Storytelling Together. The intent has always been to bring people together – people of different ethnic, racial, and economic backgrounds for a shared meal, and shared stories.
Food and stories are what I’d call the universal solvent of differences and mistrust. Break bread with each other, share stories- true stories, stretched stories, hard stories, folktales, jokes, jests, stories of fools stories of wise ones, love stories, reconciliation stories… and we find out, like the man and Silvertip, how beyond the knotty differences, just how much we have in common.
Finally for now, I’d just like to add, that it’s not just about sitting down with an adversary or an enemy. Families have their daily, and sometimes drawn out stresses, arguments, and grudges. We can start on Thanksgiving day of course, but any day, any meal can be a time to be together, eat together, and make peace with ourselves and each other. And that would truly be a grace and a blessing.