In Search of the Canary Tree by Lauren E. Oakes

In Search of the Canary Tree by Lauren E. Oakes

Author:Lauren E. Oakes
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Basic Books
Published: 2018-11-26T16:00:00+00:00


Apart and a Part

I DIDN’T NEED to use a script for the questions anymore. Repetition had implanted them in my memory. Instead, my notebook made for a good table on my knees. I rested the recorder on top.

“My name is Kasyyahgei. I have another one. It’s Kasake. Those are my Tlingit names,” she said. “My English name is Ernestine Hanlon-Abel. I am Tlingit. I am Raven, Dog Salmon, Crow. We always follow our mom. My dad is Eagle Shark. I grew up in Hoonah. My dad is from Glacier Bay. My mom is from Angoon.”

Ernestine wore a bright purple shirt with the faint outline of Hawaiian hibiscus flowers printed across the front. Her smooth, gray hair parted in the middle. I watched it bob, just so slightly, to the rhythmic delivery of her lineage.

Her house was cozy and colorful. It smelled a bit musty. A drawing of a raven and an eagle was framed on the wall—two powerful birds for two moieties of the Tlingit tribe.1 With their heads pressed against one another, they looked in different directions.

“Balance,” she said, noticing my stare at the image. “Everything is about balance.”

She was the first to tell me that the forest gave her and her people their identity. Less than twenty-four hours after Wes had dropped me back at the bunkhouse, I was in her neon green home on the hillside in Hoonah, listening to her explain that the live yellow-cedar trees still standing were the ones to remember her ancestors.

A woman who worked in tribal relations for the Forest Service had referred me to Ernestine and another weaver, Teri Rofkar—two Tlingit women still practicing the traditional craft and passing it on to other community members in the northern part of the archipelago. On the phone, before we met, Ernestine offered her consent for an interview on three conditions. I wasn’t allowed to ask about her weaving techniques or make any attempt to document them. (Researchers had come and done so before, she explained, then freely shared what belonged to her people, never quite getting it right.) Her niece and apprentice, Cathy, would join us, as a means of sharing stories across generations. Lastly, I needed to send her a transcript of our conversation to keep in the community what others typically only took away. I agreed to them all.

I told her that I wasn’t an anthropologist; I wasn’t searching for secrets into the art of Tlingit twining; instead, I wanted to understand how she related to the forest, to know what changes she had witnessed. Her request for Cathy’s presence meant her time was a gift for more than me, and I appreciated that. But I also took it as a statement that her trust in me was tenuous, and that made me slightly uncomfortable.

Tlingit, Haida, and Tsimshian are the three main languages and cultural groups of the indigenous population in Southeast Alaska today. Scientists generally agree that people had settled the region by at least ten thousand years ago, after the end of the last major ice age, but there is little direct evidence of their ethnicity.


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