March 14, 2012 by The Citron Review
All of us Lingít language participants line up our wares on plywood boards and makeshift tables at Dog Point outside of Sitka. Today, we’re told to expect a small group of tourists, who are coming to look at a real working fish camp. This is an immersion camp and we’ve sworn to speak only Lingít for the time that we’re here— four days. Eventually, we decide to speak English to the tourists.
For my family, the impact of first contact goes back to the 1700s. My daughter’s clan, and my adopted clan, the T’akdeintaan, were among the first to encounter the whiteman in Lituya Bay, Alaska. This was also the first time the Tlingits were given alcohol and sugar.
Now, about ten of us, old and young, have set up displays of beautiful handmade moccasins, shell and beaded necklaces, and the most exquisite beaded artwork. We wait until we see a small boat approaching the beach. A young woman from our group grabs the line and ties up the boat to a tree. About a dozen tourists disembark and stare up at the large dilapidated barge where we cook our food if it’s raining. Most of the time we cook our food outside under a shelter on a fire pit. Several large smokehouses and another house with sleeping quarters dot the shoreline. Smoke rises from the largest smokehouse now full of Sockeye. All the structures at Dog Point are built from whatever supplies that the Littlefields, the fish camp operators, have acquired over the years.
The tourists are instructed to look around and they begin to walk across the beach toward us. They see our faces: elders, adults, young children, teenagers, in varying skin shades. My daughter sits at her table, her handmade jewelry spread out on a board. I notice she’s wearing a statement on her t-shirt: “I am part White but I can’t prove it.” The picture depicts the face of an Indian painted half-red and half-white. I smile and point to her shirt and she giggles—It’s too late to change her shirt. We talk in English to the few tourists who look over our tables.
Most of the group passes by our tables; some ignore us, walking up the beach. They point to the half-sunk house that once housed another sleeping quarters. No one stays there now. There is an odd silence among us. We had assumed, since we were the only people in the nearby Alaskan wilderness, the tourists would be delighted to share in this experience. But, no one asks questions, no one smiles, and no one buys anything. We wonder if they know how much time it takes an elder to bead moccasin tops, or whose hands fashioned the shell necklaces. Then as quickly as they beached the boat, the tourists depart. Although, this was not an encounter with La Pérouse’s ship at first contact, there remains an odd feeling.
We are only perplexed for a moment, though. We wander among our own tables, pulling cash out of our pants pockets, or bartering. One jar of smoked cockles for a bracelet. Twenty dollars and a baggie of abalone buttons for the beaded barrette. Together, my daughter and I barter for a bear claw necklace. The elder who sells it to us says it will give us strength, as we are both poets. We decide that we will start a new tradition in our family.
We wear it when we speak to audiences. We wear it when we write. My daughter writes a poem about Invasion. I write one about First Contact.
Vivian Faith Prescott is a fifth generation Alaskan living in Sitka and Kodiak, Alaska. She holds a Ph.D. in Cross Cultural Studies and an MFA from the University of Alaska, Anchorage. Her first book of poety The Hide of My Tongue is available by Plain View Press in 2011. She’s the Co-Director of a non-profit called Raven’s Blanket, designed to perpetuate the cultural wellness and traditions of Indigenous peoples through education, media, and the arts. Her website is http://www.vivianfaithprescott.com and she blogs at http://planetalaska.blogspot.com