72. Wisdom Of An Athabaskan Elder
As a young man I had an uncanny instinct for adventure somehow, which often led me to some remarkable people in remarkable places. One such meeting was in the Athabaskan village of Minto, Alaska located just forty miles south of the Artic Circle. It was summer 1979. At solstice the sun never set!
One of the village elders adopted me that summer. I think he was trying to find a husband for his grand-daughter, but that’s another story. His name was Peter John, a name given to him by the Jesuit missionaries. His Athabaskan name was used only in ceremonies. Over the summer we had many long conversations sitting on a bench looking out over the immense Tanana River basin.
He taught me something that became part of the creed of living for me – “something to wrestle with all your life, if you choose to” – he said with that inscrutable smile.
It was one of those extraordinary Alaska summer nights when the sun dips just below the horizon for several hours and the light becomes a magical twilight infused with charged particles. As ever, we were sitting at his overlook listening to the call of the loons, waiting to spot a grizzly or a moose or a wolf…just talking, listening, watching.
He would tell me these unbelievable stories about growing up there, what it was like in the old days – before electricity, before the roads were built, before the bush planes. He was now 80 years in, a former village chief, a tribal council elder and a very wise and respected, beautiful human being.
One of the things he said that night stuck with me to this day:
- “All this,” he said, arms outstretched, indicating the vast wilderness around us, “the river, the mountains, the sun and the moon, the wild animals, the great trees and even this,” he said, patting his chest with both hands, “our body, NONE OF IT IS OURS. IT DOES NOT BELONG TO US. WE BELONG TO IT!”
- That stuck with me.
He explained how the first salmon caught in the spring is celebrated in the potlatch ceremony. How nothing is taken for granted:
- “For everything we are given – the air, the water, food, everything – we celebrate it by giving back ten-fold, in honor and thanks to The Great Mother, to The Great Father. We are guests here. This is their home!” he exclaimed, pointing to the exaltation of water fowl that just rose up from the marshes, “Our home is elsewhere.”
“Some humans think they own things. They act as if the earth, the animals and trees, all living things, even their children, belong to them. How can it be?” He spoke without bitterness or judgment, but with a kind of resigned wistfulness about the state of human affairs, “Don’t they know that everything is the property of Creation, and is to be respected as such?!”
Thank you Peter John.
Our gifts are not our possessions. We can value something, care for something, without having to possess it, to claim it, to control it! Life is far too short to be bound up in such mediocrity. The amazing thing is we are given the choice!