During my college days at UAF, I was assigned to read Bruce Chatwyn’s The Songlines for one of my anthropology classes. If you haven’t read it, The Songlines is many things, not the least of which is a travelogue of the Australian outback. It is, however, best known for Chatwyn’s description of what Australia’s Aboriginal people refer to as Songlines. The concept, in a very brief nutshell, is that the oral traditions and creation stories of the Aboriginals (often referred to as Dreaming Stories) are linked to physical points on the landscape. There are endless cultural and metaphysical ramifications of this, but the practical application is that these stories and songs serve as a mnemonic to guide the Aboriginal traveler through places he or she might not be familiar with. The traveler “sings” his or her way through the bush, reciting as they walk, and in this way they are guided to water, shelter, game, and anything else they might need. These Songlines stretch along specific, well-defined paths that crisscross the continent, and the traveler always knows where he is because he knows the song.
These Songlines are without a doubt among the more beautiful of humankind’s creations. Given the amount of time I spend in the woods, I confess that I have been more than a little envious of them over the years. There have been plenty of times when I could have used a song to guide me to good drinking water or to a big spruce tree that would provide shelter from the rain. Or perhaps to warn me that a particular creek was choked with brush and devils club and overrun with surly brown bears.
More recently, I read A Dena’ina Legacy: The Collected Writings of Peter Kalifornsky. This wonderful book is a collection of stories and place names from the territory of the Dena’ina Athabascan people of Cook Inlet and the Kenai Peninsula. Initially, I was captivated by the musical beauty of the names. Esbaytnu, Tutsahtnu and Tutsilitnu stand out in my mind; these streams are known by Euro-Alaskans, respectively, as Bird Creek, Chickaloon River, and Resurrection Creek. There is also Kahtnu, better known today as the Kenai River. Kalifornsky’s book is particularly enjoyable because the traditional stories he tells—the Sukdu, in the Dena’ina language—take place in locales familiar to anyone who lives in Southcentral Alaska: Clam Gulch, Kenai Lake, and Point Possession, among others. Many of these Dena’ina names are wonderfully descriptive, such as Qalnigi Dnazdlut (Clam Gulch), meaning “Rocks are there.” Or perhaps Tuzqunt (Point Possession), meaning “Still Water Place.”
The Sukdu are the creation stories and cultural instruction manual of the Dena’ina people, and these place names are part and parcel with both the content and the message. Said another way, the Sukdu function much like the Songlines. If you’re heading to Qalnigi Dnazdlut, you know to watch out for rocks that could tear the bottom out of your boat. By the same token, if you’re heading to Tuzqunt, you’d know from the name and the stories that happened there that the down-current side of the point will offer shelter from the Inlet’s heinous tide rips. Pretty useful information by any measure, but in the Dena’ina culture, this information is embedded into narratives that carry the same weight as the Koran or the New Testament.
This left me feeling a bit alienated, in the parlance of daytime talk shows, which is a fancy way of saying I felt like a clueless white boy. Then I remembered a conversation I once had with some good friends in Kennecott who pointed out that many of the English place names in the Wrangell Mountains, and the rest of Alaska for that matter, are loaded with practical on-the-ground meaning—if you’re paying attention. A stream called Sweetwater Creek is probably good to drink out of. Conversely, Beaver Creek probably isn’t. If it’s September and you’re looking to fill your freezer, Easy Moose Lake might be a good place to check out. And if you’re travelling through a place called Bear Valley (not necessarily the one above Anchorage), it’s probably a good idea to have pepper spray or a revolver with you.
The take-home message here is that there is a story that is written, spoken, and sung upon Alaska’s landscape, and writers would do well to keep it close to heart.