Ketchikan – Leaving Alaska Where the Past and Present Come Together
My head reeled with information as I left the Totem Museum and started my walk back to the ship. Up the hill that overlooked the harbor was the salmon hatchery – I had seen that in Juneau. There was a totem park near the entrance to Harbor Street where there was a stop for the shuttle bus so I could ride back to the ship’s terminal and shopping district. Check out the park or catch the bus? I remembered that I wanted to do some Christmas shopping – perhaps look for some local artists who lived in the area and did more contemporary work. I decided on the latter and started walking toward the shuttle pick up area.
As I walked, I became aware of a man behind me. I had seen this man in the artist’s studio at the Museum. He had the unkempt look of a commercial fisherman. I had seen lots of commercial fishermen when I lived in Florence, for Florence was a community much like Ketchikan. The man’s clothes were wrinkled and he had what appeared to be a permanent five o’clock shadow with weathered skin that made him appear older than I thought he was. He walked up beside me and locked steps with me as he said, “You want indigenous art, I can show you some.” He had some kind of stone in his hand. My radar went up because these are the kinds of situations most single women would normally avoid or at least be a little nervous. I must admit I was just a little nervous, but once again I’m not the type to avoid people based on stereotypes and judgements.
“What do you mean?” I asked. “Are you a Native?”
“No,” he said. “I am Norwegian and French, but this stone I have was carved by a Native.” He showed me a smooth piece of stone with ripples in it that appeared to have some sort of design. “Do you want to hear the story of this stone? I can take you to the place that inspired it if you want.”
“Since you are not a Native, I don’t want to hear the story from you. The interpreter on my ship said that people from other clans cannot tell other clans’ stories because they might get them wrong. I am also in a hurry because I don’t want to miss my ship and be left behind.”
“The man who carved the stone is fishing right down there in front of the mountain that inspired him. I will take you to him; he is a Haida.” The man pointed to a figure below fishing in the harbor across from a mountain in the distance.
I kept walking as I said, “I don’t know if I have time to listen to the story; I am in a hurry. What do you do for a living?” I asked. “Do you work on a particular fishing boat?”
“I go out on most any boat I choose,” he said. “I am so good the owners come to me.”
I didn’t know whether I believed that or not, but I said, “Wow, it must be nice to be good at what you do.” We were coming closer to the point where the man was fishing and I saw a bike parked at the top of the hill with some feathers on the handlebars. I knew this must be the fisherman’s bike and also that the fisherman was indeed Native.
My companion yelled, “Ha!”
The fisherman turned and waved and yelled, “Ha!’ I just stood there waiting to find out what would happen next. The fisherman turned and went back to fishing.
My companion held out the stone and pointed up to the mountain. “See that flat top on the mountain? Look at this stone. See the flat image. That’s what inspired the carving of this stone. I couldn’t let this go for less than $1200.”
I looked at the stone and then responded by saying, “I am not interested in buying anything from you. I need to get back to the ship.” At that point I walked quickly away and hurried to the spot to catch the shuttle. The man did not pursue me.
I thought about that stone all the while I was riding to the shopping area in Ketchikan and things began falling in place for me. The stone had the same appearance as the bedrock I had seen along the trails around the Mendenhall Glacier. The signs along the way pointed out that this bedrock was beneath the giant glaciers and when the glacier receded, the heavy ice left scars and indentations in the smooth rock. The piece of stone I had seen was probably a piece of this bedrock, but what was interesting was the shape I had seen on the stone.
The shape I had seen was what looked like the beak of a raven. I then remembered what the artist at the Totem Museum had told me about the images the Tlingets painted on their totems, masks and long canoes. I had asked about the raven, specifically, because I knew from my reading that the raven held a special place in Tlingit lore and was often carved on the prows of their canoes to insure a safe journey and abundant salmon harvest. The artist told me that not only was the Raven considered a Creator and Protector, it was also a Trickster. Good vs. Evil? I ruminated about that the entire length of the ride and then put my own spin on this rock.
I believe the strange man had found the rock and was trying to take advantage of a vulnerable tourist who probably had more money than sense. What he showed me, however, was something that probably led to the creation stories of the early cultures that lived at the time of the receding of the great Glacier and seeing the images left on the rock. The shiny black stone with the image of a beak reminded them of the raven. That was my interpretation anyway and I stepped from the shuttle bus into the shopping district. I eventually found a contemporary jewelry shop that carried beautiful work of local artisans and bought several unique items to take home and share with my family as Christmas gifts along with the stories of this far away land of Alaska where the past and present come together.