As an enrolled member of the Ahtna tribe in Alaska, I grew up hearing the old stories from elders, most of which have long since passed away. In the 1980s, while earning a degree in cultural anthropology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, I began interviewing elders across Alaska to record the myths before they were lost forever. In 1991, I published The Raven and the Totem, a collection of myths from across Alaska, including myths from the Eskimo, Tlingit, Haida, and Athabaskan Indians. The book includes a foreword from famed mythologist, Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth, et. al.) In the mid-1990s, when I was the tribally-appointed Executive Director of our Heritage Foundation, I interviewed every living elder to compile a book of our myths. Years earlier, elders told me there must have been a hundred stories when they were children. But from their collected cultural memory, less than thirty stories survived. I published them in a book called In the Shadows of Mountains (1997) and published an expanded edition years later as Trickster (2015). All royalties from sales go directly to my tribe’s college scholarship program. The stories include some words in our Native language and how to pronounce them in English. My longtime friend, Larry Vienneau, illustrated many of the stories in all three books (find Larry’s art online at www.etsy.com/shop/larryvienneau). During those years, I also compiled and edited a dictionary of our severely endangered language, of which I am one of the last speakers.
Many of the stories are about how the world and everything in it came into being. Some retell how the stars and moon became fixed in the sky. Raven is a fixture in most of the myths. Many stories are about revenge, but compassion figures prominently in the stories: how to treat each other; how to treat the old and the infirm; how to treat your spouse and children. Some instruct that we are to have compassion for the natural world, for animals and the earth itself. In that respect, they serve as examples of environmental stewardship. I thought readers might benefit from reading some of these stories, and so I will periodically offer them as small gifts from the Far North.
The Mouse Story
This story was also told to me years ago by the late Walter Charley, my grandmother’s cousin, and a renowned culture bearer of traditional Native Ways of Knowing.
Long ago, in a small village, there lived a young man. The people of the village worked very hard all summer putting away food for the long winter. They caught salmon with long dip nets, and they used fish traps to catch other fish, too. They worked like this preparing for winter.
One day this man was walking around looking for berries. In the brush beside him he saw a small mouse—dluuni—carrying a large fish egg—k’uun’—in its mouth. The mouse was struggling very hard to cross a log in its path.
The man saw this and helped the mouse. He gently lifted it over the log and placed it on the other side. The mouse quickly ran into the brush and was gone.
Winter came too early that year. It was cold and there wasn’t enough food to put away. Half way through winter the food began to run out and the people became weak and sick. Surely they would not survive the winter.
One day, while the young man was out looking for anything to eat, he came upon a small house. Smoke was coming from its smoke hole. It was a very small house.
The young man heard a voice coming from inside which told him to turn around three times with his eyes closed. The man did this and became small enough to go through the tiny door—hwdatnetaani. Inside the house was a man in a brown fur coat.
“We were expecting you. Come in. Sit down,” he said, gesturing to a chair.
The young man sat down and listened.
“Your people have no food. It is a very hard winter for them. But I will help you,” said the strange man.
The man brought out a small pack which he began to fill with berries and fish meat and grease. He gave it to the young Indian man from the village who asked why he was doing this.
“This summer you helped me. When I was carrying home a large fish egg for my family, you helped me across a fallen tree. Because you helped me then, I am helping you now.”
The young man remembered helping a little dlunni and understood that this was that same mouse. He went outside and became big again, but the pack was still small.
“I thank you for this gift, but it is not enough to feed even me.” That is what the Indian said.
The Mouse Man replied, “When you return to your village, leave the pack outside for the night and sing this song which I will teach you. In the morning it will become a large pile of food.”
The young man did this and he saved his village from starvation because he had helped a small animal.
dluuni (dloo-nee) “mouse”
k’uun’ (k-oon) “fish egg” [pronounced as two syllables]
hwdatnetaani (wha-dot-net-taw-nee) “door”
John Smelcer is the author of over 50 books, including numerous books on Alaska Native mythology and contemporary Native American literature. He is an enrolled member of Ahtna, Inc. and a member of the Traditional Native Village of Tazlina. Aside from his dictionary of the severely endangered Ahtna language, he teaches Ahtna in a YouTube series aptly entitled Ahtna 101. In 2013, Dr. Smelcer was recommended to The White House to receive the Citizen’s Medal for his enduring efforts to preserve Alaska Native cultures.