In previous blogs, I have mentioned that I am a member of an Alaska Native tribe and that I speak my Native language and wrote a dictionary of the language in 1998. In the mid-to-late 1990s, I was the tribally-appointed Executive Director of my tribe’s cultural foundation. In the decade before that, I apprenticed under Walter Charley, an elder in our tribe who was known across Alaska as a holder of sacred knowledge, that is, the old Native Ways of Knowing. Walter was related to me through my grandmother. (Photo of Walter Charley)
One winter day, Walter and I were walking down a trap-line trail when we saw a wolverine loping through the snow. Although they are much smaller than a bear, wolverines (gulo gulo) have a reputation as the fiercest of animals. They are extremely elusive. In a lifetime of living in the wilds of Alaska, I have only seen a wolverine on one other occasion—at my family’s cabin near Denali National Park. I was alone at the time, a boy of fifteen out hunting grouse and rabbits with a single-shot twenty-two rifle.
Always ready to take advantage of a teaching moment, Walter turned to me.
“Did you know there are two wolverines inside you?”
He was always saying things like that.
“Um, no,” I replied reticently.
“They live here,” he said, stabbing my head with a gloved finger. “They are always fighting for control of your feelings. One is good. Its nature is love, kindness, generosity, empathy, humility, and compassion.”
I nodded as if I understood.
“You say you understand, but you are too young to understand such things,” said my mentor in the way that he always corrected me.
“The other is bad. Its nature is anger and hate, greed and arrogance, jealousy, envy, fear and violence.”
We walked on in silence, the only sound snow crunching beneath our boots.
Finally, I stopped and stood in the middle of the trail.
“Which one wins?” I asked.
Walter looked me in the eyes.
“The one you feed,” he said.
In the decades since Walter passed away, I have learned that the wisdom he imparted to me that wintry day was his own variation of a common Native legend.
John Smelcer is the inaugural writer-in-residence for the Charter for Compassion. He is the author of many books about Alaska Natives, including his collections of Alaska Native mythology The Raven and the Totem and Trickster.