The Language of the Landscape
We hike out to the point, then cross the beach to stand in the middle of an area peppered with large boulders. Here, several Elders remember a time before the Park closed subsistence activities to Hoonah residents. They speak in Lingít, telling us about the relationship they once had to this landscape. One of the Elders tears up because many of our Elders fished, hunted, and harvested seafood in this area. But today the Park Ranger escorts us, oblivious to the grief they are experiencing. Everyone is silent as the ranger points out the landmarks: the old fish traps, the site of ancient smokehouses. We look beyond those artifacts to the Park's lodge, to the Park's headquarters, the Park's housing.
The tide eventually lowers beyond the boulders and we start looking around for what we came here for: gatheringshaaw—gumboots. Our rubber boots stick in the mud as we trudge over slippery rocks and orange popweed. First, we are instructed to thank shaaw for giving its life to us. I lift the thick-blanketed veil of orange seaweed like a soggy curtain and spot several large shaaw suctioned to the base of the rock. I take my knife and slip it under the edge of its shell. I repeat my thanks, "Gunalcheésh shaaw, gunalchéesh shaaw,” while lifting the tip of the knife. The suction loosens and it comes free. I gently put the shaaw in my bag.
Afterwards, as I walk back down the path with my bag full of shaaw, I no longer need to repeat the name over and over again in order to remember the word. In my mind, I see the crustacean hiding beneath orange seaweed. The language lives on this beach, in shaaw, in the limpet shells called Yéil saaxu—raven’s hat, in the barnacles—s’ook, and in a fall sunset over Icy Strait. Likoodzi—amazing.
On this fourth night, I dream in Lingít; yet, I cannot fully comprehend this language during the daytime. In my dream, words form like shadowed hemlocks in waning light. Sounds move from Raven’s mouth to mine. The underlined ‘x’ and ‘g’ pull back into my throat. I'm speaking to the Elders.