About the Author
Creation Myth
Playing Hide-
    with Raven

The Indian Prophet
On Feet of Clouds
Song of the Rain
Prayer Singer
Zen Raven
A Sufficient Wisdom
Raven's Trans-
   Species Love

Squirrel Man
Muskrat Woman
Mountain Smoke

World Voices Home

The Literary Explorer
Writers on the Job
Books Forgotten
Thomas E. Kennedy
Walter Cummins
Web Del Sol


The poems assembled here are among the rarest examples of a culture's literature in existence. They come from one of the world's most endangered languages, one which had no written form even a generation ago, a language—so our mythology says—was given to us by Raven.

Ahtna is one of twenty linguistically distinct indigenous languages in Alaska (now, nineteen since the last native speaker of Eyak recently passed away). Ahtna is a member of the broader Dine' language family, which includes Navajo. The Native languages of Alaska fall into several encompassing groups: Yupik and Inupiaq (popularly labeled “Eskimo”), the southeast languages (Tlingit, Haida, Tsimshian, Eyak), Alutiiq (Aleut and Sugpiat languages), and thirteen interior Athabaskan languages—Ahtna being among them. Ahtna has four regional dialects (see map below). My grandmother's older sister, Morrie Secondchief, who lived in Mendeltna (literally, “Between Two Lakes;” men sometimes ben is our word for lake; notice the root word in Mentasta below), was the last speaker of our Western dialect.


In 1980, linguists at the University of Alaska Fairbanks determined that there were some 120 speakers of our language. By 1990, that number had fallen to about 60. By 2000, fewer than 50 survived. Today, the total number of speakers is less than 30. Aside from myself, Ruth Johns of Copper Center, the widow of our last traditional chief, Harry Johns, was the only other Ahtna speaker who could fluently write in our language (she spoke our central dialect). I participated in the potlatch ceremony honoring him as chief. I also attended Harry's funeral potlatch a few years later. Ruth died shortly thereafter, leaving me as the last person who can read and write in Ahtna. I remember talking to her at the Alaska Native Medical Center just before her death.

Within the next decade, because I am by far the youngest speaker of Ahtna still alive, I will most likely be the last speaker on earth—a grave and awesome responsibility. Indeed, the late Carl Sagan once wrote of my unenviable duty to preserve my language, “no other American poet shares such a heavy cultural burden.”

Throughout much of the 1980s, I was an undergraduate in anthropology, archaeology, linguistics, English, and education at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Ahtna Native Corporation supported my education with scholarships for much of that time, also supporting me during my postgraduate studies in comparative literature in the early 1990s. My area of concentration was Alaska Native cultures and languages. I studied linguistics under Lawrence Kaplan and Michael Krauss, and had discussions about Ahtna with James Kari, who had worked with many of my relatives in the previous decade.

As the son of an Ahtna Athabaskan father, I took an immediate interest in our language. I was taught at first by my full-blood Indian grandmother, Mary Smelcer-Wood, and her sister, Morrie Secondchief. I called them both grandmothers as is our custom. While raised in the same abandoned village, Mary had only a rudimentary vocabulary, while Morrie was fluent. I used to take Morrie blueberry picking and caribou hunting with me. Her husband, Joseph Secondchief, who died when he was ninety, stubbornly never learned to speak English. The only word he knew was “porcupine.” He loved the taste of porcupine, and I used to hunt them for him once he was too old. It was he who taught me the secret of quartering the sharp-quilled animal, which we call nuuni [pronounced: new-nee] in our language. He was among the last of his generation.

mary&morrie   morrie
                          Morrie & Mary                                        Morrie

For much of the 1980s, I traveled to our villages meeting elders to continue the arduous task of learning our language. My uncle Herbert Smelcer, a well known tribal leader, made the initial contacts and introductions on my behalf, since most of the elders did not know my father. Each summer, I traveled to villages as far away as Mentasta and Chitina. I also traveled around Alaska collecting traditional myths and stories about boarding schools from elders in such remote places as Minto and Nulato and the Eskimo communities of Point Barrow and Kaktovik, also called Barter Island. The myths eventually ended up in my book, The Raven and the Totem, for which the late mythologist Joseph Campbell generously provided a foreword.

Thanks to my father's mother, my grandmother, who gifted me some of her shares, I have been a shareholder of Ahtna Native Corporation and Tazlina Village Traditional Council since 1995. When my grandmother died in 2004, of all her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, she left me her shares in our Native Corporation, which in Alaska, substitutes for the reservation system in the Lower-48.

As I said previously, my uncle Herbert Smelcer was one of Alaska's most influential Native leaders. He was involved in the Alaska Native Land Claims Settlement in the 1970s, signing Indian Rights legislation with President Jimmy Carter. For all of Ahtna Native Corporation's existence, he served on the Board of Directors and was at one time president. For all my adult life, Herb instructed me with great patience and intensity in the ways of our culture, as is the custom for uncles. We hunted together and maintained our family's subsistence fish-wheel in Tazlina. A fish-wheel is an ingenious device designed to rotate by river current, scooping up unwary salmon as they spawn upriver. He told me often how much he loved me. When Uncle Herb also died in 2004, I spoke to a packed audience at his funeral service held at the Alaska Native Heritage Center in Anchorage. I wrote both his and his mother's obituary. I cannot escape who I am. Like you, I am the product of the people who raised me and loved me and instructed me, and of a place and of a culture. I can be no other.

In the summer and fall of 1995, after leaving the University of Alaska where I co-directed the fledgling Alaska Native Studies program, I was hired by Ahtna, Inc. to conduct archaeological fieldwork around Glennallen, along Klutina River, and throughout the region near the confluence of the Kotsina, Copper, and Chitina Rivers, where Ahtna had sold timber rights, eventually publishing a book on my findings.

By late winter, I was tribally appointed the executive director of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation. For the next three years, until the summer of 1998, I was instructed by every living elder in the Copper River valley who spoke any degree of Ahtna. Every two weeks—even at fifty and sixty below zero—elders came to my office in Glennallen to enthusiastically and meticulously teach me every word in our language. That's nearly 100 workshops! The end result was that I would become the living repository of our language. Whereas one elder may have remembered fifty or a hundred words, another could recall only a few place names or the names of some plants or animals. Eventually, I became the one person who was taught—collectively—every single word in our living cultural memory. I used my education and energies to produce not only a dictionary, but also curriculum materials, a bilingual children's picture book, language posters, and a series of oral history collections. The Ahtna Noun Dictionary and Pronunciation Guide was published in May of 1998, and In the Shadows of Mountains (foreword by Pulitzer Prize winner Gary Snyder) contains every known myth in our culture. While executive director, I was invited to speak to other Alaska Native village organizations and reservations across the nation about language preservation. In late 1998, I was nominated for the Alaska Governor's Award for my work on the preservation of Alaska Native cultures and languages.

It is worth noting that The Ahtna Noun Dictionary was incomplete. Supporting grants stipulated that a product had to be delivered by a deadline, and so I published what I had at the time. I still have over 100 pages of handwritten notes on yellow legal pads, which were not included. It has always remained my plan to expand the dictionary.

From 2004 until the summer of 2008, I worked with the village elders of Chenega, an island village in Prince William Sound, to document their endangered Alutiiq language and culture. With their help, I have completed about half the dictionary. I am now one of only about a dozen or more people who can speak and write in their dialect. Aside from a successful poster series and a DVD series, two important nonfiction books were published from those efforts: We are the Land, We are the Sea and The Day That Cries Forever, which was later adapted into a play.

The bilingual poems in this collection represent the only literature in the Ahtna language extant. It is the greatest honor of my life that both the Ahtna people and the villagers of Chenega entrusted me with their most precious resource: the very language in which they express their existence within the universe.