“I’ve never been out here before,” Robyn said nervously.
“It’s okay, Robyn Hannaford, you’ve been invited by the Putyuk herself,” Toto reassured her as the road rose to climb the first hill of the peninsula. There, on either side of the road, stood a pair of totem poles towering over their heads, each expertly carved and brightly painted. They stood like an entry gate, a barrier, and their imposing size alone was enough to cause Robyn to slow as they approached.
“What do they mean?” she asked her guide cautiously.
“Don’t worry, these are welcome totems. They welcome our family members home again as well as tell our visitors who we are and about our past.”
“You mean like that sign out on the main road that says, ‘Welcome To Haines, Where Your Outdoor Adventure Begins’?”
“Sort of,” Toto smiled, “But these tell the story of our people, too.”
“I see a lot of animals…is that big one a bear?”
“Yes, we are part of the Bear Clan. The bear is an important part of our heritage…our family,” she explained as they slowly passed between the totems.
“The bear is part of your family?”
“The legend is, that in the Time Before Time, ‘The Dreamtime’ as it’s called, there was a great and powerful bear who was also a shape shifter. He made himself to look like a man and came to the village of our ancestors. There, he convinced the chief’s daughter to go back with him to his home in the woods. For years, they lived in a cave and she bore him children before he ever revealed his true form to her. By then, she loved the bear and decided to stay with him. She raised her children to respect the ways of the bear and in return, the bear, protected their children and all their descendants from harm and helped provide for their needs. We are descended from that bear. That bear is part of our family. We take only what we need from the bear and he gladly gives it to us to help us survive.”
“But the hunting camps…the tourists…”
“Times change, Robyn Hannaford…the bear still provides for our needs, just in a different way these days,” she said with some sadness. “You will see more totems, smaller ones at people’s houses. Those tell more the story of their lives, their part of the Bear Clan…You’ll see.”
As they climbed the hill, they passed the first of several contemporary ranch-style homes set just back from the road. As Toto had said, Robyn saw a number of smaller, family totems incorporated into each home’s landscape and design. One totem pole marked the entrance to the driveway, another stood in the center of small garden patch, yet a third stood in place of a roof support next to the steps up to someone’s covered porch.
“I see they all seem to have a bear, but they all have a large turtle, too,” questioned Robyn as they came to a set of log stairs set well into the hill at the side of the road.
“Here, we take the shortcut up,” Toto directed as she led the way up the steps. “The Great Tortoise is also a sacred symbol. She represents the entire world as we know it.”
“The world?” Robyn asked as she labored up the many steps.
“Our legend tells us that all we know as the Earth and land rides on the back of the Great Tortoise. She is very large and there is room for all. It is the Great Tortoise that swims along the surface of the oceans and keeps our people safely above the water. We owe our existence to her.”
Together, the two women reached the top of the stairs and paused to draw a refreshing breath before continuing on. From where they stood, Robyn could now see that the stairs had indeed been a shortcut. The road they now joined was the same road they had left at the bottom of the steps, but it had run for some distance along the peninsula before doubling back as it slowly climbed the side of the steep hill. They had climbed the steps instead of walking a much farther distance. As Robyn recovered from the effort, she wondered which way she would have preferred. But it was time to keep up with Toto again as they made their way up the road and past more homes nestled into the hill. The first house they passed had a small totem supporting the mailbox at the side of the road.
“OK, I see the bear and the turtle…” Robyn said as they passed by. “But what’s that?” She pointed to the carved image just below the turtle. It appeared to be a crouching human, a woman, but with large eyes, wild hair and her mouth wide open as if she were screaming in anger. Her arms were crossed and she held a strange object in each hand.
“That’s Tsonokwa,” answered Toto very matter-of-factly. “This is Danny and Cindy Imnek’s house and Cindy is a member of our lodge. All our members are entitled to put Tsonokwa on their family totems.”
“But who is Tsonokwa?” Robyn dug deeper as they continued up the road.
“Tsonokwa is the Wild Woman. She possesses great magic and is very unpredictable.”
“What are those things she was holding?”
“Magic rattles…One is shaped like the frog and that’s a very powerful creature in our culture. It’s the only creature that can live in both worlds, on land and below the water. The other rattle represents Many Legs, the spider. Many Legs reminds us we are all connected…all peoples, everywhere. When Tsonokwa holds both rattles, it is said to represent her power to see all worlds and to travel between them.”
“‘It is said…’” Robyn questioned. “So, you really don’t believe it yourself?” Toto blushed slightly before she answered.
“Who am I to question these ways? And who are you to do so? This is just the first day in a long journey that you didn’t even know about a day ago.” And then Toto said more thoughtfully, “Today is a day to answer your questions, not question your answers…But I can tell you this much, my grandmother said you’d ask me that very question!”
“She did?” Robyn was genuinely surprised.
“Just like she knew you’d be here this morning.”
“I don’t know how, but that’s probably why she’s the Putyuk of the Lodge, isn’t it.”
The two women walked a short distance in silence as Robyn took the time to let what she was learning sink in. Up the road, they passed yet another small house set back into the trees. This house was less well kept than the others she had seen so far and had no totem on display. But where a totem might have stood, there was nothing but an obvious hole and a scattered pile of dirt.
“What’s their story?” asked Robyn as they passed. “Looks like their totem is missing.” Toto covered her mouth politely and giggled before answering.
“That’s Georgie Sutcliff’s place. And that hole has been quite the talk for two years now!”
“It’s a hole…” Robyn offered in confusion.
“It’s not just a hole, well, it’s what used to be in it that’s all the talk! See, Georgie borrowed money from Edwin Spruce. He lives back down the hill a ways. Anyway, Georgie borrowed money and had a real hard time paying it back. Eventually, Edwin went to the Council and got permission to put a Shame Pole in Georgie’s yard.”
“A Shame Pole?”
“It’s a special totem that tells everyone that Georgie owes Edwin money. Some people call it the ‘Chilkoot Collection Agency.’” Again, she giggled. “Edwin carved it himself with his chainsaw and planted it right there in that hole. Our custom says that while you have a Shame Pole in your yard you may not display your family totem; the shame of the bad debt comes first.”
“So, where is it? Did he pay back the money?”
“Yes, sort of…One day, two summers ago, Georgie pulled up the pole with his pickup truck, hauled it into town and sold it to a tourist!”
“He sold it?”
“Yup! And he got a lot more for it than he owed Edwin. So he paid back Edwin and kept the rest for himself.” At this, Toto couldn’t help but laugh softly out loud. Her laughter was contagious and soon Robyn was enjoying the story just as much. “But Edwin didn’t like that. He felt he should have gotten all the money from the sale as a penalty. He said it felt like he worked off Georgie’s debt for him!”
“Well, I can follow that.” Robyn added still finding the humor in the story.
“So Edwin filed a protest with the Council and until they decide, Georgie can’t put his family totem back up…but he keeps the hole all ready.”
“How long will that go on?”
“Normally, not very long. But Edwin sits on the Council, see. He keeps blocking it until Georgie gives him the rest of the money he made from selling the Shame Pole. This could go on a long time!”
“All this over just one pole?”
“Wait, it gets better! So the tourist who bought the Shame Pole pays one of the shopkeepers in town to ship it home for him. When the shopkeeper found out what the man had paid for the pole, he worked out a deal with Edwin to make even more totems to sell in his store. So now, Edwin is making more money in his retirement than he ever did at the Fishery…And he has Georgie to thank for it! Now, it’s a pride thing.”
“I’ve seen those poles. Out on the sidewalk at the old souvenir store. He makes those things?”
“Those are Edwin’s! But the new ones aren’t Shame Poles, they’re just kind of…everyday Bear Clan-type totems. But think of that poor guy from Ohio who now proudly displays a Shame Pole in his rec room!” At this, both women laughed out loud as Toto led them up to yet another set of log steps set into the hillside. They both took a deep breath and then started to climb at a slow but steady pace.
“Tell me about the hawks,” asked Robyn as they climbed.
“I saw a good number of those poles had hawks up near the top. What do the hawks mean?”
“Those weren’t hawks, those are eagles,” Toto gently corrected. “The eagle is another important symbol in our beliefs. No one flies higher than the eagle, no other bird in the world. It is said, the eagle can fly all the way to the Great Spirit himself, and then return to roost upon the Earth. If you whisper your prayers to an eagle, they go directly to the ear of the Great Spirit… And when you see an eagle, you should listen…he just may have the answer to your prayer.”
“Is there an Eagle Clan, like you with the Bear?”
“No...The eagle is far too busy answering prayers for all people to take responsibility for a single clan.”
“So there are no Eagle-People?”
“I didn’t say that. I said the eagle is not family with any one tribe. But there is the legend that many years ago—”
“In the Dreamtime?”
“Yes, in the Dreamtime, the eagle did have a human wife and there was a child. This Eagle-Child grew to be a powerful man who could spread the word and the joy of the Great Spirit wherever he went. He, too, married and while one became many, Eagle-Men have always kept their great power.”
“Have you ever seen one?” Robyn tempted.
“No…not that I know of, anyway.”
“You wouldn’t know?” she asked startled.
“Eagle-Men may not choose to show you their wings. You may never see one fly. But that doesn’t mean they can’t.”
“Then how do you know if you ever meet one?”
“He may bring you the answer to your prayer. He may be the comfort you need, or the courage you lack to carry on. Eagle-Men are the hope of all people, everywhere.”
“Wait!” Robyn paused as she reached the top of the stairs. “People that can fly and spread the word of…the Great Spirit…God…you mean like…ANGELS?”
“I guess that’s what you call them.”
“It’s amazing…” Robyn wondered out loud, “How we all have that same belief, somehow or other…I mean—”
“And that’s why you’re here,” Toto added as she lead the way across the road to where a path cut into the brush.
“Me? What do I have to do with this?” Carefully she followed the Native girl through the growth at the side of the road and up the well-worn path ahead of them.
“We need to be five.”
“It’s unfortunate that the time of the prophecy has come when the Tsonokwa Lodge is weak… lives are busy and people are hard pressed. But we need you to be five, to fulfill our role.”
“Many years ago—”
“Yeah, yeah, I know…in the Dreamtime!” Robyn pushed her along through the story but Toto would not be rushed.
“In the Dreamtime, we were told an Eagle-Man would come to our people at a time of great need.”
“Hey, times are tough all over. I count my tips twice these days.”
“Only with the help of the Eagle-Man would we be saved and the Chilkoot Nation live on.”
“But what do I have to do with that?”
“The prophecy also says the Eagle-Man will be blinded by his own cloud and may not even know who he is.”
Robyn caught her breath as Toto mentioned this mysterious cloud. It wasn’t the first time she had heard of it. But before she could ask the question that came to mind, Toto continued. “Tsonokwa herself warned our people this day would come. She had seen it with the help of Many Legs, the spider and her web that keeps us all connected. The Tsonokwa Lodge was formed just for this purpose, just for this day…to help the Eagle-Man so that he may save the Chilkoot People.”
“What makes you think I can help fix this…broken angel?”
“Many Legs. She tells the Putyuk that you are more connected than others. And with you, we are five!” It was then that the path led the two women out of the trees and into a clearing next to a small lake, high on the Chilkoot Peninsula. There, directly in front of them stood the old meeting house where the Tsonokwa Lodge gathered. As the two women approached the rough-hewn door, Robyn quickly studied the totem pole that stood to one side of the entry. By now, she recognized most of the symbols carved into the wood. There was of course, the Bear and among others, there was the Eagle, Tonsokwa herself and at the top of the totem was the Great Tortoise. And across her shell, reaching from edge to edge, was Many Legs, the spider. Robyn couldn’t help but realize the similarity to this totem pole and the carved walking stick the old woman had carried with her just the morning before. Toto pointed to an empty hole in the ground on the opposite side of the entry.
“The men have moved their Council meetings to the new Community Center farther down the hill. Now, only the Tsonokwa meet in this place. So, Robyn Hannaford,” she said as she put her hand on the well-worn latch that held the door closed. “Are you ready to take that first step?” But Robyn looked back at her in surprise.
“First step? You mean all those other ones didn’t count?”
The Great Northern Coven
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Copyright © 2016 by Bruce Jenvey