Samples from Published Works by Daniel Lee Henry

  • “Becoming Deer”
  • “The Wild Line”
  • Kuiu Dreamtime”

“Becoming Deer”

Cradling British or Russian arms, iron-tipped spears and twenty-inch daggers secured by scabbard and buckler, men of the Chilkoot stay their posts against their Chilkat cousins on the meadow isthmus of Deishu. Musket-fire has all but ceased on this fourth morning of battle; the prickle of high alert is replaced by anticipation of normalcy. Headmen of each faction emerge from a small house owned by neither. They still wear the whalebone shoulder-pieces and bearhide mantles of war, decked by prominent cedar hats carved into killer whale and sea monster. Draped over the right shoulder of each, though, is a Chilkat blanket, emblem of peace. “Enough bloodshed,” booms Chief Daanaawaak’s voice against the walls of ancient spruce that define the meadows’ edges. “Three men dead on each side. The debt is repaid.”

Ranks break and fade into the woods as warriors rush off to large cedar canoes that will take them to Deer Rock. An hours’ paddle north to the head of Lutak Inlet brings men of two watersheds to the intertidal estuary of the Chilkoot River and, with this high tide, upriver to the rock. Early conflicts were waged a week ago at the river mouth; then nine miles south at Deishu, on the northern base of the Chilkat Peninsula before it forks the Lynn Canal into Chilkat and Chilkoot Inlets, half-way between two river territories.

The eulachon run on the Chilkoot was strong this spring, while the Chilkat produced only moderate numbers of the smelt whose oil is prized throughout the region. L’koot villagers also secured exceptional stocks of sockeye salmon, dried and smoked last autumn in such quantities that winter sheds are still more than half-full into spring. Chilkats, whose three villages are accustomed to plenty, ache from a lean season on their river, named “salmon storehouse” for its usual abundance, and are angered by their relatives’ unwillingness to share.

Resentment ignites at a forty-day party, a traditional event in which clans unite to commemorate the life of one recently deceased, usually demonstrated by substantial gift-giving. Relatives are outraged when a L’koot man refuses his Chilkat cousin’s request for a pack-load of eulachon. Harsh words are exchanged. The cousins grapple, then one stabs the other in the face, a heinous offense among Tlingits. Two days later, a band of Chilkats ambushes a Chilkoot man fishing at the mouth of his clan’s river, but he escapes before they cut his face, too. Following the dictates of tradition, internecine war breaks out to achieve a balance of honor. And, as is custom, peace is reached at Deer Rock.

Men dressed in fine regalia beach their canoes on separate sides of the rock; the two groups gather a few hundred feet apart on the sedge-and-iris shores in the riverine avenue hemmed by giant Sitka spruce. Some men hold thick white shocks of bald eagle feathers. After each assembly exchanges messages carried by young runners, drums begin to throb somber rhythms and, one by one, dancers step forward. Choral voices rise like the fluffy eagle down flung from seal gut sacks and lifted above the river by invisible currents. Dance movements grow jerky as the drums become more assertive. A low murmur issues from the passing of water in clear blue-green channels between bear-sized boulders along this lower stretch. Drums thunder, then boom to a sudden halt. Dancers freeze. River-noise rushes in to fill the void.

Dancers gradually retreat to their comrades, leaving two men to face each other from either side of the rock. From their respective groups advance the headmen. Each costumes his dancer with a deerhide cape and an antlered headpiece. Warriors are transformed to Deer; the jerky, exaggerated motion of the initial dance is replaced with elaborate circles of studied movement. Drumbeat is muffled, voices low. Peace is in the making. As eagle down wafts among them like the fat, lazy snowflakes of spring, troops sit wrapped in Chilkat blankets, some resting their temples on bent knees, contemplative. Drums are silent, movements of the deer are furtive—first one stalks the other around the rock, then roles are reversed. No sound intrudes but the whispering river, always the river. Drums and chants resound when the deer eventually embrace on the grassy flank between rock and rushing water. At the conclusion, Chilkats are invited to feast in L’koot clan houses. That night, they gather around a firepit to listen and respond to former enemies who stand forth with salutatory speeches on the virtues of the opposition. As the right hand is used to brandish weapons, tonight the men will show peaceful intentions by eating with their left.

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“The Wild Line”

When the dust settles after years of meetings and disputes and intellectual navel-gazing and horse-trading and lies and studies and compromises, the administrative act of preserving American wilderness is, in concept, simple.

A bold line is drawn around the landscape to identify an area’s special status: no building, no logging, no motors, no roads, “no trace.” As the architects of America’s wilderness ethic intended, the designated land is to revert to a refuge where uninhabited Earth is spared the indignities of asphalt and landfill.

I recall the tingle that shot through my nine-year-old body when I first saw the line. For two or three summers my family camped at a favorite fishing hole on the South Fork of the Payette River, in central Idaho. On days when midday heat numbed trout and small children, a grown-up might lure us onto a trail with promises of Vienna sausages and candy bars. A few hundred yards up what is now called the Idaho Centennial Trail, we routinely paused to admire a wooden sign marking our entrance into the Sawtooth Primitive Area. Here was a place where animals ran free, my folks said, where humans only visited.

The line became more real when I encountered a new sign in July 1965: Entering Sawtooth Wilderness Area.

“This is all that’s left of the great American frontier,” Dad intoned. He and Mom had recently joined The Wilderness Society and were reading the organization’s magazine. In the simplest, most romantic way he could muster, Dad explained how the Wilderness Act became law the previous fall, saving the natural treasures of a great nation. Lover of history and close calls, Dad regaled us with nail-biters about John Muir, the “grandfather” of wilderness, who survived by grit and blind faith. “Muir was a wild guy,” Dad said, “but he was lucky. The Paiute (whom he taught on the rez) thrived for centuries out here not because of luck, but because it was home. Now you tell me — who’s wilder?”

My father’s question lingered as I tried to discern the division of an otherwise innocuous lodgepole pine meadow. As the others turned for camp, I hopped back and forth over the line. Wilderness, just plain old forest; wilderness, forest. I swore it felt different on the wild side.

The incident propelled me through a half-century of inquiry into the wild line. As a student of “frontier rhetoric,” I explored Native and non-Native relationships with the natural world, an investigation that, over time, confirmed my father’s allusion to the racist implications of the word “wild.” Tecumseh and Thoreau notwithstanding, tracing the roots of American conservation advocacy invariably led to the man whose name I first heard while standing on the line with Dad.

In his crusade to preserve his beloved Sierra Nevada and America’s forests, John Muir sharpened a rhetorical tack dodged by Emerson and Thoreau. While American philosophers and poets waxed romantic over the beauty and restorative powers of wild places, Muir was among the first to argue for their necessity. Like few Euro-American contemporaries, Muir’s sheer personal vigor and scientific acuity (he was, remember, a first rate geologist for the time) deepened his relationship with nature beyond utility or taxonomy. Product of an evangelical upbringing, he fashioned an image of wild nature safe enough for a Christian nation.

Read “evangelical” as righteous passion. Like all true believers, Muir drew a line in the duff between good and evil — specifically the superiority of wild over domestic. But — as I learned in the course of my explorations — lines are funny things. Even when inviolate, they can move, pivoting on an axis, as it were. More to the point, a line looks different depending upon your perspective, depending upon which side of the line you stand. For Native people, the wild line all too often meant exclusion, and the inevitable collapse of Old Ways.

This became especially clear to me when I moved to Alaska a century after Muir’s first visit and felt the environmental icon’s presence in vast landscapes seemingly untouched by humans. How, I wondered, did Alaska Natives respond to “preserved” lands? Did the wilderness status kill culture by locking Natives from their traditional lands, or did it protect the Old Ways by managing lands and resources for future generations?

Muir ventured into Alaska in 1879 lugging with him the mainstream belief that Native Americans were little more than mythology, pitiable has-beens with “no place in the landscape.” Aboard the steamship from San Francisco, Muir’s missionary companions spoke of the northern Tlingit people as the last of the “wild tribes”— untreatied, warlike, animistic — in a geographic and cultural stronghold untouched by Euro-American influence.

All but ignored by “civilization,” the Chilkat-Chilkoot tribal alliance guarded Jilkaat aani, a 2.6 million acre territory of tidewater back-channels, primeval valleys, and glacier-cloaked mountain ranges at the northern terminus of Alaska’s Inside Passage. For perhaps a thousand years, the two tribes subsisted on, among other resources, huge salmon runs on three rivers. Fierce guardians of a rich homeland, the northern Tlingit drew a bold line that prohibited any white settlement.

John Muir persuaded them to redraw the line.

On November 4, a week after Muir “discovered” Glacier Bay, he and his companions paddled to Jilkaat aani and changed the course of history. For five days in the headman’s ample house, the Reverend Hall Young preached to audiences so large that people ripped boards off the roof to hang from the rafters and listen. A short speech from Muir about “brotherhood” convinced the Tlingits to open their lands to their white brothers, thus revealing secret trade routes into the Yukon interior. As many as two thousand Chilkat-Chilkoot “heathens” converted.

“He was the first white man who didn’t want something from us,” says Kim Strong, a former village council president. Sally Burratin, a Klukwan elder, agrees. Her relatives never mentioned the preacher, only Muir whose uncharacteristically brief homilies possessed “more of God’s power” than any white man they had known. They asked if he might be their missionary, but Muir declined — he was returning to a sweetheart in California and what would she say?

The first white miners crossed Chilkoot Pass the next spring, producing gold and rumor enough to eventually lead to the Klondike Gold Rush of 1898 and an attendant Tlingit cultural upheaval.

Although Tlingits credit Muir for his strength as a speaker and peacemaker, they dispute his worship of the wild. “Wilderness is a made-up word,” says Tlingit cultural activist Bob Sam, “because Native people were here as stewards long before John Muir.” The way Sam sees it, Muir created “a religion called conservation” which “disciples follow blindly.” For Native Alaskans, like many indigenous people, the wild line makes little sense. Wilderness designation threatens to nullify an ancient relationship with Place and snuff out a way of life.

A crowning achievement for Muir’s disciples was the Alaska National Interest Conservation Act of 1980, which set aside 56 million acres of wilderness and 44 million acres of Native-controlled lands. Here in the Last Frontier, wilderness set-asides are subject to the “Alaska exception” that authorizes, among other things, motorized access to pursue traditional subsistence foods for Natives and rural residents. Most Alaska wilderness lands protect vital habitat for key subsistence species, often stewarded by those who have the most to lose. In Alaska, the wild line had become squiggly.

Today, some Native Alaskans are beginning to welcome the wild line as an essential defense for their traditional way of life. In Klukwan, ancestral seat of the Chilkat tribe, up to eighty percent of villagers’ protein comes from the river that has nourished them from time immemorial. Subsistence nets that stretch into the Chilkat (meaning “salmon storehouse”) River along the Klukwan riverfront are prime indicators of community wellness. Full nets mean healthy diets, economic resilience, and community purpose.

Today, however, a potential world-class mine threatens the very existence of the descendents of Muir’s converts. Viable deposits found by Constantine Metal Resources over a decade of exploration at the head of a Chilkat tributary may signal massive development in the near future. Aside from all other impacts to Klukwan and the surrounding eagle preserve, a toxic legacy of leech field seepage guarantees the end of legendary salmon stocks.

“When it comes to fish, we draw the line,” says Brian Willard, Klukwan village manager, of the community’s stance. “It’s not that we’re against all mining,” says Willard. “But without salmon we’re gone. Poof.”

By teaming up with watershed groups, Klukwan is in the process of leveraging the wild line for subsistence rights, and once again asserting themselves as protectors of Jilkaat aani.

Alaska changed Muir’s thinking about wilderness and Native Americans, just as it has changed mine. After living among the Tlingit, Muir exclaimed that “Uncle Sam has no better subjects, white, black, or brown, or any more deserving his considerate care.” By today’s standards, Muir’s scribbling in his Alaska journals may sound naïve or racist — but it still contains a wisdom of sorts.

“Many a good lesson might be learned from these wild children,” he wrote. “They should send missionaries to the Christians.”

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“Kuiu Dreamtime”

Daniel Lee Henry

The alarm clock flashes 3:21 a.m. as I sit up. Kelly slides halfway out of his sleeping bag, JJ’s eyes snap open. Coastal murk paints nylon tent walls summer solstice gray.

“The dream—” I start.

Eyes widen, heads nod.

“The raven,” I continue.

“Come on,” blurts Kelly. “That’s too much!”

JJ: “There’s a message here.”

A few details later, the meaning of our shared dream clicks.

Twelve days into a three-week kayak outing in Southeast Alaska, we are deep in the belly of Tebenkof Bay, a wilderness bite out of Kuiu Island’s open west coast that encloses a hundred or more islands. Two-thirds the size of San Francisco Bay, Tebenkof’s intricate shoreline is walled by spruce trees whose crowns hide twenty-stories into a sopping sky. Black bears and whales intersect our routes daily; wolves serenade us each night.

We rounded a promontory yesterday to encounter the only other humans of the trip—a PhD. anthro student and two field assistants cooking dinner on a beach. Herb was cataloguing evidence of the Kuiu kwaan, which once numbered two thousand residents tucked in all corners of the Bay. After mugs of rum-and-coffee, the map came out. Here, the ruins of a palisaded fort. Here, fish traps. Here and here, totem poles a hundred, two hundred years old.

“I shouldn’t show you this,” Herb said. “It’s very sensitive. If you go to any of these places, don’t touch. Especially here.” His stubby forefinger tapped a crease. “Shaman’s grave. Old totem pole on the island’s north end—forget I told you.”

An hour’s paddle delivered us to the two-acre island. Nearly invisible in blueberry bushes, a killer whale dorsal fin rose atop a fallen, weathered pole on the island’s northern point. In moments, we landed on the south-end sand spit and a perfect tentsite.

Most islands here are a boggy tangle; this one wasn’t. Spruce sentries ringed the periphery, hiding an open interior. Dead center: the gravebox. Above, a sullen sky-eye wept. Like expectant disciples, we sat cross-legged. I tried scribbling sense into the moment, but words looked trite. I set the journal aside, closed my eyes, and tried to catch a vibe.

I was the last to drift back to camp, last in the dank tent and sleep.

Crouched near the gravebox, I peer into the sky. Atop a tall spruce, a raven meets my gaze. It swoops in a long dive toward me, spreading its wings until I am smothered by darkness.

That’s when we wake up.

Without words we break camp and slide our boats into an outgoing tide. I turn for a last glimpse—a fogbank filters through trees. From a branch, Raven watches.

From the upcoming anthology, Cold Flashes: Literary Snapshots of Alaska, ed. Michael Engelhard, University of Alaska Press, 2010

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“Everyone living in a community with other people is inevitably a rhetorician.”
– Edward Corbett, Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student