¡Activista! by Sonny Smith: The Lutra Canadensis

This is in Sitka. The wall is carved by Nick’s family. All Tlinkets of the Coho clan.

by Sonny Smith

The Lutra Canadensis

I went to Sitka (southeast Alaska), got off the plane and into the airport (bear heads, stuffed wolves, stuffed eagles), into Nick Galanin’s car (promoter of festival) and to his gallery (festival headquarters), took a brief walk to check out the venue (small French restaurant) where I’ll play solo songs (my bullshit) for an hour or so (dizzy on wine). Following this a brief gaze upwards (bald eagles, ravens), then a jaunt to the shore (through the Russian graveyard), past the local hotel (Ukrainian oil refinery worker housing), past the tasteless tourist traps (wolf pelt bras, photo-ops with stuffed bears), a feeble moment of rest from jetlag (plane tickets financed by local coke dealer), then to the harbor with memory of year before (almost knocked over on skiff by humpback whale), and rockabilly night in Haines (the local crowd never went to sleep, the bar closed at six), or what Jarred Galanin (fisherman, carpenter, musician) said when I took his Colt .45 out of the holster and asked him if this would fell a bear “save one bullet for yourself cause it’ll probably just make him mad”…

In Seward last year I ended up on a tour boat with White Magic (a band from Brooklyn). The captain of the boat nannered on in a non-stop monotone (and now to your right you will see an otter…) The 100 passengers were lulled into a catatonic gaze until we found our way to the pinnacle of the trip (an iceberg). An incandescent blue that exists nowhere else on earth. The guide asked all of us to close our eyes and focus our thoughts towards the iceberg melting. We were instructed to try and ‘make’ the iceberg crumble with our thoughts so we could spectate the grandeur of the falling ice. (Evil! Evil!). The diabolical ignorance of the tour boat captain represents the Alaskan money game in totality from corporate ‘trawlers’ (veritable genocide of the ocean floor), to the perennial blind eye of Exxon Valdez disaster residuals (Exxon never cleaned it up!), selling of water, oil, fish, game, all the way to the marketing of used tea bag Sarah Palin herself.

I’m told the land otter (Lutra Canadensis) is the trickster animal of the Tlinkets (sprawling Inuit tribe of southeast Alaska). Storied to seduce man into the woods on a camping trip say, and lead him in circles until he is disoriented and dies. Or the otter will take the form of an old friend coming to the aid of a shipwrecked fisherman, beckon him onto a boat (a mere illusion) where he falls into the water and drowns. I am told this is an obscure and seldom seen animal, but I say I witnessed thousands of land otters waddling off tourist boats (floating malls) to buy cheap reminders (canoe tchotchkes) of their great Alaskan non-adventure. Ergo land otter remains to seduce people far and wide into a spiritual drowning.

I have come here four years running and I still know next to nothing of this place. Nick put out a 7” record of mine; I am told he traded a skiff for the pressing. Nick, half-Tlinket, half-white, an artist who often appropriates the white man’s appropriation of indigenous art. Tlinkets have two clans, Ravens and Eagles. Within these are sub-clans: Whales, Toads, Slugs, Bears, Halibut… Nick is Raven. But he is an orphan, his mother is non-native and his dad is a bluesman, a Kaagwaantaan (eagle). It’s a matrilineal society (you take your mother’s clan). Ravens cannot marry Ravens. Eagles cannot marry Eagles. A rule widely respected still.

In Anchorage we played at a little club. Walking in, there was a stripper pole, but the bartenders were all unmistakably gay. Downstairs there was a hand written dress code obviously directed to hip hoppers (no sideways hats, no underwear showing). I could not make head nor tails of where this club was coming from. The club (just a theory) is a kind of default venue where anything out of the ordinary is relegated, anything non-mainstream is quarantined there; gays, blacks, small-time rock bands, hip hoppers, strippers, teenagers, us…

Jarred took us to a headwaters. The fish were jumping. A switch buried deep inside their atoms has clicked on; they will need to jump up the river to get to the fresh water. They are sometimes jumping before they even reach the climb to the fresh water. If they get to the fresh water it will diffuse into their system and they will turn grey and die. That is if they are not eaten by bears, humans, and eagles first.

With Breathe Owl Breathe, at a campground in Haines…

A bonfire on the beach in Seward. About seven or eight folks. They are talking about the trawlers, talking about the politics, talking about charter fisherman. The young people in Alaska know the game, at least the ones I’m meeting. One of them boxcar’d up here. One has become a little uneven. Spontaneously, he throws himself on the fire. He’s howling with laughter. He’s got a crazy look.

Later, a ferryboat taking our caravan to Juneau. It is raining. The man in the orange jumper suit guiding our van onto the ferry is speaking Russian.

Another time, the Mycea sail boat. I jumped in the water I couldn’t get back in. they threw a tug to save me. Why did I jump? The work of the Lutra Canadensis? The captain raised his five daughters on an island nearby…

The DJ in Juneau is having us on his show. He doesn’t know our music nor any music. He doesn’t care. He makes a joke of himself. Of everything.

We are traveling with a six-year-old named Wesley. He is Tlinket too.

Will we miss the ferry out of Haines? We are all looking for Nick’s uncle, he has disappeared with the truck, we are looking in ditches, at the jail, at his ex-girlfriends. We find him in the ferry terminal parking lot, asleep in the front seat.

There is a lady’s house we are supposed to stay at. But it’s covered in dog hair. It’s all covered in dog hair. Everything. She has lost to the pack. They rule her.

Back in Sitka I am leaving. I have fish to bring home. They only allow so much pounds on the plane so I stuff salmon in my underpants.

This is just a little bit of what happens.

More writings by Sonny Smith: sonnysmith.com

Plants of the Tundra

Above: Moss-covered ice mound in the Alaskan tundra, formed by the ground’s constant vacillation between freezing and thawing.

The “tundra” (from the Finnish word tunturi, meaning “treeless heights”) is otherwise known as that ribbon of latitude on our planet where the landscape shifts from tall trees and flowering bushes to comparatively shrimpy shrubs and frost-covered blankets of moss, brightly colored lichens, and delicate tufts of sedge (or “Arctic grass.”) The top layer of vegetation only thaws and grows for a few months a year, revealing to us a mysterious web of plant life beneath the ice…

Above: Reindeer lichen, an extremely cold-hardy plant most commonly found in the Arctic tundra. The Dena’ina people (native to Alaska) are known to eat this plant (boiled until soft) in dishes with berries, fish, eggs, or lard, and drink its juices to treat a number of physical ailments.

Above: Yellow lichens on a frost-covered Arctic floor, otherwise known in Inuit culture as “Excrement of the Sun.” Scientists have recently discovered anti-tumor, anti-microbial and anti-viral properties in compounds made from lichens.

Above: An Arctic fox takes a nap within the willows. Young Arctic willow leaves contain up to 10 times more vitamin C than an orange, and the bark can be boiled to make a pain-relieving tea.

Above: Last but not least, the Fly-Agaric. This mushroom is found in many areas of the world including scattered about the Alaskan tundra and the Arctic region of Kamchatka (a peninsula in the Russian Far East).

The Koryak people of Kamchatka are known to gather Fly-Agaric mushrooms growing in the roots of sacred birch trees and eat them (either dried or soaked in blueberry juice) as a means of enhancing creative and physical energy (i.e. to “play music all night long,”) among other spiritual and ceremonial purposes. Reindeer also love to eat this mushroom, and are said to act “drunken” under its influence.

Read more about the Koryaks’ use of the Fly-Agaric in the essay “IS THE FLY-AGARIC (AMANITA MUSCARIA) AN EFFECTIVE MEDICINAL MUSHROOM?” by Gary Lincoff.