People ask if it is cold, if there are igloos everywhere, if I know Sarah Palin. (Yes, no, and no, I don’t…respectively.) They may refer to one of many reality shows currently on TV or have a friend or relative who was stationed up there. Alaska is part of our country, the largest state (sorry Texas, it’s true!), is home to Denali (The Great One in Athabaskan language), or Mt. McKinley, North America’s highest peak but yet many Americans don’t really understand the magic it holds or where it is on a globe. Not a map, a globe.
So what’s MY Alaska? My Alaska is the friendly, unpretentious people, the smell of the air. It’s snow on the mountains, even in June. My Alaska is home. I just spent a few weeks visiting and will be going back at the end of July to give a KAY teacher training in Anchorage. I can’t be more excited to bring this amazing program to the community that helped shape me. While wandering around downtown I could smell the enormous lilac trees, was amazed at the variety in shades of green from the grass to pine needles and the brilliant flowers blooming and thriving in their many hours of summer light. I haven’t spent a winter there in many years, but I could picture that same Town Square in Anchorage cold and dark, covered in snow with the outmost layer looking like sparkling cool whip. I remember breathing in the frozen air that pinched at my nostrils and hearing the crunch of snow under my boots.
Alaska is rich in culture and one of my most favorite stories is that of Mt. Susitna that overlooks Anchorage. The legend calls her The Sleeping Lady. Act this story out with yourself, your office, or your kiddos at home! Poses are in CAPITAL LETTERS.
(Begin seated) Once, long ago in Alaska, there lived a race of giant people along the shores of Cook Inlet. The land then was warm and covered with fruit TREES of every kind. MAMMOTHS (downward dog) roamed the beaches, SABER TOOTH TIGERS (lion pose) hunted in the forests, and EAGLES soared high over head, but the animals and humans lived PEACEFULLY in harmony. (Seated in meditation) Peace and happiness ruled the land.
Especially happy were a young man named NEKATLA (peaceful warrior) and a young woman named SUSITNA (mountain), for they were in love and soon to be married. As the wedding day neared, the Inlet people eagerly prepared for the celebration. But the day before the wedding a STRANGER (hero pose) burst into the village. “Danger!” he cried. “WARRIORS from the north are coming! They roam from village to village, killing people, stealing from them, and burning their homes!” All plans for the wedding were forgotten.
The villagers gathered in council. (Seated easy pose) Some thought they should quickly fashion BOWS and ARROWS and prepare for battle. Others thought they should LIE IN WAIT (cobra) and attack the WARRIORS when they came to the village. Still others wanted to HIDE (child’s pose) in the forest until the warriors passed them by. NEKATLA and SUSITNA listened in silence their hearts deeply troubled.
After everyone had spoken, NEKATLA rose. “I, too, have an idea,” he began. “But I do not know if there are people here BRAVE (hero pose) enough to go with me. I say this: I will not fight these people and neither should you. We have few WEAPONS (bow and arrow), for we gave up the ways of war long ago. We’ve learned a better way, which is PEACE. I will not run away from this danger, for then the WARRIORS will kill many more. Instead, we should travel north to meet them and carry GIFTS (open arms in pretzel pose) rather than WEAPONS so they’ll have no reason to attack us. “And I am willing to go first.” It was a bold plan but the people agreed to it. All the men of the village would go. Immediately everyone began preparing for the dangerous journey north. By morning the men were ready to leave. Sadly, SUSITNA and NEKATLA said goodbye on a hill above the village where they had spent many hours together. “We will be married as soon as I return.” promised NEKATLA. “I will wait for you at this very spot,” answered SUSITNA and she watched thoughtfully, hopefully, until the forms of the men disappeared into the thick TREES.
She ran back to the village for her NEEDLES (balancing stick) and knives, then busied herself PICKING BERRIES (goddess squats). She gathered FLOWERS and grasses, weaving beautiful baskets. SUSITNA kept an eye at the TREE line, waiting for NEKATLA to return. But many days and nights went by, each more slowly than the last. Finally SUISITNA could no longer PICK BERRIES, gather FLOWERS, or even SIT and sew. “I will LIE DOWN just for a moment,” she said finally. And she fell fast asleep. While SUISITNA slept, word of a terrible battle reached her village. “NEKATLA was BRAVE.” reported a boy who had escaped. “He led our men to meet with the WARRIORS. But as he and their leader were about to speak, someone threw a SPEAR (balancing stick)! Their men set upon ours and we fought until all our men were dead or dying, and many of theirs, too.” The women and children WEPT (turtle pose) to hear the names of the fathers, sons, and brothers they had lost.
When the women went to tell SUSITNA the terrible news, they couldn’t bear to wake her from such peaceful sleep. Let her rest, they decided. Why break her heart any sooner than we must? And they wove a blanket of soft grasses and FLOWER blossoms, which they gently laid over her. May she always dream of her lover, they prayed. That night all warmth and joy left the village. As the air grew colder and colder, SUSITNA settled more deeply ASLEEP. (Finish the story laying down) All around her, the fruit trees froze and died, falling like the men in battle. The tears of the villagers gathered into clouds and, in the chill air, returned to earth as Alaska’s first snowfall. The snow fell slowly at first, one flake at a time, but soon it filled the sky, spreading thickly across the entire land. For seven days and nights the snow fell, until Susitna and all her people lay beneath a blanket of shimmering white. Days passed into years, and years into hundreds and thousands of years. For a few months each summer, warmth returned to the land, allowing birch trees and spruce and willow to grow. Grizzly bears, moose, and other new animals appeared, taking the place of the old. After a long time a new race of humans, smaller than the first, came to stay. Today Susitna still sleeps through the seasons, dreaming of Nekatla.
If you look across Cook Inlet in the winter, you can see her covered by a snowy quilt. In summer, you see her resting beneath a green and flowered blanket. It is said that when the people of war change their ways peace rules the earth, Nekatla will return. Then Susitna, the Sleeping Lady, will awake.
Growing up in Alaska was an experience I will never forget and I cherish the time I spend with my daughter in this beautiful state. I love teaching her about the mountains, telling her stories and folktales, and watching her fall in love with the Last Frontier, just like I have. My path has taken me all over the county and yes, I am a resident in a different state, but like a magnet, I am constantly drawn back to the state that has stolen my heart. Like my mom says, “You can take the girl out of Alaska, but you can’t take the Alaska out of the girl.”