Leslie Hsu Oh
A few weeks after giving birth to our second, I stood on top of a mountain. Denali, the highest peak in North America, hid behind a wrath of clouds. In contrast, now, a bright sun turns the rivers and creeks into braids, twisting across the Nenana River Valley, through forests of spruce, cottonwood, and birch, until they turned from silver to gray and faded into the Alaska Range.
Against my chest, our newborn warmed his face. I had bundled him tight in the lightest, wind and waterproof bunting on the market. His soft black hair tickled my nose. I pried open a balled-up fist and wrapped his tiny fingers around mine.
“Daddy and I are looking for a special place to bury your umbilical cord,” I whispered in his ear. One day, when I can explain it to myself, I will tell him why I hiked the steepest trail in Denali National Park instead of staying in bed during my first postpartum month as my Chinese relatives expected me to do.
I traced the whorl at the top of our son’s head and felt a gush of gratitude for Ursula Knoki-Wilson of the Táchii’nii or Red Running into Water People Clan, who adopted me shortly after my birth mother died. As Chairperson of the Traditional Navajo Medicine Committee at Chinle Service Unit, Navajo Area Indian Health Service, and a nurse midwife, mom is an indigenous leader comfortable with modernizing traditions in a world that continues to grow more diverse, complicated, and messy. Her mother had buried her umbilical cord beneath the right post of her loom and although mom did not become an expert rug weaver, she weaves ideas from other cultures with Navajo ones to create a tapestry of wellness. She said there was a reason our paths crossed at a time when death had unravelled me.
In my pocket, I had my notes from my phone conversation with her early that morning. I also brought this passage from Maureen Trudelle Schwarz’s Navajo Lifeways: Contemporary Issues, Ancient Knowledge, just in case my husband needed a more Westernized explanation of why this tradition was so important to me:
When the umbilical cord has dried so that it can be taken from the infant, it must not be thrown out where an animal will get it, as it is considered part of the child and has symbolic control over its destiny. Placement of a child’s umbilical cord has a profound effect on the child’s future occupation and personal proclivities…Regardless of the particular place selected by the family, it is of utmost importance that a child’s dried and detached umbilical cord be anchored to something of substance…such anchoring is paramount because loss or misplacement of a cord can result in lifelong disorientation or antisocial behavior. Burial of the cord in the earth anchors the child to the “belly button” of Mother Earth and establishes a lifelong connection between the person and a place, just as a cord anchors a child to its mother when it is in her womb…The act of burying a child’s cord securely…anchors that person to a particular locale.
I traced the spiral pattern of our newborn’s whorl and appreciated knowing that this matched the átsʼééʼ or “belly button” of the earth represented by the centre coil of the Navajo wedding basket mom had commissioned for my wedding ceremony on the Rez. It formed a continuous connection to Mother Earth once I anchored our son to a place which would, one day, be there for him when I could not.
Ultimately, this is what I worried about most after becoming a mother, that as a product of diaspora and death, I would not be able to tether my children to a place.
Born in North Carolina and raised in California, I never lived in one location long enough to call it home. My parents fled their ancestral place of birth in China during the Communist Revolution, grew up in Taiwan, moved to the United States for college and never returned. In recent years, my dad visited the village where he was born but discourages me from doing the same. “You don’t want to go there. There’s nothing left. The Communists destroyed everything. They even decimated your great grandparents’ grave.”
By the time I turned twenty-one and both my mother and brother died of the same disease, we had explored all the national parks in the United States except for the ones located in Alaska. Chasing the physical remnants of my memories in the natural world is the closest I had ever felt like I belonged to a place. My birth mother understood this. Her last request that I experience the Alaskan parks for her drew me here fifteen years ago.
On a neighbouring trail to the one we hiked that day with our newborn son, Thomas had proposed to me in thick snowfall. Two years later, we moved to Alaska and settled down next to the South Fork of Eagle River. To the east, we named our first child, Kyra, on the shore of Horseshoe Lake. Shortly after she learned how to walk, Kyra hiked with us on Ruth Glacier, about three vertical miles from Denali’s Summit. To the south, Kyra and our son were born in Anchorage.
When we considered a place we wanted our child to take on its characteristics, Thomas and I both knew that it would be somewhere in Denali National Park.
Besides being drawn to this place, I hoped my descendants would know what it felt like to belong to a place that your ancestors explored by foot for thousands of years: “Everywhere you go, it brings back memories of what happened there. It’s like markers of all the places and what we did, you think about what happened there and who was there before. Going to these places feels so good inside your heart. You think about all the good times and the things you did there. You remember certain things.” Olga Balluta, Nicholi Carltikoff Sr. and Okzenia Delkettie describe in Dena’ina Ełnena, A Celebration: “These names of places was passed on when we were growing up. By travelling to these places we learned the names. We travelled all over, way more places than they do now.”
The Lower Tanana place name for the mountain we stood upon that day, what most people would call Mount Healy, is Dleł Niłghw Nodadlghwni, which means ‘mountains that are joined together.’ When Thomas finally joined me at the top, removed Kyra from a ride on his shoulders and deposited her at my feet, I couldn’t remember Mount Healy’s Athabascan place name so I explained Denali’s. “Did you know the Koyukon place name for the tallest mountains of the Central Alaska Range is Deenaalee. It means the tall one.” The wind started to pick up. I raised my eyebrows, questioning whether we should bury Ethan’s umbilical cord here. Thomas shook his head and warmed his hands inside of his down jacket. “Let’s call it a day. Tomorrow, we can always try to find the place where I proposed.”
I agreed with Thomas that it was too barren and exposed for burying the cord but I felt something important needed to occur here.
Clearing my throat, I began: “Long before the high one was raised to the sky, Yako, who some call ‘Big Sky,’ dwelt in the land where the Ten’a live. He was young and strong and as straight and tall as a spruce tree growing by the river.”
From our position on Dleł Niłghw Nodadlghwni, we were high enough to fill the Nenana River Valley in our imagination with salt water, transforming it into an ocean. Upon its choppy surface, Yako sped east in a light canoe. Totson, the Raven Chief, shot arrows and threw feathered spears at him from a distant shore. Because he was jealous of Yako’s youth and power, Totson whipped up a vicious storm with rolling green waves, then pursued Yako in a war canoe. Totson “knew the ways of the green sea waves and rode them as fearlessly as the gull.” He quickly caught up to Yako and aimed his Great War Spear at Yako’s hair streaming in the wind. Yako “carried a wave-quelling stone fastened in the braid of his long black hair, which he now threw with great strength… the magic stone leaped from wave to wave as flat stones do which children skip on quiet waters before their village homes, and where the stone passed the waves were levelled and the sea stilled.”
Kyra, who had just celebrated her third birthday, settled on my dusty hiking boots and wrapped an arm around my legs. She recognized the important stories Mommy wanted her to pay attention to, the ones that I ask her to repeat to ensure that she remembered and understood and could one day pass on. But, with my daughter listening to my every word, my Western upbringing kicked in and I did not trust myself to tell an origin story without relying upon a vetted written source. I dug Bill Sherwonit’s Denali: A Literary Anthology out of my backpack and read this bit from Judge James Wickersham’s recording of the blind Kantishna chief Koonah’s story from 1903.
Rising in his canoe to gain strength and better aim in the cast, Totson threw his spear straight toward the back of his fleeing enemy, just as two great waves reached toward him, one on each side. Yako saw the glistening spear as it rose in the air over the green sea wave pursuing him, and instantly bringing his most powerful magic force to his aid, he changed the oncoming rear wave into a mountain of stone, upon whose crest the war spear struck with a crash of breaking rock, and from whose stony summit the weapon glanced upward, high over the still waters where Yako’s canoe raced forward in safety. As the great spear rose higher in the air from the power of Totson’s arm, and flew skyward and far over the still waters, it touched the crest of the greater wave coming from the opposite direction, which Yako’s magic instantly turned into a greater mountain of stone. From the summit of this mighty mountain the spear again glanced upward and flew high into the southern sky…When Yako’s powerful magic changed the rear wave into a mountain of stone, Totson’s canoe struck on its sharp, angular walls. Standing in his seat, he was thrown headlong upon the rocks where he instantly changed into a large black bird, the croaking Raven, which flapped dripping and weaponless to the top of the mountain.
I paused there to point out the two mountains described in the story. Between the clouds, a shimmer of pink peeked through. I explained to Kyra that Deenaalee made her own weather and the pink might be the colour of her granite from this distance.
“Mommy, can I tell Dìdi [Little brother in Chinese]?” Kyra interrupted, “Can I tell him the name of the other mountain? Please, can I?”
Before I could answer, she blurted out, “The-one-whose-top-was-hit-by-the-Raven.” She beamed at me and I patted her on the head, “Good girl.”
“Good girl” because she remembered the place name from another Denali origin story I had told her, recorded by a Canadian-born Jesuit missionary named Julius Jetté in 1908. “Good girl” because she correctly pronounced and used the Chinese words I taught her. “Good girl” because the first time these words were bestowed upon me, they came from the late chairperson of the Alaska Native Science Commission, Elaine Elizabeth Abraham, Naa Tláa (clan mother) of the Yéil Naa (Raven Moiety), K’ineix Ḵwáan (people of the Copper River Clan) from the Tsisk’w Hít (Owl House), who told me to call her “mom.” When an Alaska Native Elder said “good girl” to me, they trusted me with wisdom which they expected me to put to a greater purpose.
We had hiked only a mile in search for the spot where I said “yes” to a life with Thomas when Ethan began crying inconsolably. The day before, he tolerated being nursed in the rain on Dleł Niłghw Nodadlghwni, even giggled during a diaper change in the middle of a switchback so steep he slid repeatedly down the waterproof jacket I had laid him upon. Today, his eyes refused to blink, frozen in that frightful wide stare that newborns make, forcing you to drop your agenda and protect theirs.
Stopping at a log bench that had a view of the Nenana River Valley, I tried to nurse him. “I hungry,” Kyra started repeating.
A young couple hiked by and nodded tersely at us. The veins on Thomas’ arms popped. The hair on my body stiffened like porcupine quills. Before we became parents, a normal day out in the wilderness involved few encounters with other humans, lightweight backpacking, and long treks like on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu.
“What about this spot?” Thomas asked.
I sighed. “Fine.” Even though the view paled in comparison with yesterday’s height from Dleł Niłghw Nodadlghwni. I could still make out the path of stilled waters between the two great waves. This needed to be enough. Otherwise, I would unravel myself with questions. Why didn’t we consider burying Ethan’s umbilical cord on the Navajo Reservation? How come I did not follow the Navajo tradition of burying a son’s cord beside a sheep corral so that like a shepherd he would be resourceful? And why oh why did I toss Kyra’s cord into our kitchen trashcan? I think it’s because I had no clue about this tradition until Ethan’s birth. But then I realized that nineteen years ago, when mom and I first met at the American Public Health Association conference, she had presented a slide titled “When the Beautiful One Comes into Your Hand,” followed by this important point: “Bury umbilical cord in sheep corral, near rug loom or special place” for her panel about the sacred in child birth practices.
Is it okay for me to practice traditions from cultures I am not born into? How could I retain the indigenous knowledge that was passed down to me orally without corrupting it in translation? Would I sever my relationship with a place when life circumstances moved me too far away to learn what can only be experienced in person? Would my connection with a culture be entirely lost when death claimed a person I loved? I could not bear to think about something happening to mom before she had a chance to name my girls at their Kinaaldá when they had their first menstrual blood flow and Ethan at his Txáchééh when his voice changes.
“Uh, so as you know I screwed up with Kyra’s umbilical cord. But I talked to mom this morning and she said that all we need to do is visualize Kyra’s cord being buried with Ethan’s today.”
“Hey, what about us? Our umbilical cords probably ended up in a landfill too,” Thomas pointed out.
I laughed. “You’ll be happy to know that mom says we are not the only Navajos to lose umbilical cords. She says in the Navajo teaching, if a cord is lost, then it was meant to be. The Holy people are in charge and they have other plans than we do. Maybe they want the child to be a free spirit, mentally like a bird in flight. A bird that knows when it’s time to rest because of the remnant belly button. During the ceremony, we need to bring back into harmony our worries about not taking care of Kyra’s cord properly and make peace with our regret through the power of visualization. We will need to find a young healthy vegetation or tree that represents our intentions for Kyra and Ethan’s future.”
Thomas stared at the mountains in the distance. I finished nursing Ethan and began to burp him on my shoulder. Kyra started to cry. I held my breath until Thomas finally pointed at a snag, a dead or dying tree, and said, “Let’s avoid the ones that might have bark beetle infestation.”
The bark beetle devours nearly 100,000 trunks in America every day. That’s nearly ten times the size of past eruptions. About the size of a grain of rice, this beetle worms its way through a tree’s bark to lay eggs in the phloem. Along the way, it deposits fungi that turns the tree into food. How can we predict whether the tree we chose would not be attacked by a beetle or become a snag? And the thought that my child might take on the characteristic of a decimated tree or worse…I started to panic. I wished mom had been able to join us.
“What about that tree?” Thomas pointed to a young healthy birch growing a bit too close to the trail for my taste.
I hesitated. Ethan started to fuss. Kyra said, “I need to go pee.”
“Okay, here’s what we need to do,” I said, reading the instructions mom provided. Thomas buried the cord. We prayed. I didn’t have time to dwell on the things I couldn’t control. The whole ceremony took only a few minutes. We rushed through it.
Just as I handed the camera to Thomas to record this milestone, an elderly woman wandered down the trail. She said, “Oh, this is nice.” I think she meant the view. Then, she settled down on the log bench, smiling at us.
Thomas began packing up our stuff. He gave me that look which meant time’s up. “Hey Kyra, ready to try out our new camp stove?”
“Yeepee!” she jumped up and down.
The woman laughed, then brushed her pants off and continued down Meadows View Trail. Thomas jogged after Kyra. He peered over his shoulder to see why I lingered.
I hid behind my camera lens, unable to tell him that this wasn’t how I imagined things would go. I needed more time with Deenaalee, among these trees, on this trail to share with my children what I had not yet learned.
Around Ethan’s third birthday, we had to leave Alaska. Now, he is eight and we have not yet found our way back. In the last five years, we moved across North America to the East Coast and after living in four different houses, we are now settled by a pond on a golf course. When Ethan throws a fishing line into the water, he still tells me that one day he will build me a log cabin in Alaska and we can return home. Kyra dreams of climbing the seven summits, starting with Deenaalee. And I continue developing my relationship with family and friends in the bush through, surprisingly, Facebook, which I had joined only when I left Alaska. Sometimes I work up the courage to ask the questions I need to ask.
When I asked Orville Huntington, another board member of the Alaska Native Science Commission, whom I call “uncle” and serves as the interpreter of prophecy in his community, what he was taught about Deenaalee, he direct messaged: For the people of Huslia we live far from the mountain. It is a guide when you are traveling and need to know where you are. The ‘Great One’ can save a life if it’s respected and followed.
He instructed me to “friend” Uncle Nick Alexia Sr., the first chief of the Nikolai Edzeno Village Council, who lives near Deenaalee. Uncle Nick had never heard of Wickersham and Jetté’s Denali origin story but shared this wonderful image which my children can’t wait to confirm with their own eyes:
Let’s talk a little about that beautiful mountain 70 miles north east of my home. First of all, the old people refer to it as the wise old man with white hair and white beard. From my position, he’s on my left, his mate is on the right. In the old days, they watch it closely to predict what weather going to do next couple of days. This mostly in winter. One is at the very top it’s in the cloud or fog it put on his fur hat it will get cold -30 to-50. The other one is his beard is wavering in the wind. When you can’t see it visibility is coming down bad weather is coming. They tell us when we were kids watch what you say and do the old man is watching and listening he will take care of you, but he won’t take no foolishness. He is to be respected.
Uncle Orville also directed me to James Kari, Professor Emeritus with the Alaska Native Language Centre at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, who has contributed extensive linguistic and ethno-geographic work to the documentation of travel and place names, which he believes “are systematic and multifunctional because they are actually verbal maps for occupation and travel over large areas.” I knew that learning these names was important but I didn’t know that they were a memorized, verbally transmitted geographic system that “is elegantly simple and flexible and has facilitated Athabascan travel and land use since antiquity. Most of the place names describe the natural environment or are a mix of cultural activities and metaphors…The names can indicate a myriad of details about access or resources such as hydrology, landforms and rocks, and various biota (vegetation, fauna)…A smaller portion of the names are for human activities (subsistence places, material culture, and human-built structures, trails, or events). Also references to weather phenomena (ice, low water, wind) are fairly common.”
It isn’t ideal to learn place names through a book rather than walking the landscape I love with an Elder, but like Michelle Ravenmoon of Pope-Vanoy on Lake Iliamna, who also contributed an essay in Dena’ina Ełnena, I study the annotated maps, read interviews about the places that make me feel at home until I can return physically to make the connections that I need to make, “to learn who I truly am.”
For, “planted inside us is a communal knowledge and a connection to each other. The Dena’ina way of thinking is like music notes in the air: one cannot see it, a person must feel it, and a person must live it to understand it.”
This must be the familiar tune I hear when I visit places I’ve developed a relationship with, even simply through the fragments of my memories. But I held myself back, worrying about cultural appropriation, even though I found anthropologic and linguistic evidence of a migration across the Bering Land Straits bridge and stories proving that Asians, Athabascans, Navajos, and Tlingits share ancestral ties.
The young birch tree that we selected for our children is on my mind often. I discovered that snags actually play a critical role in creating life. Boreal owls, woodpeckers, wolverine, nearly 100 species of wildlife in forests of western Oregon and Washington according to the USDA Forest Service, depend upon snags for nests, nurseries, storage areas, foraging, roosting, and perching. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife even issues a handout to encourage people not to get rid of snags in their backyard: “Hard to believe, but trees can actually provide more habitats for wildlife dead than when they are alive.”
When I think about what ecologist Jerry Franklin once said, “A dead tree is more alive than a live tree”, I start to wonder whether my mother and brother’s death has a purpose. That I needed to be patient and let things unfold at their own pace. After all, scientists now believe that the bark beetle infestation might be creating supertrees that, through natural selection, can survive climate change.
A few months ago, when our fourth child was two days old, we unwrapped her NICU swaddle and discovered that her umbilical cord stump had disappeared. No matter how long we searched through her hospital linens, begged the nurse to call us if she found it in the trash, and berated ourselves for not communicating to our health care providers the significance of her cord, once again we had lost another child’s anchor to Mother Earth. Around the same time, I found a connection between the Navajo and Athabascan tradition of caring for after birth. In Julius Jetté’s 2344 paged dictionary of the Ten’a language, the k’etaale’ or after birth “is rolled up in a bundle, tied, and hung to a tree in the woods, where it is left to decay and disappear.” I wonder if that’s why we felt drawn to that birch tree? Does this offer another tangible proof that we chose the right place to anchor our children? And why does that even matter? Perhaps the universe is trying to tell me, over and over again, that I am not in charge and if I could forgive myself, everything will make sense in the end.
Leslie hsu Oh is the Outdoor Literature Editor for Panorama.
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