Cambridge Book Review

[Issue #1, Winter 1997-98]

In the Shadows of Mountains
Collected & edited by John E. Smelcer
The Ahtna Heritage Foundation, 1997

Reviewed by Rod Clark

Deep in the mountains, and along the tributaries of the Copper River, in what is now southern Alaska, lie the lands of the Ahtna people. It is here that the collection In the Shadows of Mountains, a gathering of traditional stories of the Copper River Indians, takes root. In much of this territory (which was not visited by white people until late in the last century), the land seems connected to the sky. Here banks of red fireweed frame forests of pine with purple mountains rising out of them to pierce the clouds. White glaciers finger down them, transforming the salmon-rich river into a ragged grey torrent that races past you down to the distant sea. In a similar fashion, in these tales, magic and mayhem, substance and spirituality, are inextricably woven together.

The lessons are sometimes severe and admonitory. The greedy Wolverine who does not share food with his in-laws is murdered by them. The boy who disrespects salmon is enticed to the edge of the river and drowned. The crafty Raven tricks wolves into eating their greedy sister. Originally, the tales were a cultural survival primer in a land of savage winters, fierce animals such as wolves and bears, and grey rushing waters that sweep by so swiftly it is easy to fall in and drown while fishing.

Yet, these are also tales of a beautiful land rich with game and timber, and at one time magic -- a world where, as Gary Snyder suggests in his introduction: "Creation is possibly part mischief." In entering into that world -- through these tales -- we become one with the creators and mischief makers. Like the infant Raven, we play on the dirt floor of our Grandfather's house, plotting to free the moon, sun, and stars from the beautiful carved chests in which they are imprisoned. . .

In the Shadows of Mountains is published by the Ahtna Heritage Foundation. The stories were collected and edited by the Executive Director of The Ahtna Foundation, John E. Smelcer. Dr. Smelcer, an author, scholar, and poet, is also poetry editor of Rosebud magazine.

Profits on the book go to a scholarship program for Ahtna youth. The easiest way to get the book is to send $10 and a note to:

The Ahtna Heritage Foundation
P.O. Box 213
Glennallen, Alaska


From In the Shadows of Mountains

My mother told me this story about Raven. Not the black bird we see today. This Raven was like a god. He was the most powerful of all beings. He had made the animals, fish, trees, even the mountains and waters. He had made all living creatures, but they were all living in darkness because he had not made na'aay, the sun. [p.19]


Rod Clark is a life-long Wisconsin resident. A professional writer and media-consultant, he is also the editor of Rosebud, a national magazine for people who enjoy good writing.

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