I was car-camping north of Anchorage and hanging out in a bar in Eklutna when I met this drunk-ass Athabascan Indian. He was a short little guy with graying raven hair, deep-set dark eyes hidden under bifocals, red flannel shirt and a Member's Only jacket. He was next to me at the bar and I bought him a shot of Yukon Gold. I shared my story and how I was travelling about. He slapped me on the shoulder and led out of the bar. There was something I had to see.
We rode a ways in his pick-up. Drunk driving isn't so scary in Alaska. Everyone does it and there's not much traffic. You could hit a moose, I guess, but you can always hit a moose dead sober as well.
We drove up a little path and he led me through an evergreen canopy to this tiny ramshackle Russian Orthodox church. He told me of the combination of Athabascan and Russian Orthodox traditions. He had a key. He told me that he was the night watchman here and besides, these were his people, right? His people had been using this land for more than four hundred years. Sure.
The little church held a great old altar to St. Nicholas. There were no candles burning. Not on this night.
The man led me behind the church, building the suspense the whole way. He playfully turned his flashlight off. I stumbled on behind him.
The place he led me to was a burial ground. Rows and rows of what he termed spirit houses lined little footpaths. My guide shined his light on each one for me. They were little houses, brightly colored, each one covering a grave. Some were resplendent, others were a little worse for wear. All of them together were unreal. My guide explained that when an Athabascan died, their grave is covered with a blanket rimmed with heavy stones. After forty days, a spirit house is built.
There were several dozen of the houses, each only a couple of feet high, painted in family colors and often decorated with fences, blankets and family-specific markings. Most had the distinctive Russian Orthodox cross on top. My guide explained that before conversion to Orthodoxy, the Athabascans generally cremated tribal members and placed the spirit houses over them. Now they generally bury the bodies, although they continue to build spirit houses. They still bury people under these little houses.
My guide then took me through a locked chain link and we went down a smaller trail, out of sight of the graveyard. We came to a clearing where, according to my guide, no white men were allowed except priests and other holy men. There were hundreds more of these spirit houses. The layout was not a row oriented, a little more chaotic. There were spirit houses all over. My guide explained that the first graveyard was a show; for the white men, the tourists. The fact that I was a white tourist took no hold on him.
The wind was begininning to blow the clouds away and it was a dark night. We sat on the ground and smoked cigarettes. I gave him my own to smoke as he had left his in the truck. The Yuko Jack was wearing off, but still revealed itself in the back corners of my brain in little cobwebby patterns of thought. We sat for awhile. I didn't know what to say and hoped my silence showed as respect for what I had been shown. He didn't ask my opinion and if he had, I would have had none to give. Memorializing the dead is no big deal. Nevertheless, this graveyard was particularly beautiful (even at night) and unforgettable. With the flashlight off, you could feel a certain stillness.
Sometimes I dream this. Sometimes, when I am drunk on strong liqour, I try to go back to this place and I can walk for miles in the looking. And sometimes, I hear my guide's voice in my head; telling me the names of his people, the one buried there.
His name was Theodore, but I called him Ted.
You can look it up: http://www.pgordon.com/alaska/eklutna/