Mercury House ($15.95)
by Jason Fischbach
In 1976, a young poet disgruntled with the anthropologists, both living and dead, of Western academia, went North in search of living culture. As the author says in the early chapters of her book: "I needed to know about living people: what they are, wore, thought, said; what they hoped for; what they dreamed; who their children were: . . . I wanted a writer's shock of experience, a recognition of complexity, a real account of what it was like out there." After bumming around Anchorage, Alaska for a few years she took a job teaching poetry in a small Athabaskan village deep in the Interior. From there she began a fourteen-year-odyssey travelling throughout Alaska seeking story and truth from the Native populations. Narrow Road to the Deep North recounts her experiences during this journey.
As McNamara travels from one village to the next she begins to learn things about Athabaskan culture, especially regarding gender roles and relationships. She is disturbed by the silence of the land and its people. Slowly, she develops personal relationships with Native storytellers and is told the stories of the animals; the silence is broken. McNamara discovers a terrible spiritual struggle between the Native cultures and the encroaching culture of consumerism and capitalism. Alcoholism and domestic abuse run rampant in both white and Native populations. The clashing cultures have upset the myths of both cultures, as well as long-standing and comfortable traditions and customs, especially those of gender roles. As McNamara writes: "The world has changed. Great Powers are at play; every possible human behavior has come out of the dark and once more into the open. We are astonished and distressed. The world divides, as Alaska divided, into small and smaller groups of us. Fear grows; uncertainty feeds it, and smothers our courage. We stammer. We don't know what can happen next."
McNamara proceeds to lay out a fascinating web of spirituality and its social ramifications. She is given a small pouch of Wolverine toe bones by an unlikely suitor and begins to dream. She is drawn to women of spiritual power and learns from them. The poet in her interprets these dreams and lessons within the context of Alaska and what she has experienced. The reader too is drawn into the towns and villages of Alaska and starts to understand. At one point, McNamara recalls a conversation with a Native friend: "'If women have their own power,' I said, 'and animals have their spirits; and if medicine people can be either men or women: then, what do men have that is their own?' 'They are the providers,' she said, surprised I had to ask."
Like a skilled weaver, McNamara is able to combine all the threads that make up modern day Alaska into a clear, believable picture. It is a place of confusion and suffering. To provide, men must now compete with each other in a capitalistic system over which they have no control. They no longer have hunting stories and animal myths to guide their actions or give them comfort. They are confused and act out violently in frustration against each other and the women they love. Meanwhile, the animals are crying because they have lost contact with humans. They are trying to talk to women, but the women are afraid to listen. They are bearing the burden of their dying culture; physically, through the fists of their men, and spiritually, through their lack of myth and tradition. They don't know what to do with their own powers.
It is interesting that McNamara seems to accept the gender roles inherent to certain Native populations. Certainly, the author abhors the abuse, mistreatment, and fear often found in such situations, but she doesn't ridicule or ignore the gender beliefs that give rise to them like so many writers who extol the virtues of Native cultures tend to do. Instead, she embraces these beliefs, and is rewarded with a deeper understanding of the Athabaskan culture. Even though at the surface the men appear to hold dominion over the women, McNamara learns that men have only the superficial power of aggression and competition while the women have a more spiritual power, tied to the animals and the creation of the world.
In the end, McNamara realizes the Wolverine came to her to show her purpose. As a poet, she came to Alaska to teach the power of language, with which we can sing, praise, and speak the truth. She came to demonstrate the link between language and spirituality and how important it is to the formation of culture and social systems. She helped her Native friends realize that the animals are still speaking, but they are using a new language to match the new and changing culture of Alaska. In having done all this, she has also taught us to listen.
Despite the publisher's insistence that Katherine McNamara's story is about one woman's spiritual journey, Narrow Road to the Deep North is better read as a selective documentary of Alaska. From the beginning, it is clear that the author is making a conscious effort to distance herself from the subject matter. For example, she falls in love with a young Athabaskan man and lives with him in his village for a long while, but she reveals very little personal information about their romance, their relationship, or their break-up. Instead, McNamara speaks of their relationship in a cultural context through the lens of a retrospective anthropologist—and by treating her own life's story as a cultural artifact, she is able to avoid the romanticism which plagues this genre of writing.
McNamara, however, is still a poet, and her chronicle remains intensely vivid and insightful. It is perhaps one of the most informative and accurate stories ever written about the spiritual culture of Alaska. Certainly, it is one of only a small handful of books about Alaska without a political agenda. Narrow Road to the Deep North does a wonderful job of traversing the romantic pitfalls surrounding Native American storytelling and writing on the American Wilderness. The reader is rewarded with an accurate view of Alaska, and thanks to the power of the poet, an enlightening view of the human condition.
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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Spring 2001 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2001