It started with a phone call from a Tlingit elder. Working in my capacity as an administrator of a denominational archives, museum and library, I received a call from a Tlingit man who was trying to prove that Tlingits inhabited a section of land in Alaska, when the U.S. government appropriated it for their own uses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He also wanted information about some of the land assigned to Presbyterian missions that had fallen into disuse.
It emerged the government had surveyed extensive lands of Southeastern Alaska about 1905 and stated that they were uninhabited. It seemed incredible to me since the government had supported and encouraged the missionaries in Alaska as part of their plan to ‘civilize,’ the native population. If there were no inhabitants why were there so many missionaries sent? It also emerged that mission lands the Tlingit had given to the Presbyterians to build schools were still considered part of Presbyterian land holdings though the schools had long since disappeared.
While I worked to assist the Tlingit elder and his clan I learned much about the Tlingit view of the effects of settlement and missionary efforts.
These viewpoints are difficult to find in archives. There are plenty of insights about the native peoples from the missionaries, government officials, travelers and anthropologists, but relatively little from the native people themselves. I was fascinated, by what I found, though some of it was heart-breaking. Children were often ripped from their families and sent off to boarding schools. When they returned their families
sometimes couldn’t even communicate with them because they forgot their language. It was clear to that the missionaries, though often well intentioned, were driven by the idea that they were the superior culture and race and treated the native people for the most part as barbarians in need of civilizing. Even today, with our more cosmopolitan outlook and in some cases, respect and admiration for Native Americans, we would find some of the Tlingit practices hard to accept.
It was the desire to bring out the Tlingit experience that I began the novel, Selkie Dreams, after I left the historical society and continued later after I left America. Drawing on my background as a musician and singer I used the framework of the ancient folk song, The Silkie of Sule Skerrie, to tell the story of an Irish woman working among the Tlingit of Alaska as a mission teacher.
The selkie myths pervade coastal waters of Scotland, Ireland and even far flung areas where the Saami (Laplanders) and the Inuit live and centers around the idea that seals come ashore and take on human form. One of the theories used to explain their existence is that they’re the souls of dead fishermen and other people lost at sea. Another theory is that they’re fallen angels, doomed to live out their days as animals until judgement comes; or that they are humans forced to take animal form for some grave misdemeanour. It’s no surprise that seals should be the object of the myth with their baleful long lashed eyes that look so human
and the mournful cries at sea that convey such sadness.
The various myths that feature selkies show them as
either men or women who come ashore either Midsummer’s Eve, “every ninth night,” or“every seventh stream.” Both variants appear as themes in my novel.
In one myth a fisherman spies a selkie woman on the shore and compels her to go with him after he steals and hides her seal skin.
She bears him a son, but once she finds her seal skin, she returns to the sea.
The Silkie of Sule Skerrie, the song around which Selkie Dreams was framed, tells the story of a selkie man who comes ashore and seeks out a lonely woman. After spending only one night together the man departs and the woman spends her days searching the
shoreline awaiting his return. Eventually, after she gives birth to a son, the man appears and gives her a gold chain for the son. Years
later, when the son is seven years old, the selkie comes again to claim him. Though she mourns her son and lover, she marries a hunter who, not long after their marriage, shoots two seals, one with a gold chain around its neck.
With all the many versions of the myth each contain the unmistakeable theme of transformation and the idea of human’s unbreakable link with the sea.
Kristin Gleeson is a writer, artist and musician who lives in the west of Ireland in the Gaeltacht.
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