Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

First Contact: The Dena’ina

May 13th, 2009 · No Comments

firstcontactalaska
Perhaps our favorite passage in all of American literature can be found on the last page of The Great Gatsby. No, not that celebrated last line about boats fighting the current. Rather it’s the snippet located a few paragraphs before the end, in which Nick Carraway waxes rhapsodic about Dutch explorers:

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes—a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

Like Carraway, Microkhan also envies those humans fortunate enough to have made First Contact with peoples and lands who exceeded their wildest imaginings. One of the tragedies of our age is that no Earthly journey can ever reveal something truly alien. Even if Microkhan someday makes it to his beloved Mongolia, for example, the experience won’t be totally full of wonder—National Geographic has made sure of that. No matter where we roam, we have some inkling of what to expect—we know what the people will look like, we are familiar with their technologies and customs. But that was not the case for true explorers in eras past, when sallying forth invariably meant risking one’s life, and destinations were always a surprise.

In the spirit of Carraway’s lament, then, Microkhan would proudly like to announce the launch of a new, semi-regular series on this blog: First Contact, a chronicle of (mostly) primary-source accounts of accidental culture clashes. We hinted at this series last week, when we shouted out the work of John Webber. That’s his work at the top of this post, too—an antique illustration from his series on Alaskan natives. And it’s what gave us the inspiration to start First Contact in the Land of the Midnight Sun, among the Dena’ina people.

Dena’ina oral tradition preserved the account of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Prince William Sound in 1778. A former chief named Simeon Chickalusion recorded the tale:

[The ship] was like a giant bird with great white wings…All the Tyonek men were very frightened and ran and hid in the woods, except one brave man. He paddled out in his baidarka to see what it was. The strange people on the boat traded him some clothes for what he was wearing. When the courageous native returned to the shore he was a hero to his people, and the costume he brought back with him [the uniform of an English sailor] was faithfully copied down through the years, to wear in ceremonial dances.

Microkhan must wonder what the English sailor did with his Dena’ina garments.

Have any leads on great First Contact tales? Please let us know. We’re gonna try and run a First Contact installment at least once a week for the foreseeable future.

(Image via Grace Galleries)

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