Stories in the Sand–an Alaskan Tradition

I am standing in the kitchen holding what I think is a knife. “It looks like a butter knife.” But it is too big. “A cheese spreader?” I turn around and ask my Mom what it was. I assume she bought it at the local culinary store. It is a softwood, probably birch (as it is our local tree) and “Alaska” is burned into the handle. It is just wood, so although it is a knife, it wouldn’t be used to cut anything.

A year or two later, Mom and I are down at the Anchorage Museum. Somehow we get there an hour too early. The gift shop lady is nice enough to open up the shop early. That is when we find the exact same knife as we had in the utensil drawer on display. “It’s a story knife,” the sign reads in the case. The original story knives were made of marine tusk ivory. I buy a few birch-made ones as souvenirs.

We find the storyteller display upstairs and settle ourselves on a bench to listen to a native elder tell a story by video. The air is dusty and cool. It has the smell that all museums have: the smell of oldness and preservation. The story is in the local area’s native language with English subtitles. There is music in the background of a drum and chanting. The woman’s voice starts. She is sitting in front of a box of sand smoothed flat. She is holding a “story knife.”

“There, far away in the mountains of the Chugak.” She takes the knife and gouges lines to mimic a mountain range. Women are the storytellers in Alaskan native society.

“Where birds fly over on their way north to the land of white night.” Small V’s punctuate the sky for birds.

“There was a couple walking below.” You see the knife draw two stick figures below with dots to show foot prints.

“They will hunt and gather.” You then see a river and flecks that look like fish in the water.

She erases the entire sand slate clean with a few moves of her knife and starts the next tableau. All the while there is chanting muted in the background with the rhythmic tapping of a skin drum. The storytelling is done just as they did centuries ago in a time before there were museums in this land, before the Americans came looking for gold, and even before the Russians came searching for furs. My mother and I are transported to a time before TV, where families sat in front of fires and listened while elders told legends: stories of past heroics, which were fraught with meaning. I sit there clutching my own bag of story knives from the gift shop. If fewer people were there, I might have been tempted to take one out of the bag and follow the choreography of her imagery in the sand. I could have made do with the air too.

Alaska is not overly populated with statuary. We have our totem poles and carvings in wood and soft stone. We have grass weavings and bead and stonework as well. The medium used is local and natural—few things last into the future when they are made of leather and feathers and seagrass. When I think of Alaska, I think of the story teller and her knife. Our stories are now saved in digital format. So, as our handicrafts may crumble into dust, the words and music of our past will still be accessible. Instead of grasping for a story knife, we can now click a mere button.

A special preview of this article was first published in August 2017