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Thursday, March 5, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Writing The Story, Saving The Past -- A Tlingit Elder Puts An Oral Legend In Writing To Preserve His Tribe's History

Seattle Times Staff Writer

It's hard to tell just where the giant Devilfish first struck. But what the members of the Alaskan Tlingit Tribe do know is that its long tentacles reached far along the edge of a secluded inlet about 100 miles south of Sitka, Alaska, and in a night of unimaginable terror, it wiped an entire village off the map.

There is nothing left now except a fish trap, a small clearing along the cove, and pictures etched in great stone walls that tell of tragedy at Devilfish Bay.

The story of Devilfish Bay has been a part of the Tlingit culture for more than 400 years - a tale of two young Tlingit men who battle a giant octopus to save the honor of their family name.

Native Americans have long kept traditional storytelling only as oral histories to be passed between generations. Never to be written down. Never to be known in the non-Indian world.

The mere repetition of stories preserved them. But lately, among many Native American tribes, that attitude is changing, giving rise to a book about Devilfish Bay.

Stories "are told so many times, the details are deeply planted," said Rudy James, Tlingit tribal judge and elder who says his ancestors were attacked by the Devilfish. "It's imprinted on our minds so that it will always be there."

Increasingly, tribes are beginning to document their stories in poetry, fiction and nonfiction. It's a move that seems to fly in the face of tradition, and yet many Native-American elders say writing

about their past is becoming a necessary way of keeping a presence in the world beyond totem poles and stone carvings.

Tlingit tribal elders fear the widening chasm between them and the younger generation will lead to a slow vanishing of the culture. They do not want their children to forget who they are, and how their ancestors once lived.

There are other, more tangible fears. The Tlingit tribal elders are passing away, making the tribe as small as it's ever been. Once numbering 40,000, the Tlingit population has been pared down to about 1,100. The smaller the Tlingit Tribe gets, the greater the fear among its members that there may one day be no record to prove the Tlingits ever existed.

That bothers James, the Tlingit judge widely known for presiding over the banishment of two Tlingit 17-year-olds accused of beating a pizza deliveryman. So, two years ago, James broke through traditional edicts with passionate resolve and gave the story of Devilfish Bay something it has never had: permanence.

Recalling a childhood memory

James began scratching out the story of the great Devilfish in a naturally lit corner of his family's rambler in a pastoral setting just east of Bothell. The story, spun from childhood memory, began to appear on a blank computer screen as James wrote intensely every day for more than a year. He typed one last period a few months ago, and realized he had a book. His wife, Diana James, helped edit and draw pictures. His son, Loren James, also edited and provided research.

The family project culminated in the recently released "Devilfish Bay" (Wolfhouse Publishing, $19.95). More than just a compelling account of an epic battle between a monstrous octopus and the Tlingit people, the tale imparts several lessons that speak to Tlingit values: building character, taking responsibility for your actions, and respecting elders, the "holders of these ancient stories," James said.

At his computer, James would sit for hours, letting the story move from the quiet chambers of his mind to the computer screen. Sometimes, teardrops would slip down his face and seep between his lips.

For the James family, the attack at Devilfish Bay is more than just a tribal story. To them, it is the truth.

"These are my relatives that died in battle," James said. As he thinks back on the story, his eyes peer out in no particular direction across a densely furnished living room; they seem to focus on some solitary place or time beyond the four walls of the room, beyond that morning.

He thinks of why he wrote the book. There are many answers, but he comes back to this one the most. To him, it is an act of self-preservation. For his family. For his tribe.

The book will live on

"Long after I'm dead and gone," James said, "the book will be there."

Up until now, the story has lived only in spoken words whispered over the crackling of a warm fire in the James home back on Kuiu Island in Alaska. James remembers being caught up in the story his mother told with great elocution. She died some 35 years ago, but the story lives on in the 15 James children who sat in a circle at night and listened with great excitement.

"The skill of the storyteller is such that you actually live it, you actually feel the emotions," James said. The inflections, the tone of voice, the emphasis on certain words work together to transport listeners back to that place, that defining moment for the Tlingit Tribe.

James has become a master storyteller in his own right. He can tell a tale in a coffee-break chunk of time without once blinking until the last word is spoken. He holds his gaze as if staring through a tube, and as you look into his brown marble-like eyes, you can't help but become transfixed. Suddenly, you are there, watching the Devilfish's menacing shadow rise from under a sea cliff and move across the land, leaving a trail of sticky slime behind.

Slowly, he peels back the layers of history. His voice, edged with a hint of grief, is soothing and rhythmic, a soft ballad in winter.

Back then, around 1600, the tribe had four living sites scattered across a string of Alaskan islands covering 155 miles. They spent their lives chasing the seasons and salmon. Devilfish Bay was a prime location in spring to harvest salmon that would last the tribe the rest of the year.

The bay sits wedged between a chain of islands - the native lands of the Tlingit Tribe. As the James family describes it, the landscape is a dramatic tapestry of velvety bearded cliffs and mountains, and water so still you can see a perfect reflection of your face. There is a loud and pervading silence, broken only by the occasional chirp of birds and howl of wolves.

The story begins

The story traces the lives of two young Tlingit brothers, Zot-kee and Th-tawk, who are being trained to hunt and battle. They leave Devilfish Bay in a dugout canoe one predawn morning to hunt seals that will be shared with the entire tribe. But as the hours of the day slip into late afternoon and they return to their campsite, they notice floating objects in the water - bear skins, slats of cedar shakes, broken wooden bowls, a bentwood cedar box with dried salmon inside.

Edging closer to the bay, they discover their village has been dragged into the water by a tremendous force. There was only one thing that could cause so much damage. Its name was "Nawk" - the devilfish that lived under a cliff near the village site.

The two brothers attacked the devilfish, and sought no help. In the Tlingit culture, families must resolve their own problems, James said.

"They could have got all these men of war to help them, but they did not want to be remembered with pity," James said. "They chose the path of honor. They chose the path of self-respect. They do that knowing they will die."

James continued to hear the story until his teenage years, but it wasn't until he became a father, with two sons who became a captive audience, that James would retell the story of Devilfish Bay.

"Some people hear fairy tales," Loren James said. "I always asked Dad to tell me the story of the big fish."

Several years ago, the James sons, now 39 and 35, urged their father to put the story down in ink so they would have something to go back to, something to cross-reference when they begin telling the story.

The book is as close to the truth as James and his family could get, based on accounts from tribal elders and a trip last spring to Devilfish Bay to more accurately describe the setting. From Ketchikan, it takes about 16 hours by motor boat to get there, but the experience was worth it, the James family says. As a peace offering, James tossed a copy of his manuscript into the still, blue-black water. It was only after videotaping the expedition that the Jameses realized there are more than 80 pictures depicting the battle and Tlingit life at the bay etched along rock walls and cliffs.

But Loren James knows the book is not exactly as everyone might remember it. He worries that people will see it as the definitive account of what happened at the bay so long ago.

"People are going to read this 100 years from now and they aren't going to have the context," Loren James said.

And so, they are documenting all they can. In video, and on paper. The family also hopes to keep the spirit of Devilfish Bay alive by one day offering tours of the site. They say they'll use the money they earn to protect their native land from the kind of wholesale development gradually engulfing the Alaskan landscape.

Despite the attack so long ago, Devilfish Bay is a place of solace for James. It is the place where his ancestors lived and died. The place where he came from.

"We don't look at it as a savage land," James said. "This is our homeland."

For information on the book or possible tours of Devilfish Bay, call 800-976-5848.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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