The unrelenting August rain pounded the cabin roof of an Alaskan Chilkat Valley campground. Sitting by the crackling fire and looking through a large window, I could see soaring snow-capped mountains and thousands of bald eagles feasting on the abundant Chilkat River’s salmon. The remoteness of the unspoiled wilderness made me feel as if I had arrived at the end of the world.
About several dozen people had come to this camp for a week of rest and restoration that included informal talks and workshops. It was a recess time. One of the participants, a very elderly Tlinget Indian man and I sat together enjoying the magnificent display of nature.
I had come from the Midwest for this gathering and to do other work for my adopted Raven Clan of the Tlinget Tribe. All along, I was acutely aware that the people who had adopted me possessed gems of knowledge that are rare in classroom learning: gems that have been polished through centuries of the struggles of life. And sitting next to me was my silent elderly companion whose wisdom I decided to tap.
I said, “Walter, I have been doing a lot of talking by sharing what little I know. In the interest of fairness, I also need be paid by learning things that I can take back with me and share with others. I am in the business of education. If I only spit out what I know and not replenish my store of goods, before long I will be reduced to a little more than a parrot. So, I am all ears and I would love to hear you tell me things”
Walter replied, “Well, yes. Book-learning is good. Never had much chance for that. I was born and raised on the little Island of Hoona. You went there by plane, the other day to visit your adopted family, right?
Walter continued, “Our entire village depend on fishing. Soon as I could walk, my father rope me in the work. Little things. Un-entangling the net, mending and hooking it. Cleaning the boat. Hauling the catch. Not much chance for schooling. To this day, I can barely read.”
He fell silent. I waited, but before long I ran out of patience, “Yes, please go on.”
“Well, you talk about human nature this morning. Yeah, humans. We’re complicated. We’re so good, at times that angels envy us. And we’re so bad that we put the devil to shame.”
He fell silent again and after a while, went on, “Well, Grandmother, bless her soul, was great comfort to me at end of killing day’s hard work. As child, I go to her bedroll and snuggle with her. She always accept me. She sing for me ‘til I sleep. And she tell me things, in few words, and not often. She say to me, ‘Walter, inside each of us is two dogs. One black, one white. Black dog’s rabid, vicious. White dog’s nice and kind. Some people keep feeding black dog and starve white dog. Black dog in these people take over, might even eat white dog, and keep on hurting others. You, my grandson, feed white dog and kill rabid black dog.’”
Walter fell silent again. I marveled at this simple, yet deeply profound, metaphor. A great majority of these resilient, extremely hard-working inhabitants of a remote desolate patch of earth live a life of kindness and care—it is the secret of their survival in their harsh environment.
In Walter’s silence, I began thinking about how the black-white dog metaphor of these Alaska Indians reminded me of similar concepts of my own people at the other end of the world. The Ancient Zoroastrian notion of the forces of good as directed by Ahuramazda and forces of evil as led by Ahriman symbolizes the banding of individual white and black dogs into groups.
“Walter,” I finally broke the quiet and asked, “about feeding the white dog and starving the black dog -- is this from the teachings of the Alaskan native religion?”
Walter answered, “Religion’s anything that teach good. Anything teach bad is not religion even when people say it’s religion.”
“Explain that, please,” I said.
He spoke thoughtfully, “Our religion tell us respect everyone and be brother with everyone. We Tlinget are two clans, Eagles and Ravens. No matter. We’re one tribe. No bad feelings, no fighting. Just one people. Everyone work. No rich, no poor. Anyone old, sick or need help, people help. That’s our religion. Religion that pits people against people is not religion. It feed the black dog in us. And we all suffer.”
Walter’s words hung in the air, and have stayed in my memory ever since that time so many years ago. Even now I see their great wisdom and truth. In our darksome world of today, I sense a greater and greater urgency for each one of us to nurture the white and subdue the black dog within. By so doing we can hitch our strong white dogs to humanity’s sled, pull it away from the precipice of death and destruction, and steer it along the path of universal brotherhood and well-being.
At the risk of explaining the obvious, I feel compelled to say that the notion of black-white is simply a juxtaposition used in many cultures and it is void of any racial implications or reference to the color of the skin.
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