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The Shaman's Grave by Terry Pyles
Clan House, acrylic painting ©Terry Pyles / www.alaskanart.net
January 2012

In southern southeast Alaska, several years ago, I provided local knowledge for Bill, a photographer on assignment with National Geographic Magazine. He had rented a 32’ yacht, the M.V. Shaman, for the summer and I accompanied him every other week for about a week at a time, while he worked with his assistant.  My job was to watch their backs, keep them safe from bears and local hazards, and to find locations for taking photographs of salmon underwater.

A friend of mine, Bob, a veteran sailor, joined us on one of the trips.  We were nearing a well-known abandoned Tlingit village that we decided would be worth exploring. We launched the inflatable and went ashore.

Vanishing Heritage, painting by Terry Pyles
Vanishing Heritage, acrylic painting ©Terry Pyles

There wasn’t very much to see as the village had pretty much returned to the earth, but it was clear that this had been an intensely lived-in location. All of the longhouses were gone, a full score were there once - all that hinted of their existence were the faint outlines of their walls. The barely recognizable, rotting remains of one carved wall panel was all that remained of the house structures. There were a couple of rotting, ghostly totem poles still standing, a mute testimony to the culture that once thrived there. Local Natives believe that ravens are their deceased kin. A few ravens flitted around in the trees above us, reminding us that this was a once proud village.

Bob suggested we go to see a shaman’s grave that was on an adjacent island, so we hopped back in the inflatable and took off for the nearby point.

Village Sentenel, a painting by Terry Pyles
Sentinel, acrylic painting ©Terry Pyles

The grave was on a small promontory close to the beach, nestled in a miniature cave-like clearing, surrounded by a wall of salmon berry bushes and under a large Sitka spruce. The tree’s lowest branches created a claustrophobic ceiling that forced us to hunch down.  The place was spooky – too silent and very still. None of us made a sound as we took in the scene. We felt a bit like we shouldn’t be there - like we were invading someone’s private space. We also felt like we were being watched.

There were two graves, close to each other. Both appeared to be built to keep the bones above the ground. Both cribs were nearly identical, about 3 feet high by 30 inches wide and about 45 inches long, made of split red cedar rails. These were filled up with dirt and the human bones were laying on top, out in the open. They looked very old.

I have visited other ancient Tlingit burial sites and always left an offering and disturbed nothing. It seemed like almost every visit was a strange experience, so I heed the rituals, even though I’m not otherwise superstitious. Out of respect, I immediately placed an offering of a small cigar on the top rail of the crib closest to us. Bill shot me a quizzical look while Bob silently placed a tobacco offering of his own on the rail, from his pouch.

“What’s going on?” Bill whispered.

I glanced at Bob and he gestured back with a nod, meaning, “you tell him.”

I explained to Bill that because this was a shaman’s grave that it demanded the proper ritual. When visiting a sacred place, such as this, it is custom to leave an offering of a typical trade item like tobacco or beads, etc. This is important for protection. It is said that not paying your respects to the shaman could bring bad luck or even worse. Long after death, shamans are still feared for their powerful spells. Even though we might regard this as superstition, there are so many tales of woe of those who disregard the protocol, so why take a chance?

Bill was now perplexed and worried, and exclaimed that he had no tobacco, so what could he possibly offer? I suggested that a shiny new coin might suffice. 

As Bill went to dig in his pockets for treasure, he set his Nikon on the rail of the crib and both Bob and I looked at each other in horrified disbelief. Bob and I were playing it up quite a bit, just to see how far we could string out the melodrama.

“Bill, you have just given the Shaman your camera!” I cried.

Bob was trying mightily to remain serious and not bust out laughing. Bill was really looking worried and said, “I can’t give up my camera, that’s worth 3,500 bucks!”

 “Maybe if you carefully place your coin down and at the very same moment remove the camera.” I offered.

Bill did that, and at the very second the coin touched the crib rail, a loud, reverberating, “KAWOOOOK!” came from a large raven sitting on a branch just inches above our heads. All three of us just about jumped out of our skins and we made a hasty exit to the beach. It was as though the Shaman had spoken through the raven and accepted our offering that day.
©Terry Pyles

Acrylic Paintings by Terry Pyles

Eagle soaring over coastal rocks Bear fishing Orcas in SE Alaska Loon at Humpback Lake Mendenhall Glacier New Eddystone Rock Puffins swimming
©Terry Pyles
More paintings by Terry can be found at www.alaskanart.net.

About the Author/Artist
Terry Pyles

I've been involved in art since age 3 when I participated in a program for gifted children at the University of Washington. Aside from some private lessons during grade school, a couple of years of high school art and a year at WWSU, I'm pretty much self taught.

I began my professional career in the genre of Wildlife art painting. During my 30 plus years of painting wildlife I branched out into a number of media and genres. These include Marine, aviation, landscape, and still life painting, and sculpting in ceramics, bronze, wood, epoxy and fiberglass. I also do lampwork glass, computer graphics (such as the Kopi Luwak label for Raven’s Brew), technical and architectural rendering, mosaic tile, and stained glass, and now I cook at my own restaurant.

A list of my clients include, Princess Cruises, State of Alaska, National Wildlife Federation, USAF, Texaco, Danbury Mint, The Bradford Exchange, Lenox Collections, Ducks Unlimited, NOAA, Colonial Life Insurance, WWF, MBNA, A.V.G. Flying Tigers, NMFWS, National Geographic Magazine, BBC, and many others. Art is my driving force and my satisfaction comes from creating something from nothing. Being able to work in so many types of media is a blessing that keeps me from ever being bored of doing the same thing.

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