I was privileged to be present the day that my husband, Jeff, read aloud what he had written for the Native Corps. In Nome, AK.  The Elders gathered in a small room around a large oval table to hear the story of how 2 native boys had led “Three Lucky Swedes” to the gold that was rich on the beach at Nome.  The year of this event was 1898. That event led to what has been called the “Nome Gold Rush.” 

Over the years, the Three Lucky Swedes had been credited with finding the gold. The natives told another story.

Jeff had previously edited a book of the letters and photos of two brothers who arrived in Nome from San Jose, California, in 1899, two young men seeking their fortune.  He pieced together their story from a cardboard box of the letters and photos that had been sitting high in a dusty closet of the son of one of the miners.  In the course of putting the book together, Jeff had traveled often to Nome, and there he met with the white settlers, and then, with the Natives, who had their own story to tell about how the gold had been discovered.  His invitation to write the native account of the gold rush had come from the Native Corps because the natives had never forgotten the kindness of the two young men, gold-miners from San Jose, their kindness an anomaly in the native experience of white people.  Oral history had kept the young men’s kindness alive.

After many interviews and in collaboration with the Native Corps., Jeff had been asked to write again about the Nome Gold Rush – this time, from the point of view of the natives.  On the day that Jeff was to meet with the Elders, I was invited to accompany him.  I will never forget that day, a highlight in my own life.  I sat at one end of a long table next to my husband, encircled by the people who would hear their oral history as written words, for the first time.  They sat silently as Jeff read the account, based on their own words, based on the stories they had been told, and then told again to this stranger.

His writing told the story of how the two native boys, not knowing the value of the gold in the white man’s world, had led “Three Lucky Swedes” to the gold on the beach.  When he had finished reading, he closed the small book and sat back in his chair.

A long time passed.  Silence.  Finally, out of the silence, one Elder after another spoke, without interrupting one another.  They reflected on the words they had just heard, often prefacing their thoughts with the words: “this is what I was told.”  Their memories edited what had been written. And their memories brought into that room the living, breathing oral history that had held this story for a long, long time.

I sat, silent also, observing and experiencing the wonderful moment that lay before me.  I sat in the silence that the people held – in their persons –  as in the silence of the Holy.  There was no arguing about facts.  The stories were their own facts.

I think often of those moments in my life.  I have never forgotten the depth of what I experienced, witnessed, and knew in that room. 

The whole of creation is listening. Photo by Mary Elyn Bahlert, 5/2021

p.s. In Nome, two statues stand to commemorate the finding of the gold that led to the Gold Rush in Nome. One statue remembers the Three Lucky Swedes. Another, dedicated in Nome a few years later, remembers the Two Eskimo Boys.

3 thoughts on “Listening”

  1. Hi  Mary Elyn,, I really enjoyed reading this, especially your wonderful observation.   A question:  do the people there call themselves “Eskimo?”  This term is no longer used by Canada First Nation people, but I don’t know if US Natives reject it, as well. Hope you are doing well! Naomi

    Liked by 1 person

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