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Topsy (Charles Johnson) Poem: Reconstruction

Topsy Saginaw Bay Tsaagweidi Tlingit

Last time I was in Kake, I read some poems at a community talent show, and I had told my sisters I would read my “Topsy poem” but once I was limited on time so I read shorter works.

So here is the poem I didn’t get to read:

Topsy Saginaw Bay Tsaagweidi Tlingit


(For Uncle Topsy, Shaayaxdu.eesh – Tsaagweidi)

I thought my life was in layers

like a complex Chilkat Blanket’s warps and wefts;

foreground, background; the native, the not-native

It couldn’t unravel.

My father thought Tlingit but spoke English.

I always heard we live in two worlds,

heard that we learn who we are

by living right with the land,

that it should feed us like mother with milk.

I never hunted, could not speak the language of the forest.

Never fished, could not dance with the river.

To make sense of this place

I tried to reduce it: mudflats here, cliffs there, clouds above,

sulfur, rock, evaporation — but for all the details

it could not come to life, had no spirit.

I puzzled with this.

I heard we learn who we are by being a warrior.

Trained myself to be angry, to be at war.

On my head, fierce killer whale helmet with a fin that slashes.

Water roiling and adversaries who came out of nowhere,

Like Naatseelanei’s killer whales seeking vengeance.

My Uncle was different:

He wore tubes that fed him oxygen, the summer I lived with him.

One July day when the water was smooth,

we took Uncle Topsy to the sockeye stream.

It was all over the CB’s, we were so proud to get him out.

We filled our subsistence tickets, pulled in fat halibut. There was so much!

We thought we fished good! But the fish came to us, Topsy said.

Gliding across the strait, we took our Uncle to Skanax, Saginaw Bay

ancestral homeland Tsaagweidi Killerwhale clan.

We sat there, the boat haaaardly rocked.

A whale BROKE the water at the base of our last fort, that stood faaaar above us.

Topsy held out his arms           reciting the names          even the people;

Where Raven danced, and flirted, and played–

Where canoes arrived and were greeted.  Or destroyed;

How things that seem mythical, unfolded here — Right here!

I felt it. We all did.

And we understood

We didn’t bring our Uncle here,

he was bringing us here, home.

I thought I needed his memories, his life.

But he told me,

you know, even when you think you know the answers, listen. Just listen.

He said my uncle told him that.

He wanted me to know how to be human.

Played me the tape of our last real leader.

He was listing the qualities of a worthy chief,

“Your people should always see smoke

drifting from the smoke hole.”

The voice was calm and sweet like water. It was satisfying. In Tlingit.

He played its length and studied me, “Did you hear it? Did you hear?”

I said, “But it was in Tlingit.”

He pointed to his heart.

In my teacher’s presence I felt so safe, like sitting at the fire pit. 

I would have to design the dance staff to tell our story.

OUR story, Tsaagweidi!

I struggled with it for nights.

pinning worn out photos to the clothesline inside:

The Kake dancers, their drums, their paint, elders long gone, old regalia, old Kake

They were fading.

I wanted it. I wanted it to come back;

For Topsy’s memories to be my memories.

So I played the songs, I turned it REAL LOUD till the house itself sang, till the photos began to dance and sway,

till the designs came on their own– just like the sockeye in July

just like the whale met us at Skanax.

I saw it like it was flooooating in front of me!

Two killer whales, two houses

There were two killer whales but joined by one tail

and seals in the body, Tssaa..

It’s like that, CONNECTED, not disjointed.

When Topsy came from the hospital, I wanted to be the man he described.

I confessed that’s not me.

He put his hand on my heart: “You just have to listen, nephew.

It will all come to you, if you stop fighting so hard. It will.”


© Robert Davis Hoffmann



“Reconstruction” was published in the Alaska Quarterly Review, Vol. 26 No. 1 & 2, Spring/Summer 2009, University of Alaska, Anchorage.

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