The stories say that from the First Beginning the animals talked among themselves and to the humans. They formed partnerships with each other. They called the humans the Campfire People.
We enter a world dense with story, dense with meaning . . .
Peter Kalifornsky (1911-1993) was a member of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, a Dena’ina Athabaskan who lived in Kenai, Alaska. He was the last speaker of his language—a dialect of Dena’ina—and the first to bring it into written literature. Among his ancient tales was Ggugguyni Sukt’a, Crow Story, which tells how Crow (the Raven) gave songs and their first story to the Campfire People.
Long time ago, it begins, the Dena’ina did not have songs and stories. Then came the time that Crow sang for them. Till then, as they worked together and traveled, di ya du hu kept them in time . . . .
In 1984, a young poet named Katherine McNamara came to Peter Kalifornsky’s door. She was fascinated by Crow Story. The old man was pleased that a visitor wanted to talk about its meaning. “I wrote that story, yes, in my native language. It’s written; and all I was fighting for was to preserve my native language,” he said. “But what we’re getting into—how to read the background—gets complicated.”
So began their friendship, which grew into a five-year collaboration. They brought his stories and essays into new American versions, and, as she listened and wrote, he told her of larger things. The power of the animals. The Mountain People and the mother and father of the animals. The law and regulations of the old Dena’ina, and their elaborate protocol. The training of the shamans, the sky readers, the doctors, the Man Whose Word Comes True. Their poetics and theory of story.
From the First Beginning, When the Animals Were Talking, The Animal Stories is the first of four volumes. It includes Peter Kalifornsky’s animal stories in their American translation matched with his conversations with Katherine McNamara, so that the tales and their “back story” speak to each other. This multi-touch edition allows the reader to follow Kalifornsky’s stories and his thoughts about them, simultaneously.
Interactive materials include audio files of Peter Kalifornsky reading in Dena’ina and galleries of manuscript pages and maps. The stories are annotated and cross-linked to conversations and the glossary. The edition will be updated periodically, as new digital materials are added.
Early Readers have responded warmly:
I am pleased to see the development of From the First Beginning When the Animals Were Talking: The Work of Peter Kalifornsky, compiled, and edited by Katherine McNamara. The presentation of this material in a multitouch edition is exciting and will be invaluable for the Alaskan tribes and schools, scholarly and general public. The late Peter Kalifornsky was a Dena’ina scholar and well-respected in Alaska for his gift in relaying traditional knowledge that is so important to the younger generation.
Dena’ina Cultural Anthropologist
In addition to its value as a cultural artifact, Kalifornsky's writing, with its skillful use of metaphor, form, and theme, has lasting merit as a work of literature, one which helps reveal the cultural beliefs of his tribe and the operation of its collective creative imagination across time. Kalifornsky's writing also raises important questions relevant to comparative literary theory—about Western thinking, the individual as the creator of art, the use of politics in writing, and other issues essential to discussion about what constitutes literature in the first place.
For thirty years Katherine McNamara has been committed to the preservation of Kalifornsky's work, having received his approval for her efforts and her translations into English of his work. She may well be the only person completely familiar not only with Kalifornsky's manuscripts and the culture in which they originated, but with the spirit and intention of his work.
former Associate Editor, Virginia Quarterly Review and Lecturer, Department of English, University of Virginia