Poems in Ahtna and English


John E. Smelcer

T’ade Yenida’a

Nhw’el nahwgholnicde
yenida’a tiyhda’a,
yenida’ atah kughileltah—
s’el dahwdghitaey’.

Na’ oox yen ts’ezdaann, kultsaenn
tikiyaasde daetl’.

Nat’aan’delaeyi lults’ikalael
t’aa k’ay’ giis kanghilyaan.

Gha yen denae du’ u’att’ iinn
naghale’e’ kiilnii
t’aede laa.
Tl’adaa’a sezyaa bene
nansoghe ba’ba’ xugha dannolyaey
nildaak’e tikiyaasde
xutah c’etsendelnen.
Yihwts’en xugha’en stanacnel’iinn
tse kay’dalnen.

Konts’ aghade hwlazaann c’a xu’el ts’eneyel
yen kaskae xughe kenaes
xona kaskae xona igge’ dakidaetl—
kaskae na’ oox yen

Hwnaghe nilhual’ aen.
Yank’tnelnen. Denaegge’ ledases.
Nuuke’ nihdelnen
T’aede sighilyaal
igha’ane sdyes yen.
Kaskae zel el’ yuut
“Nen yaene’ ‘ele’ txisdliile!”

T’aede nak’.
Koldze’ nihwdelnen
del nikalt’uut’
nen’ t’aaxdze’ c’e’sdedlii.

Yahwdelnen el’ kaskae uyii tkudyaak.


John E. Smelcer

The Virgin’s Tale

Let me tell you a story
from many generations ago,
back in legendary times—
so long ago that the language
is hard for me.

A girl observing the puberty ritual
went into a menstruation hut.

The autumn wind, nat’aan’delaeyi,
“that which carries leaves,”
blew beneath a full moon.

This chief, who had many wives,
saw this girl and wanted her.
He went out to the edge of the lake
and left a gift of dried salmon
at the door of the ritual hut
where an odor drifted among them.
Then he crept away before the sun rose.

She stayed inside for seven days
until the chief spoke to her
and they went into his house—
he and that girl
who had just observed the puberty ritual.

Inside, they looked at each other.
He flirted with her. He winked at her.
They stood so close together
she became scared
and escaped from him.
He ran after her yelling,
“You cannot do it only by yourself!”

But when he caught up she had vanished.
All that remained
was her blood soaking into the ground
and a voice coming up from that place.
Someone was singing beneath the surface of the earth.

But even after the sky cleared the chief mourned.


John E. Smelcer

Hwtsiil Tidangiyaanen

Tadlzuun tl’ogh k’eltsiinitl’ogh dghelaay cene’
tehwdeldiyna da’snidaetl natu’.

Pedni tehwedeldiyna nilk’aedze’ ghot’
tse sdaghaay ogltsii;

tse Saghani Ggaay ‘cen’iis neke’e ‘et nekeghaltaexi’,
tse kayaxygge ogltsii tabaaghe k’eze.

Pghatsiitsen baes hwlsiil, c’etiyi ya’atse
k’e dghelaay cene’ k’eze tehwdeldiyna

yenka dldaek ts’ilghu,
yen dldaek.

Pghak’ae luk’ae i’nilaex, c’etiyi nic’ayilaan glts’aek’e ‘uyuunistl’en
hwna yanlae baa pk’e’e’lc’et’ yikaa.


John E. Smelcer

Weir Fisher

Flowing out of green foothills
the shallow stream enters the sea.

It began its winding course
long before these banks were cut;

before Raven stole the stars and moon,
when no village stood along these shores.

Below the stone weir, an old man waits
like the hills along the creek

for what the stream will soon bring
or what it will take away.

Once They arrive, he will lift his thin spear
while gray clouds slow the speed of light.


John E. Smelcer

Ggax Kuna’

Bendil Ghaxen
cagheandze’ gge’ nesdyaa
son’ yikaas k’edghildzaxi gge’.

Uts’e’ lkec’endeli nay’aaye’
xaydilk’aan naats utanay ‘tnelk’aani.

Ggaek sok
yaykaas nadghik’aan
nildzikedel yikaas k’edghildza’.

Yaykaas nadghik’aan nhwdghik’an’
Bendil Ghazen, tsitnitggas.
Ggax Kuna’ yaak.

Yehts’ en k’a ‘ele’ xodze’ lnakutniile.


John E. Smelcer

Near Gakona Village

Bendil Ghaxen,
Chief of Tazlina Lake Village,
awoke from his sleep
before the morning star had risen.

It was November, Uts’e’ lkec’endeli nay’aaye’,
the month after birds gather to migrate,
so he built a fire to warm his soup of blood
and fat and the liver of a rutting moose.

Just then he heard Raven’s caw
and the Northern Lights appeared—
zigzagging across the sky
in the failing light before dawn.

Where it touched the ground near him
that place was burned
and the Chief’s hair turned white.
This was long ago near Ggax Kuna’, Gakona Village.

It has not happened like that again.


John E. Smelcer

Son ‘Tsaane’

Ba’ane Ts’ilaaggen Tak’adze’

Tsaal K’aas

lts’ii dilliy.

yai’ tezyaa

kol’ii ghiyaa.
Iyiits’ kenildogh.
Hwtnitl’ iits’

Tsaal K’aas
nic’a’ilt’uus, dghelaay zdlaen
son’ tsaane’.


John E. Smelcer

Falling Star

A long time ago
during spring on Klutina River
it began to snow.

He-Who-Trains-the-Chinook Wind,
an upper Ahtna Indian war chief
and expert hunter

went out into the forest
on birch snow shoes.
The wind was strong.

He came upon a great tree
which he climbed.
He ascended the tree

for many days
until he was out of sight.
In the distance, a cloud

moved against a mountain.
Darkness fell
and when He-Who-Trains-The-Chinook Wind

he became
the first falling star.


John E. Smelcer


Tsets daghael
sii ben deltaan
dazeni kedadetnes.

C’et’aan ‘unetniigi,
k’agi delk’ac.

C’isnatse dakuditniis,
ts’elbae ti’diniggaats’
sii sedze’.


John E. Smelcer


While packing firewood
I came upon a small lake
and loonsong.

Flowers blossom,
a pika calls from a rock.

Suddenly there is a noise.
I am alone again.
Loon dives into the water.


John E. Smelcer


Dahwdezeldiin’ khot’aene kenaege’

Yaane’ koht’aene yaen’,
nekenaege’ nadahdelna.

Koht’aene kenaege’ k’os nadestaan,

lukae c’ena ti’taan’
Tez’aedzi Na’.

Sii c’etsesen—
sii sedze’.

Sii ‘e koht’aene k’e kenaes,

Sii ndahwdel’en, dandiilen,

Sii kahwtel’aen,
sii ‘e nekenaege’nadahdelne kenaege’.


John E. Smelcer

The Writer

I am beginning to write in our language,
but it is difficult.

Only elders speak our words,
and they are forgetting.

There are not many words.
They are scattered like clouds,

like salmon in Stepping Creek
at Tonsina River.

I do not speak like an Ahtna,
but hear the voice of the spirit,

hear it a distance
speaking quietly to me.