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Issue: October 2009
Story hidden among the photos in the Death alter

by Kari Fjällström

I search among my photos for some on the theme of elders, old age and death, and find photos of the Indian graveyard on a sunny hillside where my grandmother, Susie Sarah Smith is buried.

I like the wooden fences around the graves, one in particular decorated with hearts. One grave is very different from all the others – it has a marble tombstone and on it is inscribed

Deaconess Anne Kathleen Thompson born 1892

worked as a missionary in Nenana [Alaska]

from 1927 [35 yrs] until 1951 [59 yrs]

 

While I stand before this grave, my mother mumbles, “She was murdered.”

 

“Why?” I ask. My mother shrugs and says nothing.

 

People were murdered in frontier towns during the Gold Rush. My great grandfather was shot down at his home in the middle of the night in 1909 (my grandmother Susie was 7 years old). Her mother, an Athabascan woman from Holikachuk, Sarah was left with six children. Charles John Smith was born July 1870, and immigrated according to the 1920 census (the Indians say from Norway) to Alaska in 1884 (a boy of 14-18 years). The Indians also say that the crew of Charlie’s ship mutinied when they reached the Yukon, and that the captain of the ship was murdered! And now I am told that this deaconess is murdered in 1951 (the same year I am born far away in the mountains in Norway). My mother had long since left Nenana when the deaconess was killed, but still we feel uncomfortable confronted with the tragedy of murder. Here she is – buried in an Indian graveyard. And the flowers indicate someone tends her grave.

 

Piecing together the Death alter, I am not certain whether to include this dreary Christian tombstone with the heavy cross or not. Generally people seem to like heavy stones on graves – maybe to prevent animals from digging up the graves, maybe because stones unlike flesh and bones are relatively permanent. I rather enjoy the lightness of the Indian graves with their wooden fences and crosses, flowers and medicine purses. My intuition tells me that my grandmother Susie knew the deaconess. My mother said that her mother was “deeply religious,” and the years between 1927 and 1932, when Susie died, were full of tuberculosis, sickness, births and deaths. In the end I decide Kathleen can be on one side of the tree among the roots and the Indian graves on the other side.






After Initiation I return home and a few days later I phone my mother. Suddenly she starts talking about “that missionary” – she’s done some research and discovered why she was murdered. Kathleen did not approve of the rites a shaman performed for young women of the Indian community. She went to her/his house and destroyed her/his tools and materials, and beat her/him with a wooden stick! A short time later the deaconess is murdered. It is not explained whether the shaman was female or male, what the rites were, nor how the deaconess was killed. So I have no inclination to take sides in the story.

Certainly within the context of Initiation and the revival of shamanistic practices, it is a haunting story. I feel more comfortable with my decision to include Kathleen – maybe some of the energy bound up in that conflict between cultures and creeds will be resolved and dissipated by our work.

Love and prayers, Kari

 

St. Marks Church in Nenana, Alaska



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The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the School of Movement Medicine. Roland Wilkinson, Nappers Crossing, Staverton, Devon TQ9 6PD, UK Tel & Fax +44 (0)1803 762255 http://www. schoolofmovementmedicine.com