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The Trouble With Totems

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“Guidance?” Sitka said, with some disbelief.  “What does she mean, guidance?”

He’d been ready for the ceremony for weeks – every young man and woman was. All of them investing nights of sleeplessness, desperate with hope and longing that the spirits might confirm what they wanted to believe existed within themselves and yet couldn’t quite. A totem was something that Sitka had always imagined could be used like a badge, a stamp of proof. It surely had to mean something if the spirits said it was true. Your elders had to take what you said seriously, surely, if you could hold out the totem of wisdom; no-one could argue your attractiveness if you held the totem of beauty and if you held the totem of strength.. well, almost anything was achievable then.

All those weeks dreaming about how much more seriously everyone would take him, about how he would be viewed as Sitka the man and not Sitka who had to mind his younger brothers because everyone else was too busy.. and then this. An eagle of guidance. What use was that to anyone?

The dubious expression on Nawyet’s face didn’t help either. He might be trying hard to be reassuring, but Sitka knew his friend well enough to know when he was struggling. “Well,” he said hesitantly. “To guide, you know, to uh.. lead. Tell people what to do. That kind of thing.”

Sitka dropped his head into his hands and groaned. “The spirits want me to do more babysitting? Great. Just what I didn’t need.”

Nawyet shrugged helplessly. “I suppose you are very good at uh..” He faltered, reading from Sikta’s face that this was maybe not what he wanted to hear.

“Babysitting,” Sitka repeated sourly. “I’m good at babysitting. Because I never get to do anything else.” He scowled, picking up a rock and tossing it hard towards the nearest tree. Looking after his two younger brothers seemed to be the only thing anyone wanted to do, and all the time he had to tell them what to do because they seemed to have the survival instincts and common sense of two deranged moose. “I could be good at other things if anyone ever gave me chance. You’d think maybe the spirits could show a little more imagination.”


The excitement Sitka had felt before the ceremony faded far too quickly to a glowering resentment that he didn’t seem able to rid himself of. He’d been happier not even having a totem at all – at least then, he’d had the whole thing to look forward to, the idea that soon things would change. Having his totem without anything changing, just stuck as he was forever… it stung.

Like a bear with a sore head, he took it out on those around him. Those with ‘better’ totems were clearly trying to rub it in when they asked about his, Nawyet’s attempts to soothe stung more than they helped and his brothers’ squabbling was at the point of driving him crazy. It didn’t matter what he said to them, they would be at each other’s throats again five minutes later. What good was this guiding thing if it never got you anywhere?

Finally, in desperation, he asked Tanana. Of course, the old woman wouldn’t be able to get the spirits to change the totem, but maybe she could talk to them somehow, get them to do something to make it better.

“I thought the spirits were all about change?” he said to her, baffled and unhappy. “I just don’t get it. Why do they want me to just keep doing the same thing as always?”

She gave him one of those curiously bright eyed gazes. "It is what you choose to do, Sitka," she said. "Guidance is a very powerful thing."

"What if I don't choose to guide anyone?" Sitka demanded. He glanced back over to his brothers, to where yet again they seemed to be rolling around like angry puppies, and looked away. If he didn't look, he didn't have to do anything to stop them. "It's not as though they ever listen anyway."

"Perhaps you will be surprised at how much they have listened," Tanana said. "Have you considered that possibly guiding sometimes means not telling people what to do?"

"What, just letting them bang each other's heads against the wall until they lose what brains they have left?" It was always tempting, but usually guilt caught up with him.

She laughed at that. "No, Sitka. Tell me, do I tell people what to do hmm? Or do I tell them what  they need to hear in order for them to do it for themselves?"

Sitka scowled. "Right now, it doesn't seem that you're telling me anything much."

She tsked a little. "You are letting your frustrations stop you from seeing clearly. Guidance is a powerful thing. It shows others how to be themselves, to be the best they can be themselves. The best leaders do not order, they give people opportunity to show their best qualities."

"You couldn't do a bit more telling?" he said hopefully. "Start here, that kind of thing?"

"Guidance starts where telling stops, Sitka," Tanana said sitting back. "I am showing you rather than ordering you."

"Just a little clue?" he pleaded.

"Very well then," she said finally. "You will find the answer when you are unable to do as you normally do."

It didn’t seem much help – it wasn’t as though Sitka could actually do anything to force himself to be unable to do as he usually would – but it seemed it was all the answer he was getting. Glumly he stumped back over to where Denahi was trying to stuff snow into Kenai’s mouth. Back to life as usual then.


‘Life as usual’ seemed to cover what happened to most of Sitka’s friends after their ceremonies in fact. One by one they reached the correct age and waited eagerly for Tanana to return from the mountains with their totem. Nawyet was told his path lay in patience, another boy in kindness, the loner of the group nudged towards independence. There were no real surprises, no-one who was told to break out of a path they weren’t already heading down – at least to the eyes of observers. Change might be important, but to Sitka’s eyes the spirits encouraged anything but. For all their hope and worry about the process nothing seemed to change, and eventually they stopped worrying about what it all might mean and put it out of their minds.

After all, the salmon run was coming up, and that was much more important news. Denahi had been old enough to join Sitka at the salmon run for a couple of years now, and Kenai was of an age where he wanted to come and help properly, not just play around with the other younger ones. Sitka sighed, and resigned himself to a trip of sibling squabbling.

He ignored them on the way to the river as they argued about who was going to catch the bigger fish; caught Kenai just before their scuffling sent him, arms flailing, into the freezing water; did his best to focus on the fish and leave only half an ear on the two voices in the background. Guidance, indeed! How was he supposed to guide two younger brothers into the best ways to catch fish, when they seemed to expend all their concentration on finding out how to annoy each other and never listened to a word he said?

He was, perhaps, focusing harder on the fish than on where he put his feet – and had he been listening properly to his brothers, he might have heard Denahi’s cry of  alarm behind him. He didn’t realise that he might have been leaning too far in his attempts to spear a particularly large fish until he over-balanced and fell, with a splash, into the water.

It was cold, so cold that it was hard to remember how to breathe, and the current was very fast. The first shock was enough that Sitka forgot to even struggle for a few seconds, and by then he was already being borne along by the river, bouncing painfully off rocks as he passed. He struggled his way to the surface, drew breath to yell and went under again. His vision blurred, and he fought that, trying to surface once more. Pass out and he drowned -- he knew that. Just had to find a rock or something to hang onto for long enough to catch his breath.

Something appeared in front of him, and he grabbed at it frantically, clinging for all he was worth. Not for a second did he realise he was clinging to smooth shaped wood, not until it tugged him back towards the surface and he gasped for air thankfully.

Two worried faces appeared in front of him and he didn’t have time to react before he was grabbed by the arms, pulled out of the water, and deposited, dripping, on the back of a canoe. Land was only seconds away, at least when you were in control of a canoe, and then he was grabbed again, rubbed briskly, too stunned to protest or react.

“Need to get him warm.” That was Denahi’s voice. “Kenai, get some wood.”

Sitka waited for the instant protest, the whine that Denahi could get it himself. To his surprise, none came, and when he opened his eyes Kenai was gone.

“We need to get you out of those clothes.” Denahi was crouched in front of him, peering at him urgently as he reached to undo Sitka’s jacket. Almost as an afterthought, he added, “sorry”.

Sitka was too cold to protest, and yielded meekly as Denahi stripped him, wrapping him in his own jacket. Only when a second jacket was thrown over him did he realise that Kenai had rejoined them, and was already stoking up the fire. “You should..” he started to mutter automatically, and stopped, too cold and confused to think of anything that they weren’t already doing.

Slowly feeling started to come back into his limbs as the fire warmed him. Someone – he wasn’t even sure which of them – pushed a piece of hot fish into his numb hands, and held it there until he was steady enough to take a bite, then another. Blankets were wrapped tightly around him, and hands rubbed his urgently until finally he gathered the strength to push Kenai away. “Stoppit.”

Kenai fell back obediently, but Sitka could feel two pairs of worried eyes watching him. “It’s..” His voice felt more like a wheeze, and he coughed, gathering strength before he tried to speak again. “It’s all right. Stop looking at me like that, both of you.”

Neither of them seemed to know how to react for a moment, and then Denahi gave him a friendly shove – gently, as though worried that Sitka might be fragile enough to shatter if force was used. “You owe me a jacket, big brother. I’m not using mine after it’s been on you.”

He didn’t need to tell them that they had to head back, though he’d worried that they might protest at missing some of the much anticipated trip. They decided that on their own, loading Sitka up between them as though he were a particularly precious, breakable bundle of fish. For once, not an cross word was spoken.

Of course, it couldn’t last. They squabbled on the way back, irritable little fusses over who was pulling more, who was doing the most work. Somehow though, it didn’t seem to last more than a few minutes. Every time Sitka was trying to gather enough energy to calm the situation one of them would glance at him, look suddenly guilty, and the argument would fade away.

Sitka watched, astonished. It seemed that once he’d told them often enough what to do, telling them with words… just wasn’t needed any more.


“How did you know?” he demanded later, when he was warm and dry and someone had checked he wasn’t going to lose any of his fingers. “How did you both know what to do? Whenever I check, you always act like you haven’t a clue.”

The pair of them shrugged, looking slightly awkward,  “We guessed,” Denahi admitted. “I mean, we weren’t going to leave you to drown because we didn’t know, did we? But we both sort of remembered what you said to do, so we went with that.”

“Besides,” Kenai said, having the good grace to sound guilty, “there’s no point us guessing normally, if you’re just going to know and do it properly, is there?”

There was no easy response to that, and Denahi saved him from needing to think of one, swatting Kenai across the back of the head. “Like you’ve ever in your life done anything properly.”

Kenai fended him off, but he was laughing, and for once Sitka was content to watch them rather than intervene. Not all fights, after all, had to be bitter ones.

Tanana could have told him, but it would be some years before Sitka worked out that one of the biggest changes in his life was the one that changed two useless kid brothers into friends.