Beautiful Words / Kasuundze’ Kenaege’: The Complete Ahtna Poems

John Elvis Smelcer


A literary landmark, this bilingual collection of poems represents the only literature of the Ahtna culture in existence.  Here John Smelcer renders these poems in his native tongue with English translations.

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A literary landmark, this bilingual collection of poems represents the only literature of the Ahtna culture in existence. Ahtna is one of twenty indigenous languages of Alaska and had no written form until the last thirty years. Here John Smelcer renders these poems in his native tongue with English translations.

The lovely poems that Smelcer has collected, and careful linguistic work on Ahtna, will reveal that someone remembers, and will allow others too “to know existence and to marvel in it.”

—Noam Chomsky

These beautiful, delicate, and lyrical poems remind me of Kenneth Rexroth’s Japanese translations.

—Maria Mazziotti Gillan

Included in the sum is the history of who we are and who we were. John Smelcer’s bilingual poems and his two dictionaries of endangered Alaska Native languages are a priceless gift to posterity.

—Steven Pinker


Foreword by Noam Chomsky
Foreword by Steven Pinker

The Complete Ahtna Poems:
The Indian Prophet
The Poet
What I Learned from the Stars
Animal Spirits
Zen Raven
Mum Raven
The Nature of Being
A Sufficient Wisdom
Song of the Rain
My Conversation with a Fox
Talking Animals

     He Went the Wrong Way
     Prayer Singer
     Two Indians Interpret a Sign
     A Polar Bear Tries to Adapt (to Global Warming)
     A Jealous Husband Dreams of Bears
     Squirrel Man
     Mourning Song for the Last Indian
     Morning Tea
     Sauna Stones
     Mourning Song
     Mountain Smoke
     Playing Hide-and-Seek with Raven
     On Feet of Clouds
     Creation Myth
     The Meaning of Life
     Raven’s Trans-Species Love Song
     Smart as a Fox
     The Moose
     Muskrat Woman
     Medicine Man
     The Widower’s Dance
     Wedding Night
     A Minor Correction
     When Raven Was Killed
     Indian Country
     Whiskey Drunk
     Hunter’s Luck
     Surviving Winter
     How Raven Became Black
     Near Gakona Village
     Falling Star
     Baptizing the Last Shaman
     Glacier Dance
     Evening at Fielding Lake
     Spring on the Yukon
     Soda Pop Song
     The End of Christmas
     A Strange White Man Heals My Broken Heart
     Beaver Story
     The Dandelion Blossom
     Anger Management
     The First Ever Ahtna Knock-Knock Joke
     Hunting Ground
     Beaver and Frog
     Raven and the Butterfly
     Best Intentions
     Supper Bell
     Owl and Mouse

About the Author


John E. Smelcer’s poetry books include Riversongs, Songs From an Outcast, Kesugi Ridge, and Changing Seasons. He edited Durable Breath: Contemporary Native American Poetry. His autobiography appears in Here First: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers. He has also published numerous nonfiction books including, In the Shadows of Mountains and The Raven and the Totem. His poetry has appeared in more than 250 periodicals such as The Atlantic Monthly, The American Voice, Antioch Review, Chariton Review, The Common Review, Connecticut Review, Georgetown Review, High Plains Literary Review, Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, The Literary Review, Nimrod, Ohio Review, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner,Rosebud, Witness, and Zyzzyva. Smelcer has been a guest lecturer at universities worldwide. He is a federally enrolled member of the Ahtna Tribe of Alaska. From 1996 through 1998, he was the tribally  appointed executive director of the Ahtna Heritage Foundation.

Visit John's website.


Much of a culture is learned through its language. Beautiful Words: The Complete Ahtna Poems is a poetry book looking to present a written record of the Ahtna language, one of the twenty indigenous languages throughout Alaska, only gaining a written form in the past few decades. Blending both English and Ahtna, Beautiful Words is an introduction of culture and language, highly recommended.

Midwest Book Review


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