The Glowing of Sedna's Hair by Anna Marie Laforest (Copyrighted material, January 2016)
Sedna, whose name would come to mean “provider of food,” was a strong-willed, strong-boned arctic child with long dark hair that had a reddish cast in the stark northern sun. She loved to chase after her father as he worked, and by the time she was eight years old she had learned how to chop square holes in the ice for him to lure and spear the fish. Sedna also helped him pick bearberries and cull seaweed and arctic moss for her family to eat, as these were the very early days of the frozen earth before seals and walrus were there to be hunted along the shore.
The hardy child often pulled up shrub-roots, looking for something fat enough for her family to chew on. She shared, with her father, a deep desire to figure out how to provide more food for the tribe. Now and then a caribou would appear and lay down its life, but this was a rare and sacred occasion. Clothing and tents made from its hide would need to last years, and tools and toys from its bones were passed along generations.
Over the next several years, Sedna grew into an alluring young woman. Her sturdy wrists and ankles were a sign of great health, her high cheekbones were sleek and wide and would have been perfect slides for any tears that might have come from her sweet crescent eyes, but there were never tears from Sedna. She had a strong sense of identity, and no one crossed her.
Many men, young and old, wanted to marry her, but she refused them all. Hunters and fishermen from far and wide asked for her hand, and Sedna’s father urged her to marry.
“We have not succeeded, you and I, in figuring out how to provide more food for the tribe,” he said to her. “You must marry so that there will be many grandchildren to help support the family.”
Each time a good hunter or fisherman asked to marry her, Sedna’s father urged her again. “You must,” he said. “It is the way of things.”
Each time Sedna remained silent, and her dark hair in the sun turned as red as a great morning storm.
One evening as she was skating along the ice in her caribou slippers, thinking hard about how to create more food, a young man approached. She had seen him earlier, loping along the tundra, but had thought he was a large dog. He greeted her, smiling, and said,
“You have an amazing red halo around your head.”
“It’s the sun,” she answered.
“But it is night time. I think you are magic.”
He raised his large paw-like hands and lowered his fur hood. He was about her age and he looked into her eyes with a deep seriousness while his mouth remained a wide smile, open a little and panting from running toward her.
The couple walked for hours on the ice and talked about ways to combine their skills for the well-being of the tribes. Their visions merged and they fell in love.
Sedna’s father recognized the dog medicine in the man, and knew he would be loyal to his daughter forever. But he rejected the suitor.
“He is not a proven huntsman or fisherman, Sedna.”
“He has the same sacred vision as we have,” she protested. “We will figure it out.”
“You cannot reach prosperity through romantic dreaming and muttering on the ice every night.”
Sedna married her lover without her father’s permission. A few days later her father asked the young man to go fishing for him and, eager to prove himself, the young man agreed. Sedna went along and carved the traditional square in the ice for him. His paw-like hands had a little trouble with the spear, so Sedna carved out a larger hole, and he simply reached in and pulled out fish after fish until Sedna’s basket was full. That night the family had a feast.
“Tomorrow I will go with you and see how you did this,” said the father. The next day the father asked Sedna to help her mother with something while he went with the dog-man to the ice, picking up rocks along the way and putting them in his pockets. When they had cut a wide square hole in the ice, and the young man bent to reach in for fish, Sedna’s father quickly filled the young man’s parka with rocks and pushed him in.
Sedna’s father ran home, declaring an accident, but Sedna knew better. She paced in circles in the hut, pulling down the caribou hides and screaming out. No one dared come close to stop her, her red hair flaming now. She ran to the ice, but could not find the spot her father told her of. She went back to her hut and sat among the hides, tears sliding down her fine cheekbones carving tracks there for the first time in her 16 years.
Over the next two years Sedna’s father invited many skilled hunters and prosperous fishermen from other tribes to meet his daughter, who was still the strongest and most beautiful woman anyone had ever met.
“My dog-man was a skilled fisherman, father. We had big plans for increasing the food supply. Why did you banish him?” Sedna was keeping herself alive by convincing herself her father had somehow banished her husband, not killed him.
One day a very tall man, dressed in feathers and furs, arrived with 22 baskets of fish, fish of every type that then existed in the freezing sea. There was a great spreading celebration and the fish filled everyone that Sedna ever knew. The tall man’s parka was trimmed in rich white polar bear fur, and he kept his fur hood up.
Sedna’s father recognized bird medicine in this man from the way the man placed each foot so carefully as he took a step, and the way his body bent a little as though anxious to leave at any moment. But the man seemed very prosperous and promised to give Sedna a very comfortable home, and her father imagined grandchildren who could fish for any fish he wished.
“No. I will still find my dog-man,” Sedna protested. But she was so tired from grief that her hair barely glowed, and she could not stop her father from taking her out to meet the bird-man. The man spoke eloquently of the palatial home waiting for her, but still he did not lower his fur hood.
When he promised 22 baskets of fish each week for her village, Sedna agreed to go with him. She had kept her vision of feeding her people and she knew that sitting in her wrecked hut, grieving, was not going to help. Maybe in a new comfortable home she would be free to figure it out, and meanwhile it sounded like she would be sending a lot of fish.
Sedna’s father gave them a big send-off, and if Sedna and her new husband had looked back they would have seen the village dancing and celebrating far into the night. The bird-man stopped about a mile out and asked Sedna if she realized he was a bird.
“Yes,” she said.
“Then I will fly us the rest of the way,” he said. And he took down his rich white polar bear furred parka and shape-shifted into a large bird. He bundled her into the parka, pulling it over her own coat, and set her on his back. After a few hours he stopped at a small solitary forested island, with one large battered-up nest at the top of a tall dead tree. This must be some sort of bird way-station, Sedna thought.
But, alas! The rickety old nest, made of dark disintegrating branches and moldy feathers was the bird’s home. He set Sedna down in a corner, and she pulled the polar bear fur up around her face as he pecked at the walls of the nest to make sure it would hold her weight, then cocked his head and stared at her.
Alas! He was a Raven. He was not a bird-medicine man, but an actual bird who knew how to appear as a man. In Sedna’s family Ravens were known as tricksters and cheats. In fact, they could imitate all sounds, including the human voice.
“This is your new home,” he said.
“Surely you don’t love me,” she said. “What do you want?”
“You have a reputation for miles around,” he said, “for the red glow of your beautiful black hair. I must have this red glow for my nest.”
"Your red glow is brighter than the brightest ruby. I will be envied more than the king.”
The first week, Raven sent Sedna’s father 22 baskets of fish, but after that he lost patience with Sedna because she could not make her hair glow red on demand. The trees surrounding his nest kept the sunlight away from her head, and Sedna could not muster the energy to get angry, which would have made her hair flame. In fact, she had not yet moved from the spot where Raven had set her down, but had made a sort of barrier zone with the extra parka and spent her days sobbing, her nights wailing into the wind.
Now Raven lost patience and sent only one or two baskets of fish each week. Sedna’s father knew something must be wrong, and when his daughter’s wailing reached him on the wind, he took his boat to the river and started paddling in the direction of her cries.
Sedna was rapidly losing weight, even though her husband brought her grain and fruit and birds eggs, and knew better than to bring her insects or rodents which he ate himself before returning to the nest. But there was no comfort in the nest, no warmth, no light, no lamps. The Raven muttered strange, magical words at Sedna, willing her to move, to dance, to be passionate, alive, and red, but Sedna’s will power was stronger than his magic, and she stayed where she was.
Every now and then, very early in the morning, Sedna remembered those few days of dancing with her dog-husband and how she had hugged him far into the night, and remembering this, her black hair would glow red, but the Raven never saw it, as he was a late sleeper. And Sedna would cry some more and her cries would ride the wind along the river to her father who kept paddling as he heard her.
But all that she heard was the screaming of the seagulls and all that she felt was the loneliness of the austere land below her, and she wondered how long it would be before she would die.
The next day the Raven flew off, calling to her that he would not be back until evening. Realizing she would have several hours alone, Sedna dried her tears and combed her hair with her fingers. She took off her coat and stood up and stretched. She ventured to the other side of the nest where she discovered that some sunlight did dapple in through the trees, and she warmed herself there. She inspected the rest of the nest and found none of the comforts Raven had promised her in a home, just a small pile of rat bones. She cursed the Raven, and strength began to creep back into her.
She tested the walls of the nest, and found bits of hair and wool interwoven tightly in them, reinforcing it. She started pacing in the nest, stamping her feet to bring circulation back into her legs, and true feeling back into her heart. When she had enough strength in her legs, she climbed up to the edge of the nest and looked down. The island was very small, and the dead tree she was in was quite near the shore. Yes, she would escape.
She wondered if she could shimmy down the tree or if she would have to dive into the freezing sea. She flapped her arms to get circulation back in her upper body. She shook her head and her hair began to flame.
At the very moment she was ready to go, she heard a cry from below. There was her father in a boat, paddling madly up to the shore.
The choice was clear now – she must dive. She wrapped her coat tightly around her and took a deep breath. She jumped from the nest into the water and her father helped her into the boat. “I saw the glow from your hair,” he said.
“Let’s go quickly,” she said, grasping the extra set of paddles in the boat, and they turned it in the direction of home.
The wind was with them at first, but after an hour the icy water started spiking against the boat. Raven had flown home early and found his wife gone. He muttered and shrieked and, shrewdly, cursed the water spirits instead of Sedna. Greatly offended, the water spirits kicked up a great storm for miles around. Sedna’s father could no longer control the boat. Gale winds roared and high sea water splashed into their vessel in sheets.
Sedna started scooping the water out, but her father, fearful of the sea spirits, panicked, and shoved his daughter out of the boat, to placate them. Sedna gripped the gunwale of the boat and held on with her strong hands and wrists. They went for a mile like this, but the sea roared, and her father felt the boat sinking. He pulled out his flint knife and cut his daughter’s fingers off. She fell into the sea, followed by her fingers, and traveled down, down, down to the bottom of the ocean.
As she fell deeper and deeper, Sedna was surprised that, instead of feeling frightened, she felt more like her real self than ever before. And she found she could think very clearly. She saw her raven husband and her father for who they were, and she saw her fingers, as they tumbled down with her, turn into wonderful powerful animals. Her thumbs became dolphins, her middle fingers walruses and seals, and her little fingers brand new kinds of fish.
When she got to the bottom of the sea, she knew that her bones had been purified by her blood and the salt water, and her skeleton was radiant. She quickly put on body weight, but of a sea kind, not really human, and with the help of the sea-children her fingers had become, Sedna made herself ruler of the icy under-water world. Her power was second only to the whales who, of course, had been around for eons and carried the libraries of the world with them as they swam the currents.
One day soon after she had set up her rulership, Sedna was walking along the icy bottom of the sea, thinking hard about how to complete her vision of providing food for the tribes, now that she had the resources, when she noticed something out of the corner of her beautiful crescent eyes. She turned and there was her faithful dog-medicine husband, still in his parka weighed-down with rocks. He bounded toward her despite the rocks, and she was reunited with him.
Sedna took the rocks out of his parka, using her strong wrists, and the dog-man combed her bright red happy hair for her, since she had no fingers (though he was not very good at it with his large paw-hands). Together they made the tribal rules for seal and walrus hunting and created a timetable for when the animals could swim near the coast. In this way they fulfilled their shared vision of bringing enough food to the people.
Sedna remembered the incantations of the Raven, but created her own “sea-cantations,” and taught her water magic to all of her children. When a hunter did not abide by her rules, that is, if he did not treat the souls of the hunted creatures with respect, Sedna would pull all her sea animals back to her, with her long beautiful red hair, and keep them from the coast until the tribe sent a shaman to bargain with her. The first shamans to come to Sedna were women shamans because they recognized how ill-treated she had been by her father. The women shamans were very skilled at combing the knots out of Sedna’s hair for her, and they also massaged her wrists and the stumps of her hands where her fingers had been, caring for her wounds. Slowly they cleared all of Sedna’s grief, and her beautiful high cheekbones never again felt a tear.
Eventually male shamans were allowed to swim down to speak to her, but they had to be accompanied by her father, who, on returning, would carry one of the heavy rocks he’d put in the dog-husband’s parka, back up to the surface with him. Each rock had gathered enough grief with it to become heavier than a whale, but Sedna’s father knew it was his job to slowly pull each one up to the light once more.
1. Scientists at Palomar Mountain, California, sighted a distant icy red planet on November 14, 2003, and named it Sedna. She is so far from us that she triples the size of our solar system. She has a reddish tinge, like Mars, and reminds women of their strength, even in the face of tears.
2. Early tools, petroglyphs, and art provide evidence that women were the first shamans, especially in the northern parts of the globe. See Barbara Tedlock’s “The Woman in the Shaman’s Body: Reclaiming the Feminine in Religion and Medicine,” Bantam Books, March 2005.