Saturday, 18 October 2014

Lisl's Bits and Bobs: Great Land History: The Legend of the Sleeping Lady

Happy Alaska Day!!

Great Land History: The Legend of the Sleeping Lady

October 18 is set aside each year to celebrate in the Great Land the transfer of Alaska from Russian to American governorship. When the date falls on a Sunday the official celebration is the following Monday. If the 18th is a Saturday, as is the case this year, Friday does double duty in celebrating both the end of the work week and raising of the American flag over Alaska for the first time on October 18, 1867, in Sitka. It is marked by parades, dances, costume balls, memorial services and other festivities to commemorate the anniversary.

People will also be talking about and re-visiting in various ways all things Alaskan. In the case of Anchorage one subject frequently on the residents’ radar is the Sleeping Lady, who rests within sight of their shores, a little over 30 miles across Cook Inlet.

Sacred to the local Dena’ina people, Dghelishla, little mountain, also bears an English name, Mount Susitna, from the nearby river with the same name, Tanaina for sandy. To the Dena’ina, she is connected to the mighty peak Dghelay, big mountain, known to Alaskans as Denali, Athabaskan for The Great One.

 No one can say for sure how or when the legend of Sleeping Lady started, and elder and storyteller Shem Pete did not perceive it to be part of his people’s traditional legends. What is known is that about five million years ago, melting glaciers crushed solid rock, eventually forming a mountain over 4,300 feet high and 13 miles long. The resulting sculpture strongly resembles a woman in repose, her long hair streaming behind her as she lay in slumber. 

It has been speculated that prospectors seeing Susitna as a woman brought her story to life, but whatever the case, as Ann Dixon writes, it continues to be told far and wide, including amongst Athabascans in the Tyonek area today. Dixon sets the story down in her children's picture book, The Sleeping Lady.

In a warmer time than it is in Alaska today, when woolly mammoths and saber-toothed tigers peacefully shared the land with fruit trees and the gentle people of what today is known as the Cook Inlet area, a boy and a girl were in love and planned to marry.

The day before Nekatla and Susitna were to wed, a stranger burst into their village, wildly warning about warriors from the north who left a trail of destruction: murdered kinsman, plundered lands, houses set to fire.

The villagers gathered and spoke of many ideas, but it was Nekatla’s plan that was eventually adopted. Wanting to preserve the peaceful ways his people had enjoyed for so long, his proposal entailed meeting up with the frightful warriors, bearing gifts instead of weapons, and persuading them to live in peace. The villagers agreed and all the men prepared for departure on the morrow.

The next morning, rather than being unified in marriage, Nekatla and Susitna bade each other a sad farewell, with promises nonetheless:

“We will be married as soon as I return.”
“I will wait for you at this very spot.”

And so Susitna waited at the same spot she promised Nekatla she would, a hill upon which the pair had previously spent many happy hours. With the baskets she had collected, Susitna gathered fruit until the day became spent. When the daylight marked the second morning since Nekatla’s departure she wove more baskets. On the third day, certain her beloved would return at any moment, she sewed, keeping an eye for his arrival.

Susitna waited, though each day seemed longer than the last, and in this way many days and nights passed, alas, still with no Nekatla in sight. Weary of her tasks, her imagination feeding possibilities regarding the men of her village, Susitna lay down to sleep, but only for a moment. 


"Nekatla was brave."

This was reported from a boy who had escaped what became a slaughter, initiated with a spear thrown by one of the northern warriors. The Inlet men had tried to defend themselves, but the fearsome attackers set upon them, unrelenting until all were perished, even some of their own. 

Wakening Susitna to tell her of the horrible news did not bear thinking about, and so the women of the village wove soft grasses and wildflower blossoms into a blanket and gently laid it over their sleeping sister. 

That night all warmth and joy left the village. As the air grew colder and colder, Susitna settled more deeply into sleep. 

All around her, the fruit trees froze and died, falling like the men in battle. 

The tears of the villagers gathered into clouds, and, in the chill air, returned to earth as Alaska’s first snowfall.

And so the time went.

Days, weeks, months, years, hundreds at first, then thousands, passed. Warmth eventually returned to the land but only for a brief period each year. New animals and even people, though not giants like the Inlet people, came to settle the land.


The Lady slumbers beneath the aurora borealis

And now here, too, are we, and we see what the settlers saw, and now has passed to us. In our snowy country called Alaska there lay a watershed, near which rests a mountain called Susitna, but that we know is really the slumbering form of a woman dreaming of, waiting for, her beloved. The seasons come, they go, and still she waits. We call her the Sleeping Lady or, simply, the Lady. 

In the winter when we look across the Inlet, she can be seen beneath a thick, snowy quilt. In summer she rests beneath the flowered blanket laid upon her form so long ago by her people, unable to bring grief to the girl so in love. 

Now our people say that Nekatla shall one day return. War will cease to ravage the land, peace once more shall reign, and on that day, Susitna shall awake and be re-united with her beloved. 


  1. Oh my word, such a beautiful and poignant story which has touched my heart.

    Happy Alaska Day to all Alaskan!

    Next year I hope to see Susitna for myself.

  2. Lisl, I love this story you've shared; thank you. Sleep well Susitna, 'til Nekatla's return. Happy Alaska Day!