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An open-minded exploration of an Alaskan `forest of eyes'

Make Prayers for the Raven PBS, five Sundays 10:30-11 p.m., check local listings. Producer/camera/editor: Mark O. Badger. Writer/associate producer: Richard K. Nelson. Narrator: Barry Lopez. Produced by KUAC, Fairbanks, Alaska. The land of the Athabascan Indians is a magical place. Here on the banks of the Koyukuk River a few hundred miles north of Fairbanks, Alaska, the people believe the animals know more than they do, and after more than 10,000 years of habitation scarcely a trace of the people can be seen in the wild. For here, the Indians believe not that nature is governed by God, but that nature is God.

``Make Prayers for the Raven'' is a gentle and reflective visit to this people who live amid ``a forest of eyes.'' It is unpretentious, gorgeously photographed, and sensitively written. Produced with the cooperation of the tribespeople, it meanders among the 11 villages and 2,000 Koyukon people, observing their daily customs, recording their thoughts about their philosophy, and tracing their methods of hunting and fishing.

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Although the series documents contemporary influences in the villages, with their gas stoves, snowmobiles, chain saws, and canned goods, it also manages to subtly point out what is traditionally Koyukon. Fathers and grandfathers teach youngsters that animals will ``give themselves'' only to hunters who treat them with respect, that everything in nature is aware and sensitive, that what comes from nature is a gift not to be violated.

In the premi`ere episode, killing of some animals - a moose and a beaver - may have disturbed sensitive viewers. But the killing is done for survival, and the meat is shared among all the people. Eventually, the moose head skin is returned to the forest to complete the cycle of respect.

The second segment, scheduled for airing this Sunday in many areas, is a piquant investigation of the way the people of the Koyukuk blend Christianity into their own traditional religious beliefs.

Later episodes concentrate on the closeness of the fishing and hunting camps, the individual ways of living in harmony with the natural world, and reverence for the power of the black bear.

``Make Prayers to the Raven'' shows humility as it probes, queries, and makes honest efforts to understand a unique culture. It may be the most profound series airing on any channel this year, because, although it is ostensibly about the Athabascan Indians, it has so much to say to all of us about our own culture.

A chat with the producer

Mark O. Badger, a 17-year resident of Alaska, says that making this series has helped him look at nature in a different way. In a telephone interview from Fairbanks, he said: ``An Athabascan woman once said to me, `When white people look up at a bird, they say, `Look at that bird!' When we look up at a bird, we think, `What does that bird see in me?'

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``In other words, these people are always traveling in a watchful world; they are always conscious of how they are behaving towards the environment and towards other animals. I hope I have taken on a bit of that attitude.''

Mr. Badger says this series was inspired by the book of the same title by writer/anthropologist Richard K. Nelson. Mr. Nelson was also the writer of the series. ``I would like for the series to show that there is much to be learned from the Athabascans. They are not merely an anthropological curiosity; there is a rich spiritual way that can be learned from them.''

Badger says that there are 11 Athabascan settlements near the Koyukuk River, each with about 200 residents. A review panel made up of village elders oversaw the series to make certain it did not distort the subject matter.

``The best reward I have ever had in my life,'' he continues, ``has been the acceptance of this series by the people out on the river. They say it is something they want their children to see. It took me almost four years to produce, but that makes it worth every minute.''

Badger says that it would have been much easier to make a film about the spiritual way of life of a Western culture. ``Those religions have all the external trappings - churches, vestments, baptisms, confirmations, etc. But with these people's beliefs, the church is everywhere, so people don't talk about it. There are no formal ways the religion is taught. It is in the way people behave that the spiritual knowledge is passed on.''

He feels that many Alaskans aren't yet aware of the richness of the beliefs of the indigenous people there. ``In the Southwestern US, people visit Indian ceremonies and become aware of the Indian way of life. Here there aren't those exhibitions, so too many of us live right next door to a rich, vital culture and don't appreciate it.''

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