Koyukon Athabascan people have spiritual beliefs about hunting, fishing and gathering. I have grown up with a few that I still believe and follow. While there are many similarities of beliefs, there are also many differences among Athabascans. This is what I learned growing up along the Koyukuk River. I was raised to respect the land, animals and hunters from a young age.
When you go out hunting, you wouldn’t say, “I’m going out moose hunting.” You wouldn’t want to give yourself bad luck by assuming that you are going to get a moose or other animals. That is paying respect to the animals. If you do get a moose when you go home, you do not brag about it. You don’t want to give yourself bad luck the following year.
Girls in my family were not allowed to step over clothes, hunting tools and other items belonging to men and boys. Girls are not allowed to look at bears, talk about them or eat bear meat. If we did need to talk about it, we referred to them as ‘big animals’. The only women who were able to say the name or eat bear meat are older women. If you did any of the taboo things, you would be wishing them bad luck in hunting and other activities.
I remember thinking it was so unfair that the boys got all of the respect. I had chores of dishes, cooking and cleaning. I challenged my mom several times about the belief over the years. Her response was that it was hutla’nee (taboo). The boys had to do some chores inside the house, but most of them were outside, like chopping wood, feeding the dogs, picking up dog poop, and cleaning the yard.
Looking back on it, I see that we did the same amount of work, but the chores were just different. My parents and grandparents grew up in a different time. Survival was important and a daily thing. I see now that young boys and men had to be able to pick up and go out hunting at a moment’s notice. Their hunting gear needed to be in good working order. Their clothes, especially warm gear, had to be clean, dry and hung up in a place they could find it right away.
Girls also went out hunting, and if they did, they were just as well taken care of. Women had to be providers too. Boys were raised to hunt and provide for a family. That is no easy feat. If they didn’t learn how, that means there would be no food on the table. Hunting and gathering is a year-round business, and a lot of work.
Bears a respected and a powerful animal, physically and spiritually. Bad luck was not something you want to have when you are out hunting, fishing, trapping or gathering. You respected the animals by not taking more that you needed. You respected the land by not damaging it or littering.
Shadows on the Koyukuk: An Alaskan Native’s Life Along the River by Sidney Huntington is a great book to learn more about beliefs and life of Koyukon Athabascan people.
Times are changing. We still hunt, fish and gather, but we can get store-bought food in between harvests. Some beliefs are not as strictly held as before. Girls are participating in more hunting activities, and are providing for families in different ways too. I am finally beginning to understand some of the beliefs, but I realize I still have a lot to learn. I see many Alaska Native people have similar cultural beliefs about respecting the land and animals.