Paying Respects in Athabascan Country During Memorial Day

My sister, Sheri, and I visit the grave sites of my late grandparents, Edwin and Lydia Simon, in Huslia in 2006.
My sister, Sheri, and I visit the grave sites of my late grandparents, Edwin and Lydia Simon, in Huslia in 2006.

Athabascan people of the interior work on fences for their loved ones on the first Memorial Day after the year they passed on. It’s the one day of the year when people gather at the graveyard (outside of a funeral). There is a town picnic. I am not sure how far back the tradition goes, but it has been going in all of my life. The traditions varies by village.

Family gathers by grave sites of their loved ones. People visit other sites and look at fences. It is a time to reminisce and tell stories. It is always a good way to find out more about my family tree and learn about history.

A small fire is made to burn food as an offering and prayer at the graveyard during Memorial Day. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
A small fire is made to burn food as an offering and prayer at the graveyard during Memorial Day. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I’ve learned about relatives who were soldiers and fought overseas in various wars. They usually have a nice headstone and maybe a flag and pole in addition to a fence. My late Grandma Lydia taught my mom to burn a little bit of food as an offering and to say a prayer in Athabascan.

Some families may have head stones ordered, but all the sites usually have a fence. It takes a few days for the community to build and paint the fences. Some grave sites have little houses built on top, like the ones in the picture above. The community will come together in someone’s yard or by the community hall. There is usually some snacks and coffee and tea available. Community members gather to support each other. It is usually a pretty hard time for the family of who have lost loved ones. One year, there might be one or two fences that are built, and other years there might be none.

Huslia has high cut banks along the Koyukuk River. Photo taken by Angela Gonzalez in 2011
Huslia has high cut banks along the Koyukuk River. Photo taken by Angela Gonzalez in 2011

People move to the land where Huslia is in the 1950’s. The people of Huslia were mostly nomadic before that, moving from summer and winter camps. They also had a community, called Cut Off. There was a big flood that wiped out the homes, so people had to move to higher grounds. Those higher grounds are in Huslia.

There were two grave sites in Huslia. One was located on Huslia’s high cut banks along the Koyukuk River. It unfortunately eroded over the years. There is now another site located further back and down the road in Huslia.

This is one way of paying respects to loved ones who have passed on. The next step may be a traditional memorial potlatch held at a later date.

The community will spend Memorial Day remembering their loved ones and spend time together. They will also clean up around the whole graveyard. Families place flowers at the grave sites. Overall, it is a somber time, but also a time to listen to stories and think of the happy times too. I don’t get to go to Huslia that often for Memorial Day, but I think about family during this time. I also use the time to reminisce about my family and friends who have passed on.

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