Alaska life, Alaska Native/Indigenous People, Entertainment

Courtney Agnes – Yukon Woman

Courtney Agnes aims at a moose outside of Tanana. Photo courtesy of Yukon Men/Discovery TV
Courtney Agnes aims at a moose outside of Tanana. Photo courtesy of Yukon Men/Discovery TV

Courtney Agnes with dog team 2014Courtney Agnes plays herself on the Discovery TV show, Yukon Men. It airs on Tuesday evenings across the country. She is the daughter of Pat Moore who is also on the show. Courtney and her family live in Tanana year-round and live off the land. The show has already had three successful seasons. I caught up with Courtney recently to ask about her experience with the show and about life in rural Alaska. She has enjoyed the show and appreciates the opportunity to show how people actually live in interior Alaska.

Courtney is a fan favorite with my family and friends, and probably a lot of people across the US. In my eye, Courtney is a true Alaskan Yukon woman. She hunts, fishes, picks berries, beads and does what it takes to raise her family in the village. Life in rural Alaska is not easy, but there is so much value to raising your family in a place where people take care of each other.

If you have watch the show, you can see how Courtney shares her traditional and cultural Athabascan values as well as the strength she gets from her father. While Courtney may see things in black and white, her dad shows her the gray scales in life. Some young Alaskans can’t wait to leave the village when they grow up. They might move out of the village to obtain a higher education or to get a job. Jobs can be hard to come by in smaller Alaskan communities. When Courtney went to college, she thought she might never return to Tanana. Her dad knew she would return. She and her family have had tough times over the years, like when her mother suffered an aneurysm. Courtney helps her dad with cooking and in other ways while her mom recovers.

Courtney Agnes (bottom right) works with her family and friends in Tanana . Courtesy photo
Courtney Agnes (bottom right) works with her family and friends in Tanana . Courtesy photo

I appreciate the way Courtney shares what it’s like to live and thrive in the village. Courtney says, “I love to learn new things every day about my culture.” Her daughter loves Native singing and dancing. She goes on to say, “I’ve always had a strong sense of where I came from, and I never let anyone make me feel like I was inferior or different.”

“I grew up with my Grandmother always telling me simple things, like she told me not to get married right away. She said that to be able to marry someone you had to live with them and eat 250 pounds of flour with them to know they are the right person for you. She also told me to get out in the ‘woods’ and learn the way of the land, so if anything ever happened in the world I would know how to survive. I’ve found that these simple things have kept me amazingly grounded in life, and to always appreciate the simpler things of life.” – Courtney Agnes of Tanana

Courtney Agnes stands on a raft on the Yukon River. Courtesy photo
Courtney Agnes stands on a raft on the Yukon River. Courtesy photo

Courtney shot her first moose while filming the Yukon Men show. She says, “I really felt empowered to be able to hunt for my family.” Courtney’s husband is gone over six months out of the year. I admire her for doing what it takes to feed her family.

Courtney is also known for her sewing and beading skills. She has been asked about selling her beadwork online. She loves sewing and doing beadwork for her family, but she is too busy to devote much time to it right now. Courtney just finished sewing boots for her baby, and plans to sew mitts and canvas boots for her oldest. She does support other local artists by helping them to sell their items when she can.

I asked Courtney if she could share any outtakes or stories from the Yukon Men show. In the first season, there was a scene where she fell into the water, and it looked like she wasn’t going to come back up. She said, “The funny thing though is that I was wearing a life jacket! I mean I was pretty sure I was going to float, and that I wasn’t in any danger.” While that was pretty funny, she has also had some real scary moments, like in the bear hunt episode coming up later this season. Courtney says, “We literally snuck up on a bear and we were only 25 feet away from him.” You’ll have to watch the upcoming episode to see what happens.

Taking care of and training a dog team is a year-round business. Courtney Agnes and her family take the dogs on a summer run. Courtesy photo
Taking care of and training a dog team is a year-round business. Courtney Agnes and her family take the dogs on a summer run. Courtesy photo

A part of the reason I admire Courtney and her dad is because they are dog mushers. My dad was a dog musher, and there was a time when I wanted to be dog musher as a kid. Courtney has toured and raced with the dogs. She has raced in the Fur Rendezvous World Championship Sled Dog Race. She visited a classroom in Anchorage. One boy was so inspired that he got a couple dogs from the pound. His mom told Courtney that her son would ride down their street from mailbox to mailbox.

Courtney says, “Dog mushing is a hard sport to get into competitively. It costs a lot of money, and to be able to maintain a healthy team is hard, but having fun with the team is so much fun that it makes up for it.” Courtney encourages people to start small, and spend the time to learn from the dogs on how to be a team. She says, “The dogs taught me to be really patient, and look for the positives in each day.”

People sometimes have a perception of Native people and what life is like in rural Alaska. I appreciate people like Courtney and others for showing more of what it’s really like to live in the village. Way to go Courtney for being a true Yukon woman and inspiring us all to try a little harder and see the good things in life!

Watch Yukon Men on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Alaska Time
Yukon Men on Facebook
Courtney Agnes on Facebook
Courtney Agnes (@SetlonoyegheeLn) on Twitter

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Paul John – Koyukon Athabascan

Paul John in the early 1990s. Photos developed at the YKSD Print Shop.
Paul John in the early 1990s. Photos developed at the YKSD Print Shop.

I recently wrote about Dineega Clothing, and thought I would share a little bit more about its owner, Paul John. Paul and I recently caught up in Fairbanks, and he shared some of what he has been doing since high school. Paul and I graduated the same year, and were in the Yukon Koyukuk School District (YKSD). YKSD used to have a print shop in Nenana and students would go there to learn about the print shop. That’s where I first met Paul.

Paul’s hometown is Ruby, Alaska. Paul and his wife, Alberta, have a daughter and are also raising a nephew. They live in North Pole, Alaska. Paul joined the Army after high school. He was stationed in Korea, Arizona and New Mexico. When talking about his time patrolling the US border in Arizona with the Shadow Wolves, Paul says, “We take freedom for granted.”

Dineega Clothing company logo
Dineega Clothing company logo

In the Army, Paul learned how to be an electrical worker. After returning to Alaska, he joined the Alaska International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) union. Over the years, he worked in construction as an electrical worker. Paul now works as an electrician for the Alyeska Pipeline Service Company on the North Slope.

In addition to being an electrical worker, Paul sold t-shirts and other apparel with Native Threads and Smoke Signals. In 2013, he started Dineega Clothing with partners, Alberta John and Rudy Rojas. Paul appreciates sharing apparel that builds pride in Alaska. According to Paul, Dineega Clothing is “Alaskan first with a small Native twist”. Dineega Clothing is now being sold in one store in Fairbanks and two stores in Anchorage.

Paul says, "This photo is of myself, my aunt Maudry and my late uncle, James Honea, Sr. My mom, Annie Honea, took the photo."
Paul says, “This photo is of myself, my aunt Maudry and my late uncle, James Honea, Sr. My mom, Annie Honea, took the photo.”
Paul and his wife, Alberta. Courtesy photo
Paul and his wife, Alberta. Courtesy photo

Paul’s uncle, the late James Honea, Sr. of Ruby, shared some great advice over the years. James shared an analogy of a moose, much like the analogy of eating an elephant one at a time. James asked Paul, “How do you eat a moose?” Paul answered, “One meal at a time.” Then, James asked, “How do you eat the meal?” He answered, “One bite at a time.” That’s the way you should approach school and other life’s challenges. Paul compared it with school saying, “You shouldn’t worry about the whole semester. Do one assignment at a time. Pretty soon, you’ll finish the semester, then the school year. Then, pretty soon you’ll be ready to get another moose, or another year of school.”

John Honea, also Paul’s uncle, shared advice over the years. When Paul completed his time in the Army, we was looking for jobs. John told him to look at it like fishing. You put a big fish net out. Apply for as many jobs as you can so you can have a choice. Don’t plan on catching just one fish.

Paul appreciated the time he served in the Army. It was a great path for him to gain valuable electrical work training and experience. Thank you Paul for sharing advice from his uncles. It’s great to catch up with old friends.

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

A Conversation With Esther McCarty

Pat and Esther McCarty met First Lady Sandy Parnell in 2008 in Ruby. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Pat and Esther McCarty met First Lady Sandy Parnell in 2008 in Ruby. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I recently had a chance to visit with my cousin, Esther McCarty. Esther is from Hughes originally. She is married to Pat McCarty of Ruby where they raised a family. Esther is known throughout the region for her business experience, cultural knowledge and ability to speak and make songs in the Koyukon Athabascan language.

Esther and Pat are both leaders serving in a number of local and regional boards and committees. They are both very active with the purpose of serving people.

I asked Esther about serving on the board of Doyon, Limited, of which she was recently re-elected. She shared the following leadership tips and advice.

  1. Work hard. You’re not going to get anywhere by being lazy.
  2. Get educated.
  3. Treat everyone with respect. Be nice.
  4. Always be honest.
  5. Be yourself.
Esther McCarty and her daughter, Alitha, attended a wedding in Fairbanks in 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Esther McCarty and her daughter, Alitha, attended a wedding in Fairbanks in 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Esther was fortunate to grow up around elders. For a period of about 18 months, her late mother, Alice Ambrose, was sick and was not able to care for her children. Esther and her siblings moved around to different homes. She remembers learning how to stick up for herself when she was two and a half years old.

Esther remembers an old grandma telling her to listen to people, but make up your own mind. Esther says, “A lot of people are going to give you advice, but you have to be the one to make up your own mind.”

Esther feels that her elders prepared her to be who she is today. At a certain point, she felt ready to go ahead and step up to leadership challenges. She says, “I want to do it for the people.”

I admire Esther for stepping into leadership positions and spending so much of her personal time on things that benefit the wider community. She’s a classy Alaska Native woman who I’ve always looked up to. I especially appreciate her efforts to practice and preserve the Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan) language.

Alaska Native culture

Washtub Dance Poem by Martha Demoski

Thank you to Martha Demoski for sharing her writing and poem on the Athabascan Woman blog. Martha Demoski (Koyukon Athabascan) is a retired teacher who is originally from Nulato.

Drummers and singers in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
Drummers and singers in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski

Although there were many burials in Nulato since this poem was written, I want to share how people work so hard coming together to uplift each other at these hard times. Everyone knows the hard times from the young to the eldest. The activities that stand out are how the cooks provide all kinds of local foods each night that the body is in town until the day of burial and potlatch. They graciously have a fundraiser (raffle) to help out with travel, supplies for the hall, and any expenses, and each night mostly about 7:00 p.m. They gather together for the rosary and some gospel music.

Our tribal administrator wrote that Nulato people are resilient and we will continue. With Denaahuto’s blessings and people’s praying, we will continue to carry each others through these hard times. May all villages have blessings throughout the year. This is how we began the year.

The first three days of 2014 were so wholesome with the community supporting the Medzeyh Okko Hutnee, the New Year’s Potlatch and the Washtub Dance. The last event washed the Old Year away bringing in the New Year with well wishes of good luck, hope and peace. The Washtub Dance was so amusing and hilarious.

With respect to everyone’s participation in making these events a success, I don’t want to use names, but thank you to all the local Nulato Tribal members. Your help shows the good will and respect you have for your community.

Kids participating in a Washtub Dance in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
Kids participating in a Washtub Dance in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski

The community of Nulato welcomes visitors to these events. The night of the Washtub Dance, Kaltag people came to be with us. Two young boys, Tristan and Tyler, participated in the singing and drumming. Their efforts were deeply appreciated. Thanks very much to the young boys.

As an elder, I want to take the liberty of thanking our Young Nulato Singers. They came out to participate; some even wore their regalia. They participated and observed how things are done traditionally with respect. They took care of each other’s physical well-being and emotional health by being respectful and helpful. They showed the elders how they are willing to carry on what the elders taught them.

The old year is washed away and 2014 is here. Wonderful times and hard times filled 2013. May the future bring a positive lift in our lives. If there are mistakes we regret, then may we learn from the past and gain wisdom. Take care of each other in this New Year.

People enjoy the Washtub Dance in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
People enjoy the Washtub Dance in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski

Washtub Dance 2014
By Martha Demoski

Energy like electricity traveled through a quivering willow
from the strong arm
of a young boy
tapping on the hide stretched between a round frame
captivating the crowd
with a steady beat
accompanied by voices that echoed
through a time barrier to our ancestors

Costumed characters wore
grimacing or grinning masks
mismatched clothing
ragtag wigs
moved body parts without rhythm
haphazardly, hilariously
provoking laughter and amusement

Two women waved willows tipped with fur
over bags of bread, dried fish, berries, candy…
as if sprinkling blessings and good luck

Clowns in a parade
leave chuckling, wild hoots in their wake
ending the drumming
Denaakk’e sung with old tunes
Shook the building’s foundation
Airplane,
Sek’etl’e,
final song, Ket’ene’, resonated
people shuffled in a circle
gracefully bending knees
at the command “Yegge!”

Yeggenh yoz sitting in a circle
eating
oblivious of the adults
sitting on benches
feasting, enjoying, visiting

Washtub dance
washed away the Old Year
holding hopes and dreams for the New!

– Martha Demoski

Alaska life

Bigfoot in Interior Alaska

A grassy wooded area in Alaska by Angela Gonzalez
A grassy wooded area in Alaska by Angela Gonzalez

From the time I was little, fall time was always the time to tell stories. My late grandmother Lydia told us many Athabascan stories and legends. One of the stories that are mostly hutłanee (taboo) are the ones about woodsman or Bigfoot. Some stories can only be shared in the fall time. I wish I remember more of the stories my grandmother told me when I was a kid.

I struggle sometimes with the things I share about the Koyukon Athabascan culture. I think about karma and don’t want to bring bad luck to me or anyone I know. I also realize that sometimes we need to write about our culture, beliefs, stories, language and history to keep our culture alive. There are a lot of Alaska Native writers and storytellers, but I think there is a lot of room for many more voices.

Over the years, I have heard many stories of Bigfoot or woodsman as some people call it. I also read about some stories from western Alaska of the ‘little men’. I’m curious about it. I am not trying to prove whether or not Bigfoot is real, but am sharing it in honor of Halloween.

I’m going to share one short story about someone who had an experience while getting wood. I’m not going to put any names down, but it is a story that was told to me first hand.

Gathering Wood

Bear tracks in interior Alaska. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Bear tracks in interior Alaska. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

About 20 years ago, two 14 year old boys were getting wood for camp along the interior Alaska. It was summertime and they drove the boat about half a mile from camp. They carried a boy’s axe and chainsaw.

It was a wood yard with spruce trees and a lot of stumps. The wood was good and dry in that area. The cut bank was steep and about eight feet high. They had to climb up the bank.

The first boy carried the axe and the second boy carried the chainsaw. The first boy went to take leak after climbing up the bank. He was by a stump.

When he was done, he turned around and looked at the second boy who was staring in the woods. The second boy mumbled something, and he thought he said “moose”.

The second boy’s eyes got really big. It was like his eyes popped out of his skull and he had a look of extreme fear on his face. The second boy took off at a run down the bank. He threw the chainsaw into the boat and untied it. It was a matter of a few seconds.

Pine cones and spruce needles in Alaska. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Pine cones and spruce needles in Alaska. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

When the first boy looked, he thought it was a moose laying down on the ground until he saw the thing stand up. He said, “I turned around and caught a glimpse. I saw it and got scared.” He also took off down the bank. He left the boy’s axe behind leaning on a stump.

The second boy already started the motor and was pulling away from the bank when the first boy got down the bank. The first boy had to jump from the water’s edge to get onto the bow of the boat. He bruised his shins on the bow of the boat.

As they were pulling away, a log about two-three feet long was thrown over the bank. The log landed in the water and made a big splash. They drove back to camp as fast as they could.

When they got back to the camp, the family told them not to say anything about it. An elder burned a little bit of food and prayed in Koyukon Athabascan to protect them.

The Koyukuk River in the evening. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
The Koyukuk River in the evening. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

The next morning when the first boy got up and went to wash his face. He notice the boy’s axe was leaning against the side of the cabin. Seeing the axe there freaked him out a little bit more, just knowing that the thing went into the camp. At the same time, it made him realize that what happened the day before, really happened. The first boy said, “We knew we weren’t just seeing things.”

The first boy only went back to that camp a few times, and the second boy never returned. The first boy described it as ‘big, tall and hairy.’

The first boy was curious about it for years after and asked questions about it. He said, “I was trying to understand what I saw, so I could get over it and move on.” The elder said it was hutłanee, and people shouldn’t play games or mess around with it.

It was a scary experience. The first boy said, “Something did happen 20 years ago. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.”