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Preserving Culture

Catherine Attla and Rose Ambrose at a potlatch in Huslia in 2007. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Catherine Attla and Rose Ambrose at a potlatch in Huslia in 2007. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I have always admired my late aunt, Catherine Attla, for carrying on oral traditions through storytelling. She has traveled all over Alaska to share traditional Koyukon Athabascan stories. When I was in my early 20’s, I watched a movie about my relatives who were putting on a traditional memorial potlatch for my late uncle Jimmy and aunt Dolly Beetus. I saw my mom, aunties, grandmother and other relatives and friends grieving for Jimmy and Dolly. Dolly was a beloved sister to my mom and aunties. The whole potlatch was filmed. Food was being prepared. Speeches were made. Visitors were greeted. There was a Koyukon Athabascan cloth dance.

I remember watching it and feeling a great sense of loss for them. I was a young kid at the time of the potlatch. I also I felt like we were losing our culture. I wrote a letter to late Aunt Catherine telling her how sad I was after I watched the video. I told her I felt like crying. The next time I saw her, she said, “Don’t feel sad, and you don’t have to cry.” It was a nice and sensible thing to say. I don’t remember what she told me after that, but she shared more stories about her life growing up.

As we grew up in Huslia, she would visit the school and share stories about hunting, fishing, trapping and how she was raised. She also told us traditional Athabascan stories, like creation stories about animals. I always looked forward to hearing her stories each year in school and when I used to visit her as a kid.

I have been thinking about those stories and about Athabascan culture recently. How can we preserve our culture and traditions?

Over the years, I have attended potlatches with my daughters. I’ve shared our traditional Athabascan culture as much as I can. Our culture can be preserved through storytelling, singing, dancing and sharing.

My girls and I at a potlatch in Huslia in 2007. Photo by Jo Derendoff
My girls and I at a potlatch in Huslia in 2007. Photo by Jo Derendoff

Practicing your culture is a way to preserve it. Native languages are still being spoken in villages across Alaska. Potlatches are being held. Subsistence hunting and fishing is still being practiced and taught to the next generation. Movies are being made about Alaska Native culture by Alaska Native people.

There is a lot of hope. I thought long ago that there was no hope for our culture. I wondered how we would and could continue to carry on our culture in today’s modern world.

I think we need to carry a message of hope to our young people. We can be a living examples. It makes Elders sad to see the loss of culture also. They are so willing to share and are waiting for us to ask. Talk to an Elder and ask them to tell you a story. Ask them to teach you a word or two in their language. Then, take it a step further and share it with your family and friends and preserve it.

American Indian / Alaska Native Heritage Month is in November. There are events around the US in celebration of our culture and heritage – contemporary and traditional. I plan on going to a couple events. I want to experience someone else’s culture. Visit the Alaska Native Heritage Center and learn about the many Alaska Native tribes across Alaska. Check out the Alaska Native arts and crafts bazaars around your community.

“Don’t feel sad, and you don’t have to cry.” – Late Catherine Attla, Koyukon Athabascan, Huslia, Alaska

Catherine Attla passed away in Huslia, Alaska on March 12, 2012. She was a true cultural treasure and an ambassador. She lived a good life. May she rest in eternal peace.  Here is an article by the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.

In all of these places, you will see how culture is being preserved. Celebrate the fact that our cultures are alive and well. It is stronger than we think it is and will carry us into the future. I am going to take a firm grip this hope and work to instill it in my children. Ana Basee’ to late Catherine Attla for working all of these years to keep our culture going strong!

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What is a Cultural Exchange?

A cultural exchange can be an intentional act of bringing two or more people together to exchange information about their differing backgrounds to understand each other. It can happen as a part of an official program or it can happen informally.

There are many people who go to the village for work or as tourists, and sometimes a cultural exchange will happen on their visit. More often than not, in those cases, people might not get a full picture of what it is like to live in that village. Just as someone from the village comes to the city wouldn’t necessarily get a full picture if they are not staying there for long.

Chris arrives in Bettles, Alaska in 1996! Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris arrives in Bettles, Alaska in 1996! Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Cultural exchanges can also take place between friends. I went to college with Chris from Wisconsin. She had a million questions about Alaska, Alaska Natives and what life was like in the village. As I answered the questions, I learned a lot about my culture by verbalizing it to her. She learned a lot about how we live, what we eat, what it’s like to live in the village through many conversations.

Chris had a thirst for knowledge and was studying to become a teacher. No matter how many stories I told her or how many pictures, she didn’t really know how it was really like to live in a village. During summer break in 1996, I invited Chris to visit me in Alaska. She arrived in a small airplane in Bettles, Alaska. My family was planning a boat trip down the Koyukuk River from Bettles to our hometown of Huslia. I was excited to go home to see close friends and relatives. The trip took a few days and we camped out along the way.

My late grandmother, Lydia Simon, was with us on the trip. Chris got to see generations of Athabascans up close and personal along the way. She learned the importance of sharing food and clothing.

Chris says, “I learned that the idea of family, especially extended family, was very much intact. This is during the 90’s when it seemed like the idea of family was in decline in the rest of America.”

Chris shoots a gun while my brother is goofing around. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris shoots a gun while my brother is goofing around. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris and Tanya sitting at the Huslia graveyard. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris and Tanya sitting at the Huslia graveyard. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Chris got to see how big Alaska is and how we travel. The river serves as a highway to get from one village to the next. In each village, the main mode of transportation was four-wheeler ATVs. Chris enjoyed playing basketball and softball in Huslia. I am not sure if my stories prepared her for the reality, but she had a great time.

This cultural exchange would not be complete until years later when I went to Chris’ wedding in Wisconsin in 2007. The wedding was at her aunt’s farm in rural Wisconsin. The house was over 100 years old, and owned by the family for generations. It had a cellar, which I’ve only ever read about in books. We took a walk around the farm.

Angela and Chris in Wisconsin in 2007. Photo by Melissa Gerald
Angela and Chris in Wisconsin in 2007. Photo by Melissa Gerald

The church was also old and one where may family members also wed. Everyone was nice and welcomed me with open arms. I learned about many of their wedding traditions, with German influence. It was absolutely beautiful, and I was glad to learn about Chris’ background and see where she grew up.

People have many questions about Alaska Native people and culture. I have questions about what it’s like to live in the Lower 48. We can read about the Alaska Native culture in book, but it is difficult to really know what it is like until you experience it in person. Chris and I have a deeper understanding of each other and our backgrounds. Although we have many difference, we found we also have many similarities.

There are many ways we can create cultural exchanges. It can be between two friends, like Chris and I. They also take place through programs, like the Sister School Exchange program with the Alaska Humanities Forum.

It can also be through conversation with someone from a different background. That can happen very easily in today’s electronic world. I find myself talking with people around the country and sometimes the world through Twitter. Cultural exchanges are way to open your eyes and experience the world. I learn a lot about my culture when I articulate it to others. Perhaps you can do the same.

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World Eskimo Indian Olympics: The Games, The Games

Bernice Joseph at WEIO
The late Bernice Joseph was a winner of the Race of the Torch-Women in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

The World Eskimo Indian Olympics (WEIO) celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2011 in Fairbanks, Alaska. Athletes from around the state and spectators from around the world were there. I think it was the group member from Pamyua, Phillip Blanchett, who coined the words, “The Games, The Games”. The Pamyua group helped to create the documentary, Games of the North that year. What do the Native Games mean? You can learn more about it and watch it online.

Athletes have been training for months and years. In the Games of the North documentary, Big Bob Aiken says, “These aren’t just games, they are survival skills.” Each game has a story of survival linked to them, and have a lesson that can be translated today. Runners of all ages prepare for the Torch Run at WEIO.

Moses Wassillie, an Alaska Native artist, at the 2007 WEIO
Moses Wassillie, an Alaska Native artist, at the 2007 WEIO

Artists from around the state and nation have been sewing, beading and crafting for months in preparation to have a booth at WEIO. Many people save up “WEIO money” to buy arts, crafts, entry, and food.

This year, WEIO is gathering all of the former Miss WEIO’s for a reunion. The Fairbanks Daily Newsminer did a story on them, “Miss WEIO queens recall 50 years of pageant change, cultural growth.” Miss WEIO contestants have worked throughout the year practicing songs, dances, sewing regalia and public speaking.

Miss WEIO contestants have won regional pageant competitions, like Miss Top of the World or Miss Nuchalawoya. Some Miss WEIO winners have gone to the national stage of Miss Indian World and won. The 2010 Miss WEIO, Marjorie Tahbone, became the 2011 Miss Indian World. What an inspiring story for a young lady who started out as Miss Arctic Circle!

2006 Miss WEIO with 2007 contestants
The 2006 Miss WEIO and the 2007 contestants speak on KNBA

WEIO also has a competition of Native regalia. Years ago, I won a competition for ‘Best Traditional Dress’ for with my Athabascan regalia. My family and friends worked together for months to put it together. One of my cousins has been sewing traditional Athabascan regalia for her little girl in preparation to enter her into the Native baby regalia competition.

A dance group performs at WEIO in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
A dance group performs at WEIO in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Dance groups from around Alaska also travel to WEIO to perform traditional Native dances and songs. You learn about different Native cultures and traditions from around Alaska. The songs are sung in Native languages.

WEIO is a great time to visit with friends and family. WEIO is sometimes the only place to see some friends you haven’t seen in years. Good luck to all of the athletes, artists, singers, dancers and more! It is a place where being Native is revered and celebrated. Happy WEIO and enjoy “The Games, The Games”!

A dance group performs at WEIO in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
A dance group performs at WEIO in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Entertainment

A Letter to My Athabascan Ancestors

Grandma Rose Ambrose enjoys a traditional Native meal in Huslia
Grandma Rose Ambrose enjoys a traditional Native meal in Huslia

I admire strong people. Thank you ancestors for surviving. I know life was hard. I’ll try to remember that as I go through life. You survived. I’m surviving. I don’t pretend to know your struggles, but I have an inkling. Struggles are different today.

While I entertain myself with TV, internet, and various electronic devices, you were entertained by storytelling. In the fall time, you shared most of the creation stories about animals like raven, frog, wolverine, beaver and more.

You must have had a strong mind. You had a lot of children and lost many to childhood diseases and accidents. Without a hospital nearby, there were often had tragic endings. I love and cherish my two children and cannot imagine your heartbreak.

You had traditional memorial potlatches in memory of those who have passed on. As a child, it was fun for me to connect with friends and eat delicious food. As an adult I know that it was an important part of the grieving process. I know you had ways of coping with loss and heartbreak, and I continue to practice some of those ways.

You had a strong connection to the land. I feel that connection because I am drawn to it. I hunt, fish and pick berries on that same land.

Koyukuk River sunset in interior Alaska
Koyukuk River sunset in interior Alaska

While you read the weather patterns, I read the traffic patterns. Despite our differences and changing times, I feel the connection to you. I realize how hard you had to work and how strong you must have been to survive.

How can I make my mind strong like yours? What did you do when times got tough. You prayed. Your strong beliefs and taking care of the land helped you survive. You didn’t take things for granted. You took care of sisters and brothers when your parents were providing for you. What do I have to complain about? What can I do to have a strong mind and heart. Pray. Believe. Survive.

I might not remember all of the stories or speak Athabascan fluently, but I’ll do my best to teach my children the same values you passed on to me. I am here because of you. Ana’ basee’ ancestors.

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Teaching Native Ways

When you are raising your kids, you want to teach them your values. Sometimes, you are not sure if they are learning from you and picking up on your actions. Sometimes they pick up on are some of your worst habits. 🙂 My seven year old daughter had a school project where she had to draw pictures of her cultural background. My husband shared information about El Salvador culture, and I shared information about Athabascan and Alaska Native culture. The teacher put it together like a quilt.

Recently, she told me about a teacher at school telling the kids that eating meat will keep their skin healthy. She said, “I thought in my head, ‘I already eat meat. I’m Athabascan!‘” It made me happy to realize she is picking up on things that we are teaching her, especially about culture. I always thought it was difficult to explain Athabascan culture in a short amount of time. However, I think if you start answering a few basic questions, it can be done. What do they like to do, wear and eat?

Athabascan - Badzahoolan
Athabascan badzahoolan and words

Here is one square about the Athabascan culture:  “They make badzahoolan to wear. Here are the three words in Athabascan (Indian): adzoo = brrr; dah’ = give it to me; nah’ = here; and kah’ = getaway.” Badzahoolan are the equivalent of a kuspuk or summer parka that may Alaska Natives wear. Badzahoolans usually have hoods and are made of quilting fabric. The hoods help to protect you from pesky mosquitos and gnats.

[Note:  Although, I know a lot of words in Koyukon Athabascan, I do not speak or write it fluently. Please excuse my misspellings. Even among the Koyukon Athabascan language, there are slight differences between communities. Someday, it would be great to learn to speak and write fluently in Koyukon Athabascan.]

Athabascan - food
Athabascan foods

In another square, she drew pictures of what kinds of food Athabascans eat. We like to eat smoked salmon, moose soup, ducks and berries. We prepare salmon in many different ways. We smoke and dry it and store it for the winter. We bake it or fry it. Sometimes, we dry it half way, then bake it. Yummy! After we smoke it, we also jar it. We make salmon spread out of it.

We prepare and cook ducks much like you would prepare a chicken. We smoke and dry it sometimes. We bake it, fry it and make soup out of it.

There are many ways we prepare and eat moose meat. Interior Athabascans smoke the meat, cure it, and cut up and put in the freezer. We also make moose jerky, also known as dry meat. Depending on the cut of meat, it is cooked in different ways. We make ground meat out of some of it. We bake it, fry it, roast it, barbecue it and boil it (stew/soup). I feel like Forest Gump when I explain the different ways to prepare and eat moose meat. 🙂

Boats As Transportation
Boats As Transportation

In another square, my daughter drew a boat, “They like to drive boats on the river.” When we go home, we go to camp by boat about 12 miles below Huslia on the Koyukuk River. The main transportation source in many rural Alaskan communities are boats and ATVs (four-wheelers or snow machines).

Teaching Athabascan values and traditions can be done, despite the changing times. We didn’t have metal boats and motors a long time ago, but we did have skin kayaks and canoes. Athabascans used to walk by snowshoes in the winter. Athabascans used to travel by dog teams in the winter. Things will keep changing, but the basic values of Athabascans will stay the same. It is possible to pass on your traditional culture in small ways over a period of time.