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.
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!