Athabascan Spiritual Beliefs About Hunting, Fishing and Gathering

Eleanor Yatlin hanging shee fish. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Eleanor Yatlin hanging shee fish. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

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.

Bear grazing by Angela Gonzalez
Bear grazing by Angela Gonzalez

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.

Aunt Dorothy and Janessa picking blueberries near Huslia in 2006. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Aunt Dorothy and Janessa picking blueberries near Huslia in 2006. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

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.

We pick blueberries, blackberries, salmon berries, rasberries, high- and low-bush cranberries. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
We pick blueberries, blackberries, salmon berries, rasberries, high- and low-bush cranberries. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

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.

A cow and calf moose along the Koyukuk River. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
A cow and calf moose along the Koyukuk River. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee) – A Great Mentor

Shan Goshorn and Angela Gonzalez 1996
Shan attended my graduation from college in 1996

I met Shan Goshorn in Tulsa, Oklahoma in the early 1990s. Shan attended an event at the University of Tulsa for the Native American Student Association. We struck up a friendship, and she helped me throughout college. Thinking back on my college career, Shan was one of the people who believed in me and pushed me to succeed. One of the things I remember most from those years was her work on Native American stereotypes and racism.We have kept in touch over the years, and I recently caught up with her and wanted to find out more about her and her life as a successful artist and advocate.

Shan Goshorn
Shan Goshorn, courtesy photo

One of Shan’s biggest accomplishments includes having her work commissioned by and later collected by the Smithsonian Institution. Despite living in Oklahoma, she has kept strong ties to her tribe in North Carolina. Shan is proud of being able to support herself exclusively with her artwork for over 25 years. She also says that successfully raising children and being married for 25 years is another large accomplishment in her life. She is proud of being able to inspire people with her artwork by working with companies to create large commissioned art pieces.

Lack of time is one of the Shan’s most difficult challenges in her life. There is just not enough time in the day. Shan works hard on deadlines, researching, raising her family, sometimes at the expense of building memories with her family. One of the ways she manages time is by keeping a strict regimen in her schedule. She attributes her success to being organized and disciplined, and says, “I’ve never considered myself to be one of the best artists that I hang out with, but if I say I’m going to do it, then I do it.”

One of the things I sometimes struggle with is how to incorporate my culture into my everyday life, so I asked Shan how she does it. Shan is very inspired by traditional teaching of her tribe and other tribes across the US. One of her goals is to bring education and awareness about issues Indian people face today, and it inspires her.

“We are not extinct and are a force to be reckoned with in today’s world. We are a strong people.” -Shan Goshorn

When discussing her work on racism, Shan says she has mellowed out since the early 1990s. She wants to get beyond the A-B-Cs of racism and says, “I want to move on to the H-I-J or M-N-O.” Shan has worked with the Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism and is inspired by the more peaceful ways to approach people about racism vs. butting heads.

Recently Shan has been volunteering on what she describes as a ‘calling’ to heal birds in her own home. As a child, she successfully healed birds and helped them move on. Not one to do something small-scale, Shan has actually helped to form a local non-profit Audubon organization, called Songbirds In Need Group – In Tulsa. Shan says working with birds keeps her really grounded.

Shan says, “The birds are getting into my work.” She has been working on a series called “Displacement” which looks at the result of invasive species and how they are having an impact on the environment. She studies invasive species to find out what they’ve done and looks for ways we can cohabitate. She likens the invasive species to the colonization of America, and uses the series as another way to open dialogue about race issues.

Shan has been trying to gather bird stories from tribes, and to be able to remember stories that she’s heard. She talked about behavior of birds 500 and 100 years ago and how they have the same kinds of behavior today. Shan finds it interesting how stories from different tribes about the same bird, like the king fisher, match up.

“Birds are barometers of the health of our world. Birds are a reflection of working with mother earth.” -Shan Goshorn

Shan describes how miners use canary birds to check if areas are safe. If they see dead canary birds, they know they have to get out of that part of the mine. Although she described it as a calling, she would like to step back a little because taking care of birds is very time consuming and intense.

Shan Goshorn
Shan Goshorn at a New Year’s Eve Powwow in Tulsa. Courtesy photo.

Shan is living proof that you can have a successful career and family. I asked Shan what advice she might have on building a career and raising a family.

Career:  Go for excellence. Aspire to be the best that you can. If you can find excellence in your work, the money will follow. Choose something you have a passion about and be the best you can be and you will find your place.

Family: I don’t think we are meant to avoid challenges. Cars break down. You get sick. That’s the thing, that is life. It is how we handle obstacles that show who we are.

“We are not meant to have a challenge-free life. Challenge and obstacles are how we grow.” -Shan Goshorn

Shan has been a great mentor to me and I am sure to others also. Her artwork is amazing and transcending in its meaning. She is truly a beautiful person, inside and out. Shan is an Indian woman who is always cognizant of current Native American issues and how she can start a dialogue to solve them.

Ana’ Basee Shan!


Shan Goshorn - Artist
Shan Goshorn with a recent prize winning basket. Courtesy photo.

Artist Shan Goshorn (Eastern Band Cherokee) has lived in Tulsa, Oklahoma since 1981. Shan Goshorn is a self-employed artist conducting her work through her business, the Shan Goshorn Studio. Her work is exhibited extensively in the US and in Canada and has won prestigious awards in major competitions. Goshorn’s painted photographs have toured with the Fratelli Alinari “Go West” collection, and have been exhibited in venues in England, France, China and South Africa. In 1992, her tribe awarded her with an honorarium for the work she was doing to truthfully represent the Eastern Band. In 2001, the Indian Affairs Commission of Tulsa honored her with the Moscelyn Larkin Cultural Achievement Award for her artwork that challenges the stereotypes that persist regarding Indian people. She has served on the Board of Directors of the American Indian Heritage Center (Tulsa) as the first and second vice chair; NIIPA (Native Indian/Innuit Photographer’s Association) in Canada; The Second Circle Board of the National Native Arts Network ATLATL; and was appointed by the mayor to serve on the board of the Greater Tulsa Indian Affairs Commission and the Arts Commission of Tulsa.


Water Safety in Alaska – Creating New Norms

Here is a video I created to raise awareness about water safety in Alaska.

Water and boating safety is important in Alaska and should be a part of our lives throughout the year. Create new norms for water safety when you are out enjoying Alaska. Here is a website with useful information:  http://alaskaboatingsafety.org/.

I created it using the iMovie app on an iPad. Thank you to the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium’s Injury Prevention Program for hosting the digital storytelling workshop!


Alaska Natives Give and Share

While not all Alaskans are philanthropic givers, many give things in a lot of other ways. I know when Alaska Natives hunt and fish, they often supporting their immediate and extended family. The hunters brave the often inclement weather and large wilderness. There is a large non-cash economy in many villages.

There have been many recent fundraisers in the Alaska to help those in need. It struck me how wonderful it is that we come together as a community to help each other to raise funds, pray and support each other.

We help each other in times of need, like an illness or the passing of loved ones. They hold fundraisers at community halls. Often times in a search and rescue operation, surrounding villages will show up to help in the efforts.

Volunteers in Huslia tear down the old mission building to distribute wood to people who need it. Photo by Nathan Vent
Volunteers in Huslia tear down the old mission building to distribute wood to people who need it. Photo by Nathan Vent

It touches my heart to see people giving and sharing to help their neighbors. Recently, in my hometown of Huslia, the community experienced a cold snap of temperatures from -50 to -70 Fahrenheit. Thankfully, it has been warming up, but they had a pretty cold January.

The extreme temperatures have caused heating fuel to gel up, and heaters quit working as a result. People have been running their wood stoves in addition to the monitors and Toyostoves. Flights were delayed because it was too cold to fly. People were having trouble starting their snow machines, and haven’t been able to get fire wood as a result.The Huslia Tribal Council helped by fixing monitors and/or Toyostoves if they are not working. They also covered up fuel tanks and lines with snow to insulate it to prevent gelling.

Volunteers donated and cut wood for those who needed it. Volunteers tore down an old church mission, cut up the wood and distributed it around town. The community really came together to help each other for basic survival. It is warming up, and people will now be able to get wood. Many people are expecting to have a pretty high fuel bill for January. KTUU, Channel 2 did a story on the cold snap:  Extreme Cold in Rural Alaska Tests Limits.

Al and Eleanor Yatlin check their fish net on the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Al and Eleanor Yatlin check their fish net on the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

This type of giving is not tax deductible or may not be defined as philanthropic giving, but it is giving and sharing. My parents often give their first catches of the season to an Elder, like the first salmon or goose. There are hunters who will hunt and fish for an Elder or someone who cannot go out hunting.

Ana Basee’ to all Alaskans who give and share!


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!