Alaska Native culture

Dog Mushing Traditions in Alaska

My friend, Michelle Sam of Alatna, recently reminded me of a funny story of going for a sled dog ride in Bettles. It was over 20 years ago, but we still laugh about it!

“Remember taking the dogs out that one time? We got near home and were tipping over like crazy! One time after the other. The dogs were still full of energy. As we got near the dog lot, they were cruising around every corner. Maybe there were no corners! I was in the sled and we tipped and you were dragging. I fell off and you got back on and I was on the handle bars then we tipped over again and I was dragging and you fell off and I had to catch up. We were laughing a lot!” -Michelle Sam

My dad, Al Yatlin, Sr., was a dog musher. I think he had the most dogs when we lived in Bettles. He’s been in many local and regional dog races. We all helped in one way or the other, whether it was feeding,  watering, picking up poop, catching them if they got loose or helping to train them.

The Fur Rondy, North American, Yukon Quest and Iditarod sled dog races were always a big thing in our household. It was comparable to watching the Super Bowl! My dad keeps track of each the times at each check point and analyzes the times. Everyone had to be quiet when there was a race update on TV or radio. If my dad was out, we had to write the times down for him.

Andrea Swingley (@akswingley) mushing in the Limited North American Sled Dog Race in Fairbanks

I love watching sled dog races. Andrea Swingley of Fairbanks races in the Limited North American in Fairbanks, Alaska in March 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

“Dog talk” is what we refer to as a conversation about dogs. We heard a lot of dog talk over the years with dad and friends and fellow mushers. They would discuss the diet, training techniques, harnesses, sleds, stories along the trails and much more. It puts a smile on my face when I hear dog talk.

Huslia is a pretty well known town for dog mushers. “Huslia Husler” is what dog mushers were known as back them. George Attla II gained an international reputation as a champion sprint dog musher. There were other mushers who ran the Iditarod. Dog mushing goes way back as a form of transportation in Alaska. Huslia still holds local sled dog races for all ages. I’ve enjoyed many races over the years. I even got in the five dog race and won one year.

I know how hard the mushers and their families work to raise and race their dogs. It is a huge commitment. It is also rewarding to your mind and body. Taking care and running your dogs requires a lot of physical work and keeps you in shape. It also keeps your mind busy.
Marvin Kokrine #7

Marvin Kokrine (Athabascan) runs in the Fur Rondy in Anchorage, Alaska in February 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I don’t own any dogs, but I enjoy watching sled dog racing. There is an excitement in the air during race times. It is something to look forward to in the winter and gets me out of the house. My dad no longer raises a dog team, but he volunteers during race times and with a dog mushing program in Huslia.

Downtown Fairbanks comes alive during the Open North American Championship Sled Dog Race. Kudos to the dog mushers, families, fans, supporters, sponsors and the dogs!

Alaska Native culture

Learning From Elders

I am often saddened by the loss of my Koyukon Athabascan culture, traditions and language, and not being able to pass ‘everything’ to my children. Theoretically, I would like to learn the Koyukon Athabascan language, but it seems overwhelming to try to learn it on my own. There are more speakers and resources in the interior. I know a lot of words in Koyukon, but I don’t know how to speak or write it out.

My dad’s work as an electronics technician brought us to a lot of different places around Alaska. We’ve lived in Nenana, Huslia, Galena, Fort Yukon, Nome and Bettles. My grandparents visited sometimes in the various places we lived. I treasured the time that I spent with them. Nowadays, some of my grandparents have passed away. Since I live in Anchorage, I don’t get to spend as much time with my grandparents. We consider our grandparent’s siblings our grandparents as well (vs. great aunt or uncle).

Hoar frost on trees in Anchorage in January 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Hoar frost on trees in Anchorage in January 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Despite where we live or how far away we are from our culture, I think that there are ways we can hang on to it by learning it from an Elder. I sometimes give my elder relatives a ride when they come to Anchorage, so I have an opportunity to learn something from them. A couple of years ago, I gave a ride to my uncle Tony Sam, Sr. and late aunt Emily. It was a cold winter day and the trees had frost on them. Uncle Tony told me when the trees get frost on them, it means a cold spell might be coming. He told me the  Koyukon Athabascan word, but I don’t remember it. The word means the tree is putting on a warm parka. I always think about that story when I see frost on the trees.

What’s one thing you can learn from an Elder today?

Preserving our culture does not have to be this huge and insurmountable task. You can learn and practice your culture in little ways. I was talking to a friend, Emily Gray of Allakaket, about it last month. I asked her about one thing she learned from an Elder recently. She said, “I learned that you have to pray in our language. It is more powerful.” I think Emily is going to learn how to do that. You can learn your culture by asking people about it. Call up your friends and relatives or visit them and start asking questions.

Angela recently visited with her grandparents Bill and Madeline Williams of Hughes.
Angela recently visited with her grandparents Bill and Madeline Williams of Hughes.

My grandmother, Madeline Williams, teaches in Hughes. She has raised all of her kids plus one of her grand kids. I was talking to her about this subject and she had some advice to parents. Grandma Madeline said, “Some parents are afraid to tell their kids what to do. How else are they going to learn?” I think she meant that we as parents might expect kids to know how to do things or learn on their own. For example, if we want our kids to know how to cut fish, we have to show them and let them do it. Last year, Grandma Madeline worked on a digital story with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium (ANTHC).

ANTHC helps to produce digital stories focused on health and wellness education. Producing your own digital stories are a great way to preserve your traditions, cultures, and a little piece of your history.

A few years ago, the University of Alaska Fairbanks produced Raven’s Story with KIYU radio in Galena. The stories are from elders from the interior. I try to listen to them every once in a while, sometimes just to hear their voices. I learn something new each time.

I shared a story about growing up in fish camp for Arctic Entries in December. Preparing for the event helped me to remember things. I talked with my family and asked them about their favorite memories from camp. You can listen to the audio recording here. It was great to reminisce about the old days.

You can learn a little bit along the way. Each week, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner has a feature called, Athabascan Word of the Week. Susan Paskvan (Koyukon Athabascan) is the main contributor of the feature. Learn about how to say food in this week’s Athabascan Word of the Week.

A friend, Albert Chacon, is preserving traditions and cultures by producing documentaries on bird singing. He has been working on a documentary called, “We Are Birds“. Over the past few years, we’ve discussed the need to preserve our cultures. You can follow Albert and his work here and on Twitter at @CaliNDN.

Preserving our traditions, cultures and language can be done by learning, practicing and sharing. Learning can be done in little bits here and there. There are so many different ways to preserve culture and traditions, including voice recordings, documentaries, writing, storytelling, photography, artwork, researching your family tree, and digital stories, etc. I am far from being fully versed in Koyukon Athabascan cultures, traditions and the language, but I will learn more and teach my children what I know and what I’ve learned along the way.

Alaska Native culture

Moose Soup in the City

Moose Soup in the City. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Moose Soup in the City. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I was recently asked to present at the University of Alaska – Anchorage at the Pilot Bread Connection event. There were a number of topics covered, and I presented on “Moose Soup in the City.”

When I was in college in Oklahoma, I really missed eating my mother’s moose meat soup. When my cousin, Doreen, came to visit me from Kansas, I told her so. She said, “You can make soup with beef stew too.” It made me realize that I can cook soup even though I was far away from home. Cooking soup with beef stew meat is not the same, but eating it made me feel closer to home.

Moose Soup in the City

2 slices – onion
2 – Carrots
2 slices – cabbage
3 – mushroom
3 – celery
1 – green squash
2 – potatoes
1 can – stewed or diced tomatoes
1/2 cup – noodles
1/2 cup – macaroni
1/2 cup – spaghetti
3/4 cup – rice
1 lb. – moose stew meat

Sample soup ingredients. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Sample soup ingredients. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Defrost meat. Put meat in large pot and fill water to about 3/4 from the top. Bring meat to boil on high, then turn to medium and cover. Add seasoning, salt and onions at the beginning. Boil for about 90 minutes and stir occasionally. Chop and prepare vegetables into bite-sized pieces.

Add vegetables, noodles, spaghetti and rice. Add water if necessary. If you like a thicker soup, do not add as much water. Cook for an additional 25-35 minutes. Add can of stewed tomatoes, season to taste and enjoy.

  • You can substitute other meats (deer, caribou, reindeer, buffalo, beef stew) for moose meat.
  • The other meats won’t need to boil as long as moose meat.
  • You can also use ground moose meat, and it can be boiled for about 45 minutes before adding other ingredients.
  • If you are making bone soup, you can boil the meat up to 3 hours before adding vegetables and pastas.
  • You can substitute fresh vegetables with frozen or canned vegetables.
  • You do not have to use all of the ingredients.
  • You can improvise and use other ingredients that you like. About 5-6 ingredients is sufficient.
  • You can also cook these in a slow cooker.
  • I learned how took cook soup by experimenting and improvising.

My daughters and I made an instructional video to assist you as you make your own soup.

My goal when presenting to the students was to share this lesson with them. They can make their traditional foods while they are far away from home. College was a very challenging time of my life, being far away from home and out of my element. I graduated from high school in a town that had 50-100 people, and attended a college with about 4,000 students. Culture shock! Keeping ties with my traditions kept me grounded and strong.