This summer, the Athabascan Woman Blog is featuring an Athabascan in the Spotlight each week. Thank you to Brenda Mahan (Koyukon Athabascan) for nominating Glenda McKay!
Glenda McKay is Ingalik-Athabascan. Her mother, Emily, was born in Flat, Alaska and grandmother, Eliza Tickeny, was born in Anvik, Alaska. Glenda is an artist known for creating miniature dolls using traditional materials. She also creates masks, charm baskets and knife sheaths. Glenda also does beadwork, like making octopus bags. She uses moose skin, walrus ivory, fossilized bone, seed beads, seal skin, whale baleen, sea otter fur and deer hide. One item can take several months, if not up to a year to create.
Glenda has won many awards for her artwork. She travels to many of the Native markets in the Lower 48, such as the Santa Fe Indian Market and the American Indian Arts Market place at the Autry Museum. She has been featured online and in magazines. Glenda received the 2017 Jackie Autry Purchase Award winner for her Yesterdays Warrior bag by the Autry Museum of the American West.
Glenda has been a mentor for Brenda Mahan for about three years now. Brenda says, “She is always willing to share tips of the trade. Her knowledge on Athabascan crafts is invaluable and she is willing to pass down her knowledge and this is why I am nominating her for the Athabascan in the Spotlight.”
Enaa baasee’ to Brenda for submitting Glenda McKay to be an Athabascan in the Spotlight! Do you have someone you admire, like a culture bearer, artist, storytellers, activist, role model, community doer, language warrior, leader, hunter, gatherer, parent, or grandparents? Find out more about how to submit a nomination here: http://athabascanwoman.com/?p=4248.
My aunt Rosie asked me to bead some glove and slipper tops for a potlatch. As I’m beading some glove tops, and I keep getting a whiff of smoked moose hide. The balcony door is open. It’s a crisp and fresh morning. The birds are singing. I can almost imagine being at fish camp, smelling wood smoke from our camp fire and beading while taking a break from chores.
Smoked moose hide is ideal for doing beadwork on because it doesn’t unravel and holds its form. My ancestors and family have been using it for clothing for centuries. It was used for survival along with other hides and furs. Our people were resourceful and didn’t waste.
Nowadays, we use them for mittens, vests, dresses, jewelry, slippers, picture frames and much more. If you’ve followed me, you know I love beading slippers. I bead on smoked moose hide slipper tops.
People mostly buy them from places where they are commercially tanned. However, some people are starting to relearn how to process and tan them. It is a lot of work and you have to scrape it a lot. My late grandmothers used to work on them with help of family. Here my great aunt, Rose Ambrose, shares a short story on how people used to process smoked moose hide.
Artist Melissa Shaginoff (Athabascan/Paiute) has been demonstrating and teaching people how to tan moose hide. Check out Melissa’s website or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.
I appreciate the hard work that goes into making smoked moose hide. If you understand the process and hundreds of hours that go into tanning moose hide, you will also understand the value of being able to use it but also the expense.
When preparing for Athabascan traditional memorial potlatches, families usually save up to buy a moose skin and distribute parts of it at the giveaway. The giveaway is a way for families to thank people who have helped them through the grieving process and who are special to the lost loved one. It is a precious gift to receive.
My friend, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman, has a smoked moose hide vest. He wore it to the Smokehouse Gala and there was one woman who was sniffing his shoulder. He said, people do that all the time. I love the smoked smell. It brings back many great memories.
Throughout the years, I have featured Athabascan people in my blog through interviews and by sharing our stories. Why? I want to raise people up, promote wellness and counter stereotypes. Let’s celebrate those we admire — our culture bearers, artists, storytellers, activists, role models, community doers, language warriors, leaders, hunters, gatherers, parents, and grandparents! Now, I would like to ask for your help.
To submit a nomination, please email me the following:
Name of nominee (including Native name if applicable)
Cultural affiliation (like, Koyukon, Gwich’in, etc.)
Background on nominee (where they or their family is from, who their family is, what they do, etc.)
Reason this person should be recognized
Contact info for nominee (phone, email or social media)
I grew up on the Koyukuk River in Huslia and Bettles/Evansville. I have lots of memories of being in fish camp in the summer and taking rides in the fall. In November, Che Wilson (Māori) spoke at the Tribal Governance Symposium in Fairbanks. He described the river near his homelands and said, “I am the river, and the river is me.” Since then, I’ve been thinking about what the Koyukuk River means to me.
Dear Koyukuk River,
I float on top of you. I land on your sand bars and cut banks. Sometimes it’s easy, and I hop out and start walking. Sometimes it’s hard and I am immediately start climbing up the bank. Sometimes I carefully walk through drift wood to avoid tripping.
You are my Zen. My spirit goes to you when I need to getaway. I imagine driving along you on a warm summer day. A warm breeze offers relief from the heat and mosquitoes. I sometimes imagine relaxing on the sand bar or swimming in streams, and it is better than any tropical beach. I carry you in my heart, always.
For 1,000s of years, you have given and sustaining life to animals, plants and humans. You are a tributary of the mighty Yukon River and it feeds you, bringing fish from the sea. You, in turn, feed other rivers, streams and creeks. You turn into a superhighway in the summer.
My dad, uncles and brothers read and remember your channels to navigate. We fish, hunt and gather up and down. You connect us to your brothers from the north and sisters of the south.
You rise and fall with changing weather patterns. Huge ice chunks push up onto the shore during breakup.
Memories are eternal. Dad speeding around with his young kids. Or speeding up the sand bar so we could wash the boat. Mom pulling fish from the net and carefully washing fish before gutting them. Grandma dipping her T-shirt in the cold water and putting it on to get some relief from the hot sun. Watching sunrises and sunsets from the banks. Getting water to bring up the steep cut bank. Washing my hair. Driving little driftwood boats along the shore. Running my hands through the water. Swimming and spending time with my siblings and cousins. Checking the fish net and pulling out fish. Watching fish jump or a beaver tails flapping. Running down the bank when we hear a boat around the bend.
P.S. I love you.
I could keep on going with memories and stories from the Koyukuk River. However, I thought I would ask my friends and relatives to share their love of the Koyukuk River through words and photos. They describe their love of the K-River a lot better than I can!
Nouyak Hamilton of Alatna/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk river, because it is home to my soul!!! There is no better feeling than being on the river, but when I’m home….it’s a completely different feeling. It makes my heart smile, and I feel it in my skin.”
Doreen David of Huslia said, “I love the Koyukuk River and the area around Huslia because I was blessed to have been born and raised here. Our parents instilled the love of the land and animals into us. Not only to respect our traditions, who we are, but to take care of and nurture the areas around us. That we shouldn’t be scared of nature, our land, the cold or dark, but should learn to live and survive in it. Dad and Mom traveled by boat and snow machines up river almost every summer and winter with me and my siblings while we were growing up. First by hand made boats and wrapped in animal skins in snow machine sleds. We traveled by snow machine in all directions around us, enjoying stories of dad traveling by dog teams to the areas we were at, and to this day I love traveling by snow machine. I love the knowledge that our parents passed on to us from their parents, and knowing that was passed on from generations to us. It’s like a book that me and Russell get to keep adding to and get to pass on to Jakob, JesCynthia, and Jordan. I am, and always have been, very proud to be a Koyukon Athabascan because our parents showed us where we come from, how strong we are, and how to survive. I really hope there is no roads into, or around Huslia, for a LONG, LONG, LONG time. I believe this will ruin the most important things we need to survive here.”
Linda Demientieff of Allakaket/Fairbanks said, “I love the river because I could see the bottom and look at the rocks. One of my favorite memory is lying face down on the ice and watching the fish swimming by.”
Ryan McCarty of Hughes/Fairbanks said, “My favorite thing about the Koyukuk River is the annual salmon run. If the water is low, you can see them swim by. My favorite memory is probably from the fish camp. My late older brothers made a bench on top of the bank. So, every night at sunset we can sit and watch it. My dad would say, ‘When the sun sets at a certain point we will move back to town.’ He used a tree across the river on the hill far away as the marking point.”
George Carlson Yaska, Jr. of Huslia/Fairbanks shared a memory. He said, “One of my favorite memories was eating the first chum salmon of the season at Grandma’s fish camp, which she had allowed us to use for a few years. I can still taste it after these so many decades later.”
Michelle Moses of Alatna said, “I love the Koyukuk River because we can still drink it. I love Grandma Kitty. She’s the one who showed me that said, ‘Yes, this river will not harm us just by drinking it.’ And without the ‘Ambler Road’, we will be able to continue drinking the Koyukuk River water.”
Til Beetus of Hughes/Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory on the Koyukuk River is of the love you feel among all the people. Also, because it is the best to float down to Hughes on a hot summer day. Finally, if you float long enough you end up in Huslia and they have the best dances!!”
Wanda Moses of Galena/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it would sustain our needs every fall growing up we spent two weeks living off the river and if we were lucky we would hang and smoke our catch. We would eat fish, grouse, ducks, porcupine. I can just smell the fall high bush berries and see the wind dropping the leaves…”
April Williams of Koyukuk/Galena said, “I love the Koyukuk River because she provides for us and allows us to continue our traditional way of life, that we will continue to teach our children.”
Tina Albert of Tanana said, “I love the Koyukuk River. When I was prego with my oldest, I was up Alatna River picking blueberries and hunting up mom Kitty’s land in Southfork. Moose hunting down Old Man [slough], geese hunting back Chalatna [creek], beaver trapping, fish camp. Enjoying it. Across from fish camp traveling 100 miles round trip marten trapping back in the day. It reminds me of Tanana River. I grew up visiting Manley, Cosna, back Island Lake moose hunting, Cosjacket, Old Cillage, fall time, Harper’s Bend, fish lake,16-mile Yukon River fish camp. Hay Slough picking lowbush cranberry, and dipnetting for white fish. My dad trapped, also Bertha loved trapping marten and rabbits behind the house.”
Sheryl Meierotto of Evansville/Two Rivers said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is home. One of my favorite memories is sitting with my late brother, Brett Stevens, on his bench watching the river flow by.”
Alisha Vent of Huslia said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is one of the few places left untouched, we feel truly peaceful on it. I don’t know about my favorite but most memorable is going back to Huslia in fall time and it got too late and cold. Late Uncle Albert and a bunch of us stopped by a bank and started preparing grass? ‘We’ll sleep here for the night.’ I was young and thought he was joking. Woke in morning from our sleeping bags in the grass field with frost all over. My only experience siwashing out.”
Shirley Lee of Evansville/Fairbanks said, “I love the serenity of our little river. I have fond memories of swimming in it, boating to Oscar Slough to visit the beavers and picnic, ice fishing with Mom and Aunt Dora (Tobuk), watching the ice go out in the spring…”
Sharon McConnell of Evansville/Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory of the Koyukuk River is laying on the bough of our boat as a youngster gazing for hours at the clear river water and listening to the birds chirping and bees buzzing overhead. I have a large rock collection too from the many walks I took along the river bank. Truly heaven on earth.”
Justine Attla of Huslia/Anchorage, said “I love our Koyukuk River because it’s where I was born and raised. It’s HOME and it’s ours. Late aunty Angeline said it was so. My fave memory is in ole fish camp across from mouth of Huslia, with great grampa Olin and 3-4 families. There used to be lots of little blue birds, little red birds. Story: each spring, our elders used go out to the river bank, pray about the river, for good fishing, for safety. There was tea made, little lunch, poeples visiting, how exciting, then nights, there was volleyball right on top of bank, extra exciting, mostly adults played. But us kids watch and didn’t mind, because it was so, so exciting. Everyone hollering, laughing, etc. We played marbles and hopscotch off the side…nightly gathering…no TV, phone or internet, so our poeples used to really be able to visit…TELL STORIES to each other, another fave past time…”
Dorothy Williams of Huslia shared a picture of her driving a boat. Her dad is behind her in the photo. She said, “It was fun! This was a few summers ago, my mom, grandma, my dad and Brandon were floating really far down river looking for my late grandpa Alvin.”
Pearl Henry of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “I love the Koyukuk River because it is our water of which is our Livelihood for Ts’aateyhdenaake Kk’oonh Denh (Huslia) and all who are connected to it. All of our grandparents and great-grandparents told stories of the many traditions. This amazing river kept our elders alive: Great-grandpa Chief Henry, Great-grandma Bessie Henry, Grandpa Mathew, Grandma Daisy, Grandma Alda, Grandpa Sidney, Grandma Angeline, Grandpa Richard, Grandma Eliza, Grandma Big Sophie, Grandma Anne, Grandma Sophie, Grandpa Billy, Grandma Emily, Grandpa Tony, Grandma Rose, Grandma Catherine, Grandpa Steven, Grandma Madeline, Grandpa Cue, Grandma Edith, Grandpa Johnson, Grandma Bertha, Grandpa Lloyd, Grandma Amelia, Mom (Darlene), Dad (Thomas), Aunt Selina, Uncle Hudson and many more. With all the love and knowledge that flowed through these Elders and our Aunts and Uncles that were and are here today… We have a few Elders that are still with us and we really need to visit them, keep them cared for as we do so very well and soak up all the knowledge that we can. The water and land surrounding the Koyukuk River flows through our veins and is embedded in our hearts. We love and cherish this incredible river and all beautiful people for the good memories. No one is perfect, we are all equals, and we have to stick together to do good and be good to our children, so they will continue to thrive. Living healthy and respecting one another is valuable. May the Great Spirit of this beautiful Koyukuk River and the nature of Alaska flow through us all forever=).”
Solo Yatlin of Huslia/North Pole said he loved going to Ring Beach near Bettles/Evansville. He also said, “Loved grayling fishing at Wild River.”
My mom, Eleanor Yatlin of Huslia, said “Staying in our camp here in Huslee and staying in that cool camp below Bettles, traveling on the River between Bettles and here by boat and sno-go.”
Darlene Bifelt of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “I remember spending summers in fish camp. Dad would leave to work on the barge as a River Boat Captain for the summer. Mom took the family including all of our sled dogs to camp to go fishing. Our family worked together every day checking the fish net twice a day. Even though it was hard work we made it fun. While the older siblings checked the net breakfast and later lunch was prepared. When the tubs of fish were brought to camp, we guessed how many fish there was, this made it fun & interesting! Our youngest sister was about two or three years old and her job was to hang the fish backbones. One day when we were winding down she asked, ‘Where’s all the back bone around here?’ Every now and then we’d see a black bear across the river and we felt safe because our dogs were tied up on the beach. We had one or two tied in the woods behind our tents. Even after working all day taking care of fish, in the evening we would use sticks, fish line and hooks to catch white fish. It was fun to scale and learn how to cut them. Mom and my oldest sister, Char, would cut the good eating fish and everyone else worked on fish for the dogs. It was super easy to care for the dogs too because they were on the beach. It was quick to cook up fish for them with the water and fish being in close proximity. Same for giving them water every day. It was a treat to get visitors in the evening from a neighboring camp. What a great memory, I wish my kids and now grandchildren could experience that peaceful, hardworking way of life.
Johnnie Yatlin of Huslia/North Pole said, “One time we were going down to south fork from Bettles. The kicker stopped, so Harvey was working on the motor. Anyways it was late fall so the water was kind of high and I was paddling so we would stay away from the sweepers on the bank. I was unable to get away from one. I grabbed it. It almost pushed me into the river. I let go of it and it hit a cage we had it was full of chickens. Harvey dodged the sweeper. The chickens were sinking. Harvey was like, ‘Oh my chickens nooo.’ I looked at him and said, ‘F* your stupid chickens,’ and I almost got thrown in the river. Hahahahaha he just laughed and so did I.”
My niece, Lydia Yatlin of Huslia/Fairbanks, said, “My favorite memories are when I was about 8 or 10 and we were on Lydz’ beach and it started raining. Grandpa said, ‘Come Lydz, get on my lap’. He covered me and he and we saw lightening it was cool. Here’s another one. I was about 6 and we were on Lydz’ beach again and Vanessa’s kids were there and Jojo’s kids were there and your kids were there. All the kids were swimming in the little tide pools. We all had fun.”
Tanya Yatlin of Huslia/Fairbanks said, “Sitting at the riverbank in camp in the evening while it’s quiet and calm. Little breeze blowing by, birds chirping here and there. How the weather can change in a second. Once mom and dad, Mae, Lydz and I were all in Lydz’ Beach checking the fishnet and relaxing. One minute it was sunny and warm and the next second, it was pouring rain. Dad and Lydz were sitting on a camp chair converted with a life jacket, mom was sitting in another chair with her extra shirt over her. Mae and I had to stand there for a few minutes getting soaked. Our fronts were soaked but our backs were still dry. It lasted only a few minutes and we didn’t have time to run for cover. Growing up swimming down the bend from camp…before it caved and broke through. We would swim a lot while keeping cool. We would tip the boat and splash it with the water to clean the fish slime off.”
Esther McCarty of Ruby said, “I love the Koyukuk River because that is where I was born and raised. That is where the white fish taste sweet and the moose meat taste sweet from the fresh river water that runs over the gravel bars. It you stay up early in the mornings, you can see the sun come up and hit the tops of the hills. You can see the beautiful sunsets in the evenings. You can feel how peaceful it is and be content just by sitting on the river bank watching the river flow by. The sense of peace is overwhelming and the silence. That is where I get regrounded when I’ve been away for too long. The Native language that I speak with family and friends is food for the soul, the traditional memorial potlatches are very much a big part of healing when you have loved ones who have passed. I can go on and on, but the Koyukuk River is where I can do just about anything from renewed energy and spirit.”
Hazel Beatus of Fairbanks said, “My favorite memory was when late Uncle plowed the river side of the field. I went for a walk, about where the path to the bar, there were flowers. By the time I got to town, I could barely stretch my arms and only picking one of each variety and they were big! Our table was covered, Mom was little surprised.”
Enaa baasee’ to everyone who shared their memories and stories! It is a blessing to grow up on the Koyukuk River and on the land. It can be blissful and unforgiving, but it sustains so much life. You can learn so much about life and survival, and be connected to ancestors at the same time.
My friend and relative, Sonia Vent, shared about her experience of sewing a ruff made out of rabbit and marten fur. The ruff is for her granddaughter’s parka. A ruff keeps people’s face warm when they have it on a hood. Sonia is Koyukon Athabascan and is from Huslia. Her parents are Freddie and Lorna Vent of Huslia.
Sonia’s experience of sewing a ruff reminded me of my journey for beading and sewing slippers/moccasins for the past year. Taking up a cultural practice can be a spiritual experience. That little knowledge we have is powerful enough to connect us to our culture. I have found beading and sewing to be healing. Learning and practicing our culture is important. She graciously agreed to share her experience. Here it is below.
In honor of all the skin sewers now and those who have gone on By Sonia Vent (Koyukon Athabascan)
“I made a little rabbit marten skin ruff for my granddaughters’ parka. While in Fairbanks I rummaged through my mom’s furs, skins, and patterns helping her to both find and organize things. I had planned to make a ruff for my GD’s parka before then. My mom had some already cut strips of rabbit fur amongst her things which she offered for me to use. She also had a piece of marten skin that was part of something else that she said that I could have. Ana basee’ ena’aa (thank you so much, dear mom)!
What I discovered in skin sewing is that it takes a lot talent and expertise to turn out a well finished product. The fur has to be cut in a certain way so that one does not cut into the fur and the cut is only through the skin. My mom showed me a special way that she holds the fur as she cuts through the skin. Despite her now shaking hands she managed to do it like a professional. Measurement must be adhered to in order for the pieces to come together and for it to match up with the garment that it will go on. The sewing through the furred skin takes skill and talent otherwise the fur can be pulled through the skin along with the sinew or thread. It is important to find the “sweet spot” to sew through so that the seams are even and clean. I’ve also discovered the best light to sew in is daylight. Daylight is naturally bright and clear. I love the daylight!
As I worked on the ruff, I thought of my many relatives and ancestors who worked night after night to make new garments for their families to wear at for the different community gatherings and holiday events. Skin sewing with our people was done out of necessity and love, especially love. I envisioned mothers sitting by a low-lit lamp working into the wee hours of the morning to finish a product for a special event so their children would have perfectly sewn clothing for the Christmas Program, that husband may have a nice wolf ruff to wear to the Winter Memorial Potlatch or that young son or daughter may have new kakkanaa’ (fur boots) to wear during the snow shoe race.
I especially thought of late great aunt Eliza Attla. I thought of all of the beautiful garments that she had made over the years up to the end. I thought of how her loss of hearing seemed to have made her especially talented at sewing. I realized how and why as I found myself lost in my creativity. It’s almost as though creativity deafens one to all external noise. Skin sewing is a skill, if mastered, can turn out a finely finished product. A sign of love.”
I asked Sonia if she has any advice for people who are considering trying to do skin sewing. She recommends finding an experienced mentor to learn from. I can see how that would be important. Her mom, Lorna Vent, is a master skin sewer and beader. I remember learning how to bead barrettes and kkaakene (fur boots) from her at Johnson O’Malley classes at the school in Huslia. Sonia recommends gathering up the supplies needed for your project. She says, “Consider what furs will be used for project. Some furs are not recommended for certain gender.” That’s where an experienced mentor can guide you.
Sonia recommends being aware of your posture and repetitive motions. She says, “Holding a position too long it can create a real problem in certain body parts. Practice timed breaks and movement will prevent body ailments.” I know when I’m beading and sewing, I stay aware of ergonomics. Sometimes, my shoulders and wrist hurt after a long session.