My aunt, Vina Bilow (Koyukon Athabascan), recently shared her reflections on moving to Fairbanks from Huslia. She shared some stories and gave some really great advice about living a sustainable lifestyle. She graciously allowed me to share some of it. She’s a fellow writer, and I love reading her stories and reflections.
It has been three years since I left Huslia and moved into Town (aka Fairbanks). That was the longest—26 years—that I have lived in my home village. I left at age 14 to attend Mt Edgecumbe High School in Sitka or as it was known as way back in 1961 Mt. Edgecumbe Alaska. I was home just for the summers, graduated in May 1965 and joined the Women’s Army Corp the following September for my three-year enlistment tour, so 14 + 26 = 40 years in the village and 33 years elsewhere.
I made quite a few changes in the last three years, plus made changes in my life before that, for several reasons; some for my health, some in lifestyle, others for financial reasons, and whatever else. Continue reading “Reflections from Vina Bilow”→
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.
Marc Brown of Huslia and Fairbanks shared a great story about what it was like growing up in Huslia. He was reminiscing with this son, Sammy. He agreed to share it with Athabascan Woman Blog readers.
Back in the Early Days in Huslia
By Marc Brown
My oldest son Sammy and I are just chillin’ in our room and I started telling him stories about what it was like when I was growing up in Huslia.
I’m so old that I when I was a kid we didn’t have running water, TV or a phone. I told him that I remember when there were 3 phones in town – the city office, the school and the clinic. It was big news when you got a phone call, because they had to post it on the bulletin board at the city office. Or, if it was really important, someone would hand deliver the note to your house.
Once, when I was like nine, I got out of the boat coming back from fish camp and everyone I ran into told me Donovan called from Galena. That was big news back then! Lol! So I had to run back to my house and ask my mom if I could go to the city office and use the phone to call Galena. You had to have them dial for you and after the call the city clerk would get a call back from the operator and tell you the charges on the call.
There was one TV in town back then and it was at the school. They had a Beta machine with it and three video tapes to play. The video tapes looked like VCR tapes, but were huge and the beta machine weighed about 60 lbs. Couple years later everyone had TVs, but we only had two channels.
We had to pack water from my grandparents’ house every day and sometimes twice a day if you wanted to take a bath. He gets a kick out of my stories. I used to enjoy my summers in camp where we didn’t even have electricity. We were never bored.
When I was 14 years old, my uncles Kenny and Glen gave me a 14′ boat with a 25 horse outboard motor. It was supposed to be for taking my grandma to check the fish net, but I took it everywhere. 🙂
I used to listen to the hum of the motor and daydream songs. Some of my best songs came to me in that little boat on the Koyukuk River.
Thank you Marc for sharing your story! I remember and miss those days without the constant barrage of technology.
Marc is owner of the Marc Brown and the Blues Crew. Learn more about the group on their Facebook page. He will be on Native America Calling on Wednesday, August 12 to talk about the release of his 12th album. Marc is NAC’s August Music Maker Of The Month. Congratulations Marc Brown and the Blues Crew!
Nakon’ Vent and I both grew up in Huslia. She works at the R&M Mercantile in Huslia where she is raising her young son. Her mother is Mabel Vent, the daughter of the late Robert and Mary Vent. Nakon’s siblings are Alisha and Yoda. The name, Nakon’, is actually Mabel’s Koyukon Athabascan name. Her mother liked the name, and so gave her daughter the name.
Nakon’ studied fine arts at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. While in college, she took drawing and sculpting classes, and a water coloring class. She also attended hair design school and earned a beautician certificate.
While living in Fairbanks, she successfully ran to become Miss Fairbanks Native Association in 1995. In 1996, she ran successfully to become Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO). She had a dress that was made for her mother by her grandmother. Nakon’ says, “It was made by my grandma for my mom Mable, who passed it down to Sharon, then Carla, then me, and I gave it to Alisha.”
In her early 20s, Nakon’ moved back home to take care of her grandparents. She considers that one of her biggest accomplishments, besides raising her son.
Nakon’ was always drawing since she was young. Her mother gave her an acrylic paint set when for her 22nd birthday. After discovering she liked it, she began saving up for more supplies and paints. She said, “I’ve never had any classes about painting or how to use acrylics, so I read up on the subject with every magazine or book I could find.”
Nakon’ has now been painting for 15 years, and she finally feels comfortable calling herself an artist. As you can see, she is very talented.
“I love painting nature, every day we see where we come from. That inspires me…watching the sun set over Huslia Mountain and seeing the mid-summer sun shining through the leaves from all the birch trees. Every direction you turn, there is a raven flying.” –Nakon’ Vent (Koyukon Athabascan)
I asked Nakon’ if she had any tips for someone who might be interested in painting. She shares some advice below.
If you can take classes, DO IT. I’ve had so many questions and had to really do my research to answer them.
You must practice, practice, practice.
You have to build up your hand-eye coordination. The more paintings you do the more your confidence builds up.
Never give up. Sometimes paintings don’t sell or someone gives you their opinion and it’s not what you want to hear. Painting is meant for you to show how you interpret something, it’s a part of you. When I paint Huslia, I’m showing people the home I’m proud of, how God has blessed us here every day.
R&M Mercantile store is a family-owned business owned by Mabel, Nakon’ and her sister, Alisha. Nakon’ says her mother is very understanding and flexible with her as she works in the store and home-schools her five year old son for part of the day. I asked her how she manages all of it and still finds time to paint. Thankfully, her son has not bothered her paint supplies, so she has never had to hide her art supplies.
Nakon’ paints after her son goes to sleep. She takes out her table and paints supplies. All of her tables in her home have some dried paint on them. For inspiration, Nakon’ takes and collects photos of Huslia and the surrounding area.
“I crank up my music, find the scene I want to paint, pick which size canvas and get to work. I get lost with painting sometimes so I could look up and see that I have been painting for six hours.” –Nakon’ Vent
“Nakon’ is one of those rare painters who aptly captures what living in our village is like. Every time I see a new painting of hers, it’s almost like I’m taken back home. Huslia is lucky to have her, because not many villages have painters who can so beautifully capture their home. Plus she’s just one of the kindest, big-hearted ladies I know–I always try to visit her at least once when I go home.” – Jeneva Guard of Huslia/Anchorage
Nakon’ dream is to get an artist’s table so she can stop painting on her dinner table. My cousin, Janella Lewis, says, “I think she does beautiful paintings. She has inspired me to keep doing it and to try something different. I like her ideas.” Janella is also a painter. I bought one of Nakon’ painting a few years ago and gave it as a gift. I am proud of her for teaching herself to paint. Her natural talent as an artist shines through and truly captures the beauty in her area.
Rhoda Stertzer is Koyukon Athabascan originally from Huslia. Her parents were the late Richard and Angeline Derendoff of Huslia. Rhoda lives in Ohio, and she often shares stories her mother told her.
Here is a story Rhoda as told to her by her late mother, Angeline Derendoff:
This is the story our Momma used to tell us. I’m just trying my best to tell this story as I forgot some of it. Our Great Grandma used to go over to Eskimo country via Hot Springs trail. Her husband was hit with polio and it left him without the use of his legs. So Grandma had to carry him out to the sled and back inside. She used to bring back seal pokes full of seal oil.
I was told she used to make this trip a lot in her life along with Grandpa. The last time Grandma went over, she was in the pass on her way home and a snow storm was brewing. She hunkered down by the creek. As you know, when the wind comes through the pass it’s very strong. Grandma must have been alone when this happen, because Momma never mentioned Grandpa. The wind was so strong and Grandma was losing her leader. As she was struggling to hang on to her leader, the wind took her and blew her out of the pass.
Later on that spring they found her 14 miles out of the pass. That’s how far the wind took. I’ll burn some sage now. This is a story from way back in the day late 1800 or early 1900.
The area Rhoda’s mom referred to is west of Huslia around toward the coast. There is a hot springs in the middle of those areas where people visit each year. They walked, kayaked or travelled by dog team in those days. They had to move around with the seasons, plus they relied on trading from different regions for food, clothing and materials. Alaska has a rich history of dog mushing because they relied on them to travel. Western Alaskans (Yup’ik and Inupiaq) usedseal poke bagsto carry seal blubber and oil.
Rhoda Stertzer was recently featured in a video about the Native American Indian Center of Central Ohio (NAICCO) where she shares how she stays connected to culture.
Thank you to Rhoda for sharing her mother’s story. There are so many stories like this that need to be preserved for future generations.