My daughter, Ermelina, and I had a blast making a new Fish Camp Barbie. She created the betsegh hoolaanee (qaspeq), necklace, cuffs and headband. I made the tent, cot, barrette, fish (with real fish skin), and tłaabaas (the way my late grandma taught me). It’s actually a Disney Pocahontas doll. My husband helped with the tent construction.
It’s actually a Disney Pocahontas doll. We were on a tight timeline, and wanted to get a doll with brown skin. That’s the one we found. One of my goals as I share my art, photography, and writing is to make space for sharing Athabascan and Alaska Native culture, people, ways of life and language to be represented in the mainstream. While I know there’s a lot of problematic things with Barbie, creating this is a way to reach a mainstream audience and for Alaska Native people see themselves represented.
I’m so glad we are able to give some representation to our ways of life in Alaska. This is how I grew up – being creative with what we had and making it our own. It was fun to collaborate with my family, and I’m looking forward to the next one! I love seeing creations and designs from other Alaska Native people – some with full on hide dresses and parkas.
What is an Koyukon Athabascan memorial potlatch? Generally, it is a three-day gathering to remember loved ones who have passed in the past 1-3 years. Gifts are shared with family and friends who come to the potlatch. Personal belongings are given out. Gifts can include things like traditional food, furs, hides, cloth, sleds/snowshoes, and household goods and more. Many beaded items are made and shared. Songs are made for the loved ones and sung just for those who attend.
Protocols are followed, stories/teachings are shared during speeches. Families may band together to host for those recently passed on. It takes a lot of planning, resources and coordination, so it is easier for the family to put on. It takes the whole community to host the potlatch with guests coming from all over.
On the first day, breakfast is usually prepared for visitors and the community. The whole community will cook something for the potlatch in the evening. Food is passed out the day before, and may include moose meat, fish, berries and much more. In the evening, there is a food potlatch with speeches shared. A cloth dance is held later in the evening. Bolts of fabric are tied and wrapped together in a large circle. Furs (like wolf and wolverine) are tied around. As the families sing, participants will walk/dance and shake the cloth. People also dance in the center.
On the second day, breakfast is shared again. Food is handed out during the day for the next day. The family may be doing some last-minute preparations of sewing, cooking and more. People with gather at their home to help. They may also be organizing the gifts and personal belongings to get ready for the final day. They usually put some names on the items for specific people. They host a cloth dance in the evenings. Sometimes it is followed by a violin/fiddle dance.
On the final day, breakfast is shared. The community starts cooking early. Potlatch food is the bomb.com – with a rich array of traditional foods from near and far. It is a blessing, because it is prepared with a lot of love. It takes families up to a year to prepare foods through hunting, fishing and gathering. The food potlatch is a wonderful celebration. Food is at the center and kids sit around it. Wonderful speeches are shared with loving tributes and stories. Some Elders speak and share prayers in Denaakk’e. It’s a time to be filled up – mind, body and soul.
Teetl = memorial potlatch in Denaakk’e – language of the Koyukon Athabascan peoples
“At a Koyukon village potlatch, people from near and far gather in the community ball, where a lavish assortment of food and gifts is given away, in a spirit of sharing, wholeness, and celebration.” – Late Richard K. Nelson
The Huslia Memorial Potlatch in loving memory of late Tony Sam, Sr., Francis “Chubby” Esmailka, Lillian Simon and JesCynthia David on Dec. 29, 30 & 31, 2022. Huslia also hosted an annual New Year’s Day Potlatch on Jan. 1, 2023.
Preparing for Potlatch
I interviewed my late friend and relative, Emily Gray, of Allakaket in 2014 about potlatches. She shared some wonderful memories, reflections and advice. She was an amazing mother, mentor, sister, wife, daughter, cook, sewer/beader, and culture bearer. Her family is preparing for a potlatch for her to be held this year. I wish I had more time to hear her stories. It means so much for me to share with me and now I get to share it with her family as they prepare a potlatch in her memory.
Late Emily talked about preparing for a potlatch for her Koyukuk cousin, Aggie, and for her late monther and brother. She talked about was beading slipper tops, and how they worked on beaver skin. They tanned it – scraping it until it got soft.
“Moose skin costs $2,000 for a hide. Really expensive. We have to get back to working on our own skin. A sea otter pelt is $300. A lot of money! People share. We depend on it. Brother (Shawn) goes seining for fish. Depending on time.”
In the spring, they hunt ducks and geese. They used to pluck geese and ducks all the way to the tip of the wings. They used to use it all – meat and feathers. In the fall time, the hunt moose. They share with people. The hunt caribou near hot springs. They have to go far away in February and March. Caribou don’t come around like they used to…since the pipeline was built. The store caribou – half dozen whole caribou. They would stay frozen. In winter, they trapped beaver – had lots of beaver meat. They trapped for food and furs. They set rabbit snares and caught ptarmigan.
“We used to run across the river to check snares during lunch hour. Hardly see any rabbit tracks. Don’t see our kids set snares now. Too much indoor stuff that they are doing. We have to teach them. Take the time.
“Uncle passed. He said he would bring us to Chilatna’ – 23 miles from Allakaket. It is a place to trap. I always tell my son that my dad has land back there. Hopefully, my brothers can show him where. Our Ancestors before us camped there. Late grandpa Grafton – all of them played musical instruments in camp. Spring camp at Chilatna’. When we were growing up, there were six of us. Precious grandpa. Never yelled at us. He had a big brass bed with down blankets (really warm). He used to give us fig bars. Every morning, we’d do our chores. He never complained about anything even though he must have been in pain.”
“We got white fish. My son loved it. Our diet is so different now. We used to eat rabbit soup with moose or caribou fat. Late mom used to set nets in three areas. Fish camp – all the time – 3-4 miles. We’d get fish. Springtime, they loaded eight of us to go to Old Man River. We had two nets and caught a big salmon.”
“We went berry picking – anywhere around. Blueberries and cranberries – here and there.”
She talked about the proposed Ambler Road. “We can oppose it and let them know. How do you stop big money and the state backing it? It can impact fish, caribou migration. The caribou is already impacted by the pipeline road. I am worried about great grandchildren. What are they doing to eat? The beautiful Alatna River is unspoiled and a great spawning area. We will be boxed in by a road to the south of us and to the north. How can we get food?”
“That’s what it was. We had lots of rabbits back them. Times are changing. Some birds…the Elders don’t hear anymore. Elders remember what it was like back in the day.”
“Most people are unaware of the preparation. My bro passed away in 1993. Mom passed in 2000. We had to start planning right away. Being the oldest, I wanted dad to heal. We had a potlatch in 2001. I learned how to do it by talking with aunties and uncles. It was such a blessing [to learn from them]. They told her what to look for and what to get.”
She missed her mom, Carrie, dearly. Her mom is the one who taught her a lot. Her mom, would say, “We have to do things right, the old way.”
“We started getting ready. Bought moose skin, furs. We were constantly thinking about next steps. We couldn’t just leave it and forget about it. Aunties help – it was done. My late mother was guiding me on what to do. Love and doing what Elders do – always honor loved ones. I wanted dad to heal and to remember the good times. I’m grateful and humbled by my mother and the love between mom and dad. Potlatch singing – we spoke and sang. There was a big dance. It was really awesome! I was happy that people were here with us. It was something that I couldn’t have done without aunties and uncles. Food – Georgianna Lincoln sent over 38 kings from Rampart. I’m grateful for her kindness and generosity. People came with boxes of dry meat. It was really amazing. That’s how people are…We have to help one another.”
Meaning of a Memorial Potlatch
I encourage my Memorial potlatch is a big topic to encapsulate in a brief way, but thankfully there are a lot of resources online to find out more. Potlatches protocols and traditions vary from village to village. I recently asked friends to share what potlatches meant to them. Enaa baasee’ to those who generously shared their thoughts, knowledge and stories!
“I’ve heard it used to be about the food mostly. Not too much material things. It’s healing.” – Selina Alexander
“I can’t remember my first k̲u.éex’ (potlatch) because they’ve always been part of my life. I remember as a little child they mostly took place all in the Lingít language. I said as a child that ONE DAY I would be able to speak and I would know what the elders were saying. I never imagined, after years of being an apprentice Lingít language learner, that one day myself and the other apprentices would be the only ones speaking Lingít at k̲u.éex’.
Potlatching is such a big part of many of our cultures. For me, in my own healing over the last couple of decades, I have learned that there is so much power in having human witness, and grieving publicly where your family and opposites can hold you up and hold that space for you. When I was 15, my great aunt passed away, and my mother and I traveled to Arkansas for the services. In the church the family was gathered in a separate room, away from guests. I asked why and my mother said it was so that the family could grieve in private. I was so confused. That didn’t make sense to me. It took out the balance.
To me the k̲u.éex’, or potlatch, symbolizes that our connection to our family, clan and community was so important. It was our survival. We had to live in unity and peace within our villages because we relied on one another for so much. The k̲u.éex’ is how we celebrate as a community. It is how we honor our loved ones who have passed. It celebrates our connections to one another, and our connection to earth through foods harvested and shared. So much more to say! Gunalchéesh for allowing me the space to share.” – Khaa Saayí Tláa Amanda Bremner
“I feel over Covid when we didn’t have potlatches I didn’t feel like I could move on from the loss in a healthy way like I was used to. They are hard work, but feel healing to me.” – Lisa Wade
“It was always mostly about the singing and then a little food if they had it. Everyone brought a little bit of a special food. They usually had to go out hunting every day to maintain a potlatch. It was also only held for people of great importance, and this changed as foods were easier to gain and hold for longer periods with freezers. Dad said there were times in the 30’s and 40’s when they didn’t have potlatch for a long time because so many people died. There was hardly anyone to continue hunting and fishing to host large potlatches.” – George Carlson Yaska, Jr.
“Thank you for sharing this! What I used to hear and experience about memorial potlatches. Our peoples learn how to make potlatch from Dotson’ who helped create our world. Dotson’ invited all the other animals first to hold first Potlatch & have contests. On top big mountain like Bishop Mountain. From what I hear, it’s not only to enaa baasee’ those who helped during funeral but also guests at both funeral and potlatch. Also, there’s like three worlds we’re aware of, this world, middle world and the good place. When person die, they’re spirit is in middle place for a while. Memorial Potlatch help to make it easier? To go from middle world to good place.
Potlatches were mostly about hunting, fishing, gathering best Native foods to share. Also, to give handmade and boughten gifts to people that helped at funerals, and we know everyone helps, young and old. Also, to guests from different villages. Long ago cause of lots hutlanee (taboo) to survive, it was mostly men hunt, trap, prepare skin. Women work at fish, pick berries, etc. put away foods.
Sometimes, especially long ago, not everyone have Potlatch for their young ones. Everyone was nomadic, didn’t gather or meet up often, takes lotsa country for family units to subsist in. What healthy strong family units, with perhaps Doyon person (rich), head of big family, have memorial Potlatch, smaller family units joining. They never used to have potlatches for everyone, especially babies, little ones, as their spirit not fully formed? Like that. Me and my generation didn’t go to funerals & potlatches ‘til most of us graduated high school, way it was. Elders and adults (big peoples) lead the peoples.
There’s no one set way to hold or have potlatches. Our peoples, although fixed family units and clans, each little different, individuals like. Gramma Mary said it best in agreeing ‘that’s just their way…’ placing more importance on getting along. The main thing along with your best food is making memorial songs for deceased.
Now things and foods are more in abundance than long ago, there’s Potlatch for everyone, young and old, and better transportation. It’s awesome to see and experience such sacred ceremonies continue! Just fill your heart. And by holding one, prepare people to let spirit travel finally to the good place more. Food is burned and prayers said to help do this. Also, cause the spirit still miss our earthly food. Me and Judy C. was out of high school when we first experience; they showed us how to help, our parents, grandparents and other elders.
They explained what memorial Potlatch was, how it first start, what we do now. I never forgot that, what they said. It was Potlatch for cuz Dan Huntington and others. We really missed him bad…that’s all I heard, from our Elders…it was to honor the deceased & help them on their spirit way & thank each other for helping the families in their grief of losing a family member.
Oh yes, they also talked about Potlatch speeches, another important part of memorial Potlatch. Like the memorial songs, it says good about that person and how they will miss that person and say and sing what it was that person was and did for their family and peoples. A mourning song, how they will feel and experience such a great family/friend loss.
Also, like men, at Potlatch used be in charge of meats, soups, bear fat. Women’s, other foods. Native foods have spirits, how they’re to be treated with much respect as possible. All foods really. I still remember Valerie Sam, so young and small! Made speech at Grandpa Chief Henry funeral Potlatch…everyone sure clapped for her, she knew to respect! All those older Elders told us, we were so happy to hear, it made it all more bearable cos we had hard time when Dan passed, my childhood playmate and cuz and Judy’s brother.” – Justine “DeeDee” Attla
“One of the most important part that I learned was that this is the most peaceful time that you feel when you get together with you love ones to see, gather, cook for your loved one who pass is one of the most healthy way to help you with grief because all the time you are doing this you have them in your thoughts and heart remembering all the wonderful times you spent together and it will always stay with you. I am always humbled when I am there at the potlatch. Our villages have the best of traditions. Enaa basee’ for all who shared.” – Audrey Armstrong
“I love Potlatches, visit and work aside all your family and friends.” – Thelma Nicholia
“I had a dream last night that may shed some light on what some of meaning of the potlatch hold. I dreamt of my late mom. We were at the community hall. She was in a wheelchair, but I felt she had returned from somewhere and we were preparing for a potlatch at the hall. The hall had running water though. I was sharing with mom and an aunt what we were planning for the potlatch in terms of Denaakke’. Lots going on. I could feel the swirling energy force. Someone tapped mom on the shoulder and of course they had to love up one another as we do. I was standing there waiting to finish my story, but it was busy. Behind me, there appeared to be a flock (group) of younger generation of people to hug mom. I felt the pressure from their energy force. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen there were people who had passed, washing dishes and cleaning. They were helping with the potlatch also. Personal note. I believe the veil is thin between the two worlds during this sacred ceremony. The younger generation of people waiting to give mom a hug? The potlatch is a time to give those for whom potlatch is being held for, that one last hug & words of love. LOVE.” – Sonia Vent
“I was told their spirit will finally lay down and rest.” – Morris Lynus
“Potlatch is a means of closure for our loved ones, the final goodbye. It’s healing for your spiritual, emotional, mental and physical health, the ultimate wellness. For me, losing a loved one is the single most painful event I’ll ever experience in my life, so it’s a blessing that our Ancestor’s allowed us to grieve in this big, monumental way. It’s more than just a gathering, it’s a huge event where our entire people work in unison as one.
Unity is healing in itself, and the components of eating, singing, dancing and giving is hugely healing. I love the unison, I love that Potlatch is taxing to prepare for but it doesn’t feel like hard work because it’s so satisfying and everyone works together.
I honestly don’t think the actually traditionally changed so much, but the world around us had changed a lot, like prices of everything changed. Prices for fur, prices for Potlatch gifts, prices for airline tickets and gas has changed. But on the other hand, we have the internet to be in touch with others planning the Potlatch, ordering Potlatch items at the tip of your fingers tips, ideas, instruction and how to. Also one think that changed is having Potlatch at the hall to bigger buildings here in Huslia, like the gym or multipurpose building.
I’ve been going all of my life. But the first one I really learned and participated in was my late mom, Traci’s. The first thing that comes to mind when I think of the first Potlatch memories is how many singers there were and how strong and powerful their voices would carry across our little hall and even outside. Also, how powerful and in tune each step is while walking around with the cloth, like drums.” – Dolly Simon
What a treasure to hear everyone’s thoughts, reflections, stories and insights about memorial potlatches. I am blown away by the deep meaning and huge act of love that a potlatch represents. Enaa baasee’ to everyone who shared. Please feel free to share more.
The main character’s name is Steven, in honor of my late great uncle Steven Attla of Huslia. Steven visits his Setsoo and Setseye (Grandma and Grandpa in Denaakk’e) to go to fish camp. I got to share some Denaakk’e (language of Koyukon Athabascan people) words. Steven learns how to work on fish and learns about Athabascan values. It is great to see the story come to life with beautiful illustrations by Rhonda Shelford Jansen (Unangax̂/Aleut).
It is meant for educational institutions, so it’s not available for individual purchase. However, it can be purchased in six packs. Please feel free to share with head start programs, day cares, schools and families! Enaa baasee’!
Enaa baasee’ to Benchmark Education for the privilege to share a little bit about Koyukon Athabascan life, culture and language. Thank you to Tricia Brown for connecting me with them and for mentoring me.
Adeline Peter Raboff (Gwich’in/Koyukon Athabascan) submitted the following writing of research of the Northern Koyukon peoples. If you recall, she shared about an amazing map she helped to develop (https://athabascanwoman.com/?p=4914). Please reach out to the Athabascan Woman blog if you would like to connect with her about her extensive research.
The story of the Northern Koyukon circa 1820-1900: A Very Concise Summary
By Adeline Peter Raboff, 2021
There were two known groups of Northern Koyukon along the upper Noatak and Kobuk,Rivers; the Nendaaghe Hut’aane and the Saakił Hut’aane Koyukon. These groups no longer exist as communities.
The Northern Koyukon or some other early group went seasonally, through archeological evidence, to the upper Noatak River as early as 6,000 years ago, after the beginning of deglaciation in the area about 10,000 before present. Some of these early archaeological sites are associated with Iñupiat communities some with Athabascan communities. However permanent residence did not occur until somewhere in the 12th or 13th centuries.
From all that I can gather most of the communities in the 1800s were multilingual, they spoke their own languages and dialect variations, plus neighboring language communities. At least enough to have trade relationships. There is no reason not to expect a few people to know upwards of four languages. Neighboring communities, whether Iñupiat or Athabascan were genetically related, both in the past and in the present.
The introduction of European trade goods as early as the mid-1600s in the region and especially after 1800 led to internal warfare and feuding. As a result, many people died, and others became refugees. This caused major shifts within each community, and region. Fur trade, in particular, brought on major shifts in diet. For instance, people ate more beaver and muskrat meat than they ordinarily would have, and their diet was not as varied during certain months.
Extraordinary volcanic activity in the South Pacific rim during the 1700s, 1800s, and early 1900s led to a period of cooler weather particularly in the Upper Noatak and surrounding coastal plains. The eruption of Tomboro, a volcano, in Indonesia in 1815 led to a worldwide mini-ice age. The effects of Tomboro lingered worldwide for a period of three years. Then closer to home, Mt. Wrangell erupted circa 1819. This stressed not only the people, but the animals and led to scarcity especially in the upper Noatak River valley. Later the eruption of Krakatoa in 1883 further influenced movements in the region and a major caribou herd crash.
Since the Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon of the upper Noatak were surrounded north and west by Iñupiat communities, and interrupted a direct line of trade to the Iñupiat communities to the north and east, they were already in a vulnerable, coveted position. Hence the cooler conditions that led to scarcity and want in the region erupted into an orchestrated plan of removal and ousting of the Koyukon. Ernest S. Burch, Jr., estimates through genealogies, that this could have started as early as the 1790s, but no later than 1820. Using similar information and taking into account the volcanic eruption of Tomboro and Mt. Wrangell, I would concur.
Nendaaghe communities on the open tundra along the foothills of the Brooks Range were the most vulnerable. Consequences of the eruption of Tamboro, in April 1815, caused winter to come in the middle of summer. Surviving people and whole families fled both south and eastward across the high coastal plains. Keeping in mind that the Nendaaghe were exclusively and expertly caribou hunters of the Brooks Range, people who were related through marriage and trade partnerships went eastward into Di’hąįį, Neets’ąįį, Vuntut, and Dagoo Gwich’in territories. They were comfortable in the high treeless tundra.
Immediately the three small Iñupiat groups along the Kuukpik (Colville) moved further up the tributaries they generally occupied at lower open tundra regions. In other words, moving southward into the Brooks Range.
The Nendaaghe who occupied the upper Noatak proper stayed on for a while longer, but eventually they moved in with their upper Kobuk relatives, the Saakił Hut’aane Koyukon. Then began the raids of attrition. People walked remarkable distances to conduct these raids. Through the Iñupiat stories of the region, at least one raid took place just south of Tigara (Pt. Hope) a minimally 500-mile round trip on foot.
After many years of hosting their warring relatives, the Saakił Hut’aane finally began to see the futility of these raids. Furthermore, all these raids and counter raids prevented good relationships with their Iñupiat neighbors and the free movement to hunt on the open tundra.
Finally, after the smallpox epidemic of 1838, which caused widespread death and destruction of whole communities along the lower Yukon and to a limited extent, the upper Kobuk, the Saakił Hut’aane had had enough. The devastation of this illness spread fear and uncertainty, and coupled with the exhaustion of chronic warfare, the Saakił Hut’aane decided to eject the Nendaaghe from their midst.
During this internal conflict, the Nendaaghe had the upper hand and would have defeated the Saakił, if it had not been for the last-minute appeal to their down river Akunigmiut Iñupiat relatives. They came up the river, and the Nendaaghe were defeated and forced to flee. They fled eastward into Too Loghe Hut’aane country which includes the present day Anaktuvuk Pass and further into Di’hąįį Gwich’in territory (Upper Koyukuk River).
The price for this assistance was that the Saakił Hut’aane had two choices, they could either become Iñupiat by the adoption of language and customs or they could leave the upper Kobuk for good. One can only guess at how these decisions were reached, but a large number with mostly Iñupiat relatives stayed in the upper Kobuk and became known as the Kuuvaum Kaŋiaġmuit Iñupiat and the Itqiliagruitch (presently Tinaaq).
The Nendaaghe followed their relatives across the Brooks Range, moving eastward. The refugee Saakił moved in two stages southward, the first group went to the north side of the Yukon River between the Koyukuk River and the Tozitna. The last group moved first into the region of the Melozitna River, and then in the late 1860s to the Dall River and the area of Stevens Village.
The Saakił Hut’aane found the Yukon River largely deserted, however they were not the only Koyukon group fleeing south and east due to Iñupiat incursion, there were also the Nozaat No’ Hut’aane of the upper Selawik River. The remaining Koyukon groups near the mouth of the Koyukon and lower down the Yukon, did not look kindly on these moves. This led to conflict in the region. Hopefully this will become someone else’s story of the region.
Gradually Saakił Hut’aane intermarried, and territories and dialects got adapted in the region, except for the Stevens Village dialect which remains closest to the original Saakił Hut’aane dialect of the upper Kobuk, since the Taghe Chox Xu’taana territory they entered was totally deserted. This group was the last to leave the Kobuk, making genealogy tracing more transparent between upper Kobuk and Stevens Village communities.
This left one larger group of Northern Koyukon in the Too Loghe territory, made up of surviving Nendaaghe with their Saakił relatives, and the Too Loghe Hut’aane. All three groups were related by marriage. By the mid-1840s they were struggling to survive, and the Iñupiat came upon a poorly fed group in the vicinity of present-day Chandler Lake.
Meanwhile the Kaniŋiq, Killiq, and Qaŋmaliq Iñupiat of the upper Kuukpik (Colville) pushed south in stages. By 1846 the remnants of the Nendaaghe and Too Loghe Hu’taane are found starving by Iñupiat men who tell them to move out of the area. Finally in circa 1846 the Kaniŋiq, Killiq, and Qaŋmaliq attack in force at Anaktuvuk Pass and chase out the survivors. This group later became known as the Nunamiut.
The late Simon Panniaq Panniak was the main source for this information.
Too Loghe and Nendaaghe flee south into the upper Koyukuk River along the South Fork right into the arms of Ditsiigiitł’uu Drit Khehkwaii the last Di’hąįį Gwich’in leader. Drit, incidentally, was no by-stander, he had been involved with these conflicts from the beginning, both as a mercenary and as one who initiated aggression. He took in all the Nendaaghe Hut’aane refugees, who adopted the Di’hąįį Gwich’in language and cultural ways. The Too Loghe traveled some ways down the Koyukuk, but stayed in the region, retaining their Koyukon language and identity. The Nendaaghe and Saakił Hut’aane Koyukon slide into historical obscurity.
Conflicts continued not only on the Koyukuk, but along the Yukon River in the vicinity of Ch’ataanjik (present-day Ray River). Ditsiigiitł’uu wanted a toe-hold along the Yukon River, but that never happened in his lifetime. His son or younger brother Gook’ahtii was at the Ray River until he was killed just before 1850. In 1851, Ditsiigiitł’uu Drit Khehkwaii was probably the Gwich’in leader who attacked Dobenhdaatltonh Denh a community northeast of present-day Allakaket. He brought back a number of women and child captives, whom he married off and raised within the Gwich’in territory.
All the Nendaaghe, Saakił, and Too Loghe descendants who became Gwich’in over the years no longer identified as Koyukon, but as Di’hąįį, Neets’ąįį, Draanjik, Vuntut, and Dagoo Gwich’in. By the first and second generation most never knew their forefathers were ever Koyukon.
By this time, 1847, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) fur traders were established in Fort Yukon. Shahnyaati’ Khehkwaii, a Tanacross refugee who came into the Yukon Flats sometime in the late 1830s, was firmly established as a Deenduu Gwich’in Khehkwaii and as middleman to every community in every direction of the fort.
There was very little movement in or out of the Yukon Flats that Shahnyaati’ did not condone.
After the death of Distiigiitł’uu Khehkwaii in 1855, the Di’hąįį Gwich’in gradually moved onto the Neets’ąįį and Draanjik Gwich’in estates through intermarriage. The Neets’ąįį Gwich’in estate was so large that earlier refugees were living in the Khiinjik (Sheenjik) valley to the Colleen River. The last groups moved to the headwaters and mouth of Teedriinjik along the Yukon River.
The Too Loghe Hut’aane Koyukon took over the former Di’hąįį Gwich’in lands in the Koyukuk River Valley, but retained their Koyukon identity. Later in the early 20th century they moved to Allakaket and further down the Koyukuk River.
It was during this time period that the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in established a powerful center for learning, not in the ABC sense, but in terms of cultural knowledge and the oral transmittal thereof to the younger generation. It became established because it was in a remote location, it was not along the main Yukon River thoroughfare, and the community although self-identified as Gwich’in people, were, although intermarried into the Gwich’in community, mostly Northern Koyukon in heritage.
This isolation contributed to their ability to survive various rounds of epidemic diseases which decimated other regions. Of course, epidemics did reach them, but not with the same impact.
Their knowledge of caribou, their habits, and how to harvest them served them well, it guaranteed their ability to remain independent of the severe harassment, and gross belittlement that other groups experienced more frequently. Their services were valued and needed.
Along with the traders came organized European religion. Enter Robert McDonald of the Anglican Church. Both the HBC traders and the clergy made efforts to learn local languages. It was the mission of McDonald to translate the Christian bible, the common prayer book, and hymns into Gwich’in. It was a monumental task which took him most of his life. He married a Gwich’in woman.
Starting in 1863, McDonald lived first in Fort Yukon, then after 1867 and the purchase of Alaska, in Old and New Rampart along the Porcupine River, and finally at Fort McPherson, NWT, Canada. This is very important, because the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in leaders wanted the young men to study this new religion, and not only that, but to learn to read and write. Wherever Robert McDonald went there was at least one Neets’ąįį Gwich’in man learning from him at his feet. By the turn of the century Gwich’in men were communicating with each other through the written word.
Then 1865 brought the scarlet fever which traversed the whole of the HBC trade route and died near the lower Ramparts of the Yukon River. All the indigenous porters died, all the young men for miles were gone. The HBC was desperate for porters since they had to get their furs to markets in the east coast. Shahnyaati’ suggested that the Neets’ąįį, Di’hąįį and Draanjik Gwich’in would make great porters, and recruited all the strong young men available. These 1st generation Gwich’in men portaged for the HBC for a period of ten years, at least until 1876. They travelled the length of the trade route, from Yellow Knife to the head waters of the Laird River, Peace, and Athabasca rivers which end in the Canadian Rockies in British Columbia.
It was during this period that 1st generation Gwich’in men (the Nendaaghe Hut’aane Koyukon) literally repopulated may communities along the HBC trade route. In 1874, an HBC trader even reported on how the people from the West were repopulating the MacKenzie River Delta. Between my cousins and I, we have numerous 4th and 5th cousins in locations all over Canada and as far south as a family in Missouri, who trace their Native American ancestry to a Blackfoot woman.
In the 1880s the area wide crash of caribou herds in the Western Brooks Range also effected the Porcupine Caribou herd in the Eastern Brooks Range. Once again there were a series of volcanic eruptions, including Krakatoa (1883), in Russia, Iceland, Java, and Alaska which caused weather changes. It was a period of scarcity in which everyone was vulnerable.
A large number of Iñupiat families from Northwest Alaska moved eastward to the MacKenzie River Delta and southward. It is no wonder that my cousins and I, are related in the 4th and 5th generations to people in the upper Kobuk and to the people on the MacKenzie Delta, and the lower Yukon River.
Northern Gwich’in families migrated to the Yukon and MacKenzie rivers at least on a seasonal basis and also within Gwich’in regional territories. They were undernourished and in desperate straits. It was during this period that many people became Christianized. Food, medication, and more lucrative trade was offered to people who professed to be Christians, it became a matter of economic advantage.
Meanwhile the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in struggled to maintain their school of learning, until finally in 1898, famine struck most of Northern Alaska, there was no choice, but to leave. Many family members died. Change in the weather followed the eruption of Mt. Mayon in the Philippines, in 1897.
The community leaders with operational caribou corrals were the last to leave.
All the former HBC porters who were able to speak some English and were familiar with the ways of the influx of explorers, miners, trappers, traders, and had some knowledge of pioneer life in general moved to the Yukon River to make a living. They made sleds, warm clothing, snowshoes, and they chopped wood, ran errands between mining sites and local towns, they hauled goods and groceries, and even delivered gold dust. In short anything to feed themselves and their surviving family members.
At this time the Neets’ąįį Gwich’in were not used to being among so many Euro-Americans, especially men who treated them without regard to their true value as expert woodsmen and expert guides of the region. Instead, the Gwich’in experienced their first taste of virulent biological hatred.
Those tribal members who did not speak English found it harder to survive along the Yukon River, and they could not tolerate the behavior of the newcomers. They went back north, and also eastward into Canada.
All the knowledge of the cultural school was dispersed, south and east. Fragments of information remained for years here and there, with certain families and small groups.
The story of the Northern Koyukon did not die. It has survived through oral tradition and the will of a constantly adapting community. It has survived through genealogies and a cosmology based in knowledge of navigation through the stars.
However, if you live among a community of professional and amateur linguists, historians, and anthropologists, you soon realize that it’s one thing to tell a phenomenal story and quite another to prove it.
Enaa baasee’, Adeline, for sharing your research on the Northern Koyukon and peoples in northern Alaska. Sometimes people reach out to me to tell me we are 3rd, 4th or 5th cousins, and Adeline’s research helps me to see where those genealogical connections may come from. Please reach out to the Athabascan Woman Blog if you would like to be connected with Adeline and to learn more about her extensive research.
I heard about a moosehide tanning camp in the Ahtna region in September. Jessica “Nanenełnaan” Denny (Ahtna) hosted a moosehide tanning camp with about 13 people in September. I had to find out more about it, so I reached out to Jessica. I admire how Jessica and her network are living and loving our ways of life.
Jessica is the owner of Alaska Leadership Group, a small for-profit organization that creates community and space for sharing traditional knowledge. Check out the interview with Jessica where she shares about how the camp came to be, her influences like Grandma Lena Charlie, how much learning and healing happened at the camp, future plans and much more!
It was amazing to see how everyone came together to either support the camp or attending. They built a strong cohort who plan to return next year. Jessica said, “We are all co-creators of this.” Grandma Lena Charlie told them, ‘If I am still here – I want you to come back.’
Jessica gave some great advice to those who may be considering starting a moosehide tanning camp. She recommends reaching out to see who might be available in your community to teach and share. Ask about how moosehide tanning was practiced in your area. Each community has access to resources. Get a general understanding of tanning a hide and build a foundation. She says there are lots of resources online.
*Cohort – BUILDING A COMMUNITY*
Enaa baasee’ Jessica for sharing about the moosehide tanning camp and building a community. It is inspiring to see community doers stepping up to keep our cultures and traditions alive. I see it is much more than just tanning a hide. I’m sure this rich experience will carry the cohort far into the future in more ways than one.