Alaska Native culture

Athabascan Friend and Mentor

Irene Henry and late Lydia Simon playing cards in Bettles in the early 1990's. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Irene Henry and late Lydia Simon playing cards in Bettles in the early 1990’s. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I was talking to my mom, Eleanor Yatlin, recently about my late Grandma Lydia Simon. She mentioned that Millie Moses of Allakaket was my late grandmother’s siwogilaah. Siwogilaah means special friend or mentor in Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan). My aunt Irene Henry of Allakaket says, “It’s like a very, best friend ever.” Siwogilaah friendships are sometimes made because the parents or grandparents were friends. Another way this friendship can be formed is if someone gives a special gift. It could have also started because you were there in a time of need.

In Denaakk’e, siwogilaah is pronounced “se wo gil agh”. It means special friend or mentor.

Siwogilaah is different from gganaa’, which is the Denaakk’e word for friend.

Mom said that Helen Attla of Hughes was also a siwogilaah to my late grandma. I think Helen tanned a moose skin for her. The late Laura Mark of Huslia was a siwogilaah to my mother. Mom said, “Late Laura taught me how to tan beaver skin and cook.” Mom was encouraged to go to late Laura to ask her advice. It was great for my mom to depend on someone and to learn how to do things.

I asked my Irene Henry of Allakaket about the subject. Irene is my auntie. I always learn something when I talk to her and I often ask her advice on how to properly pronounce Denaakk’e words. Irene says she was really close to a lot to elders, especially late Mary Vent. Her mom and late Mary were close friends. Whenever there was an event going on, Irene would visit late Mary. Irene says, “One time we hung out together, the whole time we were in Hughes during a potlatch.”

Aunt Irene and I talked about common Athabascan beliefs and traditions still in use today. Some common Denaakk’e words are being used today, like basee’ (thank you) and hutlaanee (taboo). Irene says, “All the kids around here say anas baaba if they drop food. It is hutlanee for us to waste food.” I am not sure the tradition of siwogilaah is being continued as much as it was 30 years ago.

Millie Moses. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Millie Moses. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Millie Moses says she has two siwogilaah. The first was the late Lydia Simon of Huslia. The second one is Eliza Jones of Koyukuk. Late Lydia Simon was a like a grandmother to Millie. Late Lydia told Millie she reminded her of her late grandmother Cesa. Late Lydia once gifted Millie with a silver ladle and beaded slippers. Millie visited late Lydia whenever they were in the same places together. During potlatches or cover dishes, Millie made it a point to make sure late Lydia got some food and would deliver it if needed.

Years ago, Millie tanned a moose skin. At the time, Eliza Jones was teaching Denaakke’ in Allakaket. Millie gifted Eliza with a part of the tanned skin. That was the only moose skin Millie ever tanned, and she said giving it to Eliza was one of the best things she has ever done. Eliza was touched by the gift. Since then, Millie and Eliza have been special friends. Eliza has gifted Millie with salmon (jarred and smoked). Millie makes a point to visit Eliza whenever they are in the same place.

I don’t know of too many younger people who are continuing this tradition of having a siwogilaah, but I know special friendships continue. My sister, Sheri, has good friends that she considers siwogilaah. The younger generation can certainly benefit from this type of friendship. It is really about survival and friendship. I’m still learning what it means.

What siwogilagh means to Sharon Yatlin. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
What siwogilagh means to Sharon Yatlin. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
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4 thoughts on “Athabascan Friend and Mentor”

  1. What an interesting concept! English is so imprecise. I never got to grow up with anyone throughout my life, not even my two sisters. But I do have some friends who are closer than friends and we call each heart sisters. My aunt is only 10 years older than me and she teaches me and loves me; now she teaches Doug too. Thanks Angela – great post!
    (On my own blog, I am pausing until I have more time to really think on what I want. I realized I want to eventually write a book – how bout you?)

    1. Thank you for your comment Amy! It was great to learn more about this special connection between people. I need to learn more to see if this type of relationship exists between men too or if it is called something else.

      Great to hear that you are thinking of writing a book. Writing your blog will help to develop ideas and practice the art form of writing. I’m excited about reading more from your blog. Please let me know if I can offer any type of advice or anything.

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