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.

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0 thoughts on “Learning From Elders”

  1. Great writing, there’s nothing more important we can pass on to future generations than their past. The voices of elders are powerful reminders of our history, whatever or wherever it may be. Thanks for sharing this.

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