Alaska Native culture

Koyukon Athabascan Memorial Potlatch

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. 

Pearl Henry speaking at memorial potlatch in Huslia in 2021

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.

Cloth dance at a memorial potlatch in Huslia in 2021

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 – 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. 

Potlatch giveaway at a memorial potlatch in Huslia in 2021

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

Late Emily Gray beading at her home in Allakaket

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.”

Late Emily Gray showing some of hand made parkas

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.”

Late Emily Gray with a fur hat

“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

My relatives are cutting a moose hide at a potlatch during the giveaway. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My relatives are cutting a moose hide at a potlatch during the giveaway. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

“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.