Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Early Days of Christmas in Interior Alaska

Angela Gonzalez at the Huslia Head Start in 1978
Angela Gonzalez at the Huslia Head Start in 1978

My cousin, Jo Derendoff, posed a question on Facebook recently. She asked, “What are your favorite memories about Christmas when you were a child?” I started thinking about my first Christmases and what it was like in the villages during this time of year.

Jo shared her favorite memories:  “I loved looking at the Christmas tree while going to sleep. It was filled with bright lights. I remember how excited we were and how we couldn’t sleep. We used to say we were going to stay up all night, but only lasted until midnight. Presents weren’t that important, and everyone would probably get one a piece.”

I loved hearing Jo’s friends and family respond about their favorite Christmas memories, like stringing popcorn, scheming about ways to peek at presents and going to the community hall to see Santa. I have fond memories of Christmas time spent in Huslia, Nome and Bettles.

Josephine Semaken enjoyed making gingerbread men with her grandchildren in Anchorage. Courtesy photo
Josephine Semaken enjoyed making gingerbread men with her grandchildren in Anchorage. Courtesy photo

I spoke with Josephine Semaken, an elder who is originally from Koyukuk, about her earliest memories of Christmas time. She spent winters in a winter camp about 50 miles up the Koyukuk River from Koyukuk, Alaska. Each fall, Josephine’s parents, Sanders and Evelyn Cleaver, hooked up a dog team and brought all of their kids to winter camp. The kids were tied down so they wouldn’t fall out of the sled. Josephine remember seeing heads popping out of the sleds. Josephine says, “Those were the best years of my life.”

People had small cabins. Josephine remembers sliding down the side of the roof of the cabin. The cabins were small and there was a lot of snow. They survived by trapping and snaring. All of the kids were bundled up whenever they went out to check the traps and snares. They didn’t have snow machines at that time. A lot of people from Koyukuk lived in winter camps.

Josephine remembers it was like a little village in that area. They lived in winter camps until Josephine was about 5 years, about the time when it was time for them to go to school. They had to move to town to attend school.

One of Josephine’s first memories was when a plane landed on skis at their camp. The pilot said, “Your grandpa Haymen Henry sent this plane for you.” It was the first time Josephine and her brother, Joe, flew on a plane. Josephine’s grandfather, Louie Cleaver, taught her Denaakk’e (Koyukon Athabascan). He only spoke to her in Koyukon until he died when she was about five years old.

Josephine remembers that she and her siblings always got new mukluks, mitts, hats and other clothes for Christmas. Her mother sewed all of their clothes, including rabbit and beaver skin parkas. Josephine remembers her mom sewing by cool oil lamp or candle at night. They had a blaze lamp, but they used it very sparingly to save oil.

Once Josephine was in grade school, they spent winters and Christmases in Koyukuk. She remembers the Christmas programs at the school. She also remembers Christmas carolers singing by all of the houses. Nulato is about 17 miles from Koyukuk. She remembers everyone going by dog sled to attend midnight mass in Nulato.

Josephine said everyone went to visit each other on Christmas morning. They would drink coffee or tea. For Christmas dinner, Josephine remembers cooking a moose meat roast in a little Yukon stove. There was also a little oven on the top for making cakes and bread. They also had jello and dry goods…foods that didn’t spoil

Josephine and her husband, Harold Semaken, had eight children. One of her sons, Frank Ambrose, died a few years ago. Now Josephine spends Christmases with friends and relatives all over. She enjoys spending time with her grandchildren.

Josephine Semaken stands near her Christmas tree in Anchorage. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Josephine Semaken stands near her Christmas tree in Anchorage. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

In 1985, Josephine recorded songs during midnight mass in Galena. One of her favorite Christmas songs is called, Christ Was Born on Christmas Day. She recorded it below. Vincent Yaska and Sanders Cleaver were playing violin and Billy Demoski was playing guitar that year. Archie Thurmond can be heard singing. This is Josephine’s personal recording.

I enjoyed sitting with Josephine and listening to stories from the early days. She told me about stick dances, fishing and her career as a substance abuse counselor. While Jo Derendoff and Josephine Semaken lived in a different generation, it is nice to see that they both value the same things, like spending time with each other and honoring traditions. Thank you to the two Jo’s!

Merry Christmas!