Athabascan people of the interior work on fences for their loved ones on the first Memorial Day after the year they passed on. It’s the one day of the year when people gather at the graveyard (outside of a funeral). There is a town picnic. I am not sure how far back the tradition goes, but it has been going in all of my life. The traditions varies by village.
Family gathers by grave sites of their loved ones. People visit other sites and look at fences. It is a time to reminisce and tell stories. It is always a good way to find out more about my family tree and learn about history.
I’ve learned about relatives who were soldiers and fought overseas in various wars. They usually have a nice headstone and maybe a flag and pole in addition to a fence. My late Grandma Lydia taught my mom to burn a little bit of food as an offering and to say a prayer in Athabascan.
Some families may have head stones ordered, but all the sites usually have a fence. It takes a few days for the community to build and paint the fences. Some grave sites have little houses built on top, like the ones in the picture above. The community will come together in someone’s yard or by the community hall. There is usually some snacks and coffee and tea available. Community members gather to support each other. It is usually a pretty hard time for the family of who have lost loved ones. One year, there might be one or two fences that are built, and other years there might be none.
People move to the land where Huslia is in the 1950’s. The people of Huslia were mostly nomadic before that, moving from summer and winter camps. They also had a community, called Cut Off. There was a big flood that wiped out the homes, so people had to move to higher grounds. Those higher grounds are in Huslia.
There were two grave sites in Huslia. One was located on Huslia’s high cut banks along the Koyukuk River. It unfortunately eroded over the years. There is now another site located further back and down the road in Huslia.
This is one way of paying respects to loved ones who have passed on. The next step may be a traditional memorial potlatch held at a later date.
The community will spend Memorial Day remembering their loved ones and spend time together. They will also clean up around the whole graveyard. Families place flowers at the grave sites. Overall, it is a somber time, but also a time to listen to stories and think of the happy times too. I don’t get to go to Huslia that often for Memorial Day, but I think about family during this time. I also use the time to reminisce about my family and friends who have passed on.
While not all Alaskans are traditional philanthropic givers of funds, many give things in a lot of other ways. I know when Alaska Natives hunt and fish, they often supporting their immediate and extended family. The hunters brave the often inclement weather and large wilderness areas. There is a large non-cash economy in many villages.
There have been many recent fundraisers in the Alaska to help those in need. It struck me how wonderful it is that we come together as a community to help each other to raise funds, pray and support each other.
We help each other in times of need, like an illness or the passing of loved ones. They hold fundraisers at community halls. Often times in a search and rescue operation, surrounding villages will show up to help in the efforts.
It touches my heart to see people giving and sharing to help their neighbors. Recently, in my hometown of Huslia, the community experienced a cold snap of temperatures from -50 to -70 Fahrenheit. Thankfully, it has been warming up, but they had a pretty cold January.
The extreme temperatures have caused heating fuel to gel up, and heaters quit working as a result. People have been running their wood stoves in addition to the monitors and Toyostoves. Flights were delayed because it was too cold to fly. People were having trouble starting their snow machines, and haven’t been able to get fire wood as a result.The Huslia Tribal Council helped by fixing monitors and/or Toyostoves if they are not working. They also covered up fuel tanks and lines with snow to insulate it to prevent gelling.
Volunteers donated and cut wood for those who needed it. Volunteers tore down an old church mission, cut up the wood and distributed it around town. The community really came together to help each other for basic survival. It is warming up, and people will now be able to get wood. Many people are expecting to have a pretty high fuel bill for January. KTUU, Channel 2 did a story on the cold snap: Extreme Cold in Rural Alaska Tests Limits.
This type of giving is not tax deductible or may not be defined as philanthropic giving, but it is giving and sharing. My parents often give their first catches of the season to an Elder, like the first salmon or goose. There are hunters who will hunt and fish for an Elder or someone who cannot go out hunting. We are truly rich in traditional ways of life, knowledge, cultures and values.
When you are raising your kids, you want to teach them your values. Sometimes, you are not sure if they are learning from you and picking up on your actions. Sometimes they pick up on are some of your worst habits. My seven year old daughter had a school project where she had to draw pictures of her cultural background. My husband shared information about El Salvador culture, and I shared information about Athabascan and Alaska Native culture. The teacher put it together like a quilt.
Recently, she told me about a teacher at school telling the kids that eating meat will keep their skin healthy. She said, “I thought in my head, ‘I already eat meat. I’m Athabascan!‘” It made me happy to realize she is picking up on things that we are teaching her, especially about culture. I always thought it was difficult to explain Athabascan culture in a short amount of time. However, I think if you start answering a few basic questions, it can be done. What do they like to do, wear and eat?
Here is one square about the Athabascan culture: “They make badzahoolan to wear. Here are the three words in Athabascan (Indian): edzoo = brrr; nedaa’ = give it to me; naa’ = here; and kkaa’ = get away.” Bets’egh hoolaanee are the equivalent of a qaspeq or summer parka that may Alaska Natives wear. Bets’egh hoolaanee usually have hoods and are made of quilting fabric. The hoods help to protect you from pesky mosquitos and gnats.
[Note: Although, I know a lot of words in Koyukon Athabascan, I do not speak or write it fluently. Please excuse my misspellings. Even among the Koyukon Athabascan language, there are slight differences between communities. Someday, it would be great to learn to speak and write fluently in Koyukon Athabascan.]
In another square, she drew pictures of what kinds of food Athabascans eat. We like to eat smoked salmon, moose soup, ducks and berries. We prepare salmon in many different ways. We smoke and dry it and store it for the winter. We bake it or fry it. Sometimes, we dry it half way, then bake it. Yummy! After we smoke it, we also jar it. We make salmon spread out of it.
We prepare and cook ducks much like you would prepare a chicken. We smoke and dry it sometimes. We bake it, fry it and make soup out of it.
There are many ways we prepare and eat moose meat. Interior Athabascans smoke the meat, cure it, and cut up and put in the freezer. We also make moose jerky, also known as dry meat. Depending on the cut of meat, it is cooked in different ways. We make ground meat out of some of it. We bake it, fry it, roast it, barbecue it and boil it (stew/soup). I feel like Forest Gump when I explain the different ways to prepare and eat moose meat. 🙂
In another square, my daughter drew a boat, “They like to drive boats on the river.” When we go home, we go to camp by boat about 12 miles below Huslia on the Koyukuk River. The main transportation source in many rural Alaskan communities are boats and ATVs (four-wheelers or snow machines).
Teaching Athabascan values and traditions can be done, despite the changing times. We didn’t have metal boats and motors a long time ago, but we did have skin kayaks and canoes. Athabascans used to walk by snowshoes in the winter. Athabascans used to travel by dog teams in the winter. Things will keep changing, but the basic values of Athabascans will stay the same. It is possible to pass on your traditional culture in small ways over a period of time.