Adeline Peter Raboff (Gwich’in/Koyukon Athabascan) reached out to me to share a new map she helped develop with the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve / National Park Service. It is a map of the estimated distribution of Inupiat, Koyukon, Gwich’in and Lower Tanana in 1800.
Adeline has worked with the Park Service to get them out to schools. She says, “My main objective in getting this out to as many Alaska Native communities as possible is to make people aware that Alaska Natives have a history that didn’t just start with the first Russians, English, or Americans who came to Alaska. Present day Alaska history books begin with our ‘discovery,’ and Alaska Natives take up about 1/26th of the history of Alaska.”
Adeline is the author many books, including Inuksuk: Northern Koyukon, Gwich’in & Lower Tanana, 1800-1901, published in 2001. Her goal is to write a book about this history in this map.
I spoke with her about the map and our history. The map represents decade of research she’s completed by reading books and stories shared by her family and the peoples of the regions.
Here are some words she shared:
“To me, this map represents the beginning of writing the history of the northern Koyukon, which does not exist.”
“The assumption is that…people just lived in one community and they don’t go back in forth. The truth of the matter is that that all the Native Alaskans traveled great distances. … They went to local trading centers, they interacted. They were multilingual.”
I feel that history books have to start changing in Alaska. We have to say, ‘Well look, we had a history.’ And it should preface the event of exploration, the event of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the event of fur traders and gold miners. … We need more perspective from the Native Alaskan experience, because we were here.”
Description of the Athabascan and Inupiat Alaska, ca 1800 map: The Athabascan and Inupiat peoples of northern Alaska two hundred years ago identified with one of four major groupings, each tied by a common culture and language. These included Inupiaq and three Athabascan languages, Koyukon, Gwich’in, and Lower Tanana. Within each language group, subgroups formed, whose members shared similar dialects and local customs. Land holdings for each were formally delineated, but conflicts, surrendering of land, moves in response to shifting caribou ranges and other natural resource fluctuations, and expansion or contraction of populations caused shifts in who lived where.
This map shows Athabascan and Inupiat lands reflecting geographic borders and cultural identities about 1800. Boundaries were generally agreed upon and were only crossed when there was a purpose. If there was unrest between groups, to avoid conflict, they were strictly adhered to. Still, there was considerable interaction across borders: some trading, some raiding, some friendly visits, some hostile. More permanent moves across lines involved cultural adaptations. New arrivals would often adopt the language of their new home, becoming multilingual. In the east, languages were predominantly Athabascan, in the west, Inupiaq.
How to get the map: Since it was mapped out and printed by the National Park Service, they give them away for free in various locations in Fairbanks and Anchorage. Reach out to Jeff Rasic at: https://www.nps.gov/articles/jeffrasic.htm
Growing up, I heard stories about how connected Koyukon Athabascan people are to the Inupiat toward the western coast. It was cool to hear this was in fact a truth she verified in her research. The other cool thing was to see the indigenous place names and peoples reflected on the map. I’m looking forward to reading the book, and I hope to see her dream come true of seeing this history reflected in history books.
Enaa baasee’, Adeline, for sharing some information and stories of the importance of this research.
I met with Annie Huntington Kriska (Koyukon Athabascan) last summer. I’ve known her for a long time but wanted to get to know more about her. She shared about her upbringing, career and how she’s doing amidst the pandemic. Annie has had an amazing journey in life and career.
Annie describes her life now as pre-retirement, stating that with her type of work, she can work for quite some time yet. She recently moved to be closer to her grandchildren. She enjoys fewer hours working, slowing down a bit and enjoying time with her grandchildren.
Annie was adopted by the late Leo and Mary Kriska of Koyukuk, Alaska. Her biological parents are the late Sidney and Angela Huntington of Galena. She had a tough life but appreciates that Leo and Mary took care of her. She was considered a tleetenhoye, the Denaakk’e word for an orphan or adopted child. She experienced trauma as a child that took a lot of self-healing to overcome. She struggled with alcoholism. Eventually, she got sober and began going to church.
As a child, Annie found solace in reading. She said, “I used to read with a flashlight under my sleeping bag.” She thought she wanted to be a teacher but discovered a love for math in high school. She went to college for an accounting degree, but her career took her on a different path – all related to teaching and coaching.
Annie had about 15 jobs in her career, focusing mainly on program development, grant writing and management, business development, strategic planning, mentoring and consulting. She claimed to hold only one job longer than three years because she always focused on mentoring and training her replacement. Annie helped to start the tribal management program at the University of Alaska Fairbanks with the help of community advisors from around the state. Ten Alaska Natives of different regions advised her on the direction, content, and how to engrain culture into the program. She had much community and academic support to get the program finally approved and accredited. It’s a steppingstone to higher degrees, including a PhD.
Annie helped to develop and teach an indigenous knowledge curriculum for which the basis is indigenous concepts for community development. She also taught the basics of federal Indian law, grant writing and community assessment. She folded her knowledge of culture into the course work. She also helped to develop curriculum for Native charter schools and other tribal high school programs that included lessons of how to use math to build a smokehouse and how to understand fishing and hunting by understanding the science of land and water. She also stressed the importance of connections and to acknowledge our relatives and how we are related to everyone.
“There’s an ecology, insects, animals, people. We’re all connected and everything around the world. Everyone and everything is connected.” – Annie Huntington Kriska (Koyukon Athabascan)
One of Annie’s favorite memories as a four-year-old was travelling to different camps throughout the year. She would be covered up and put in the sled in winter. There were big dogs pulling a freight sled. Annie remembers looking around and listening to the sounds of the dogs, snowshoes and the clean air. They lived in a wall tent.
Annie is grateful for many life lessons and mentors/teachers throughout her life. She said, “God put certain people in my life at the right time.” She lived with her uncle and aunt, Ralph and Dorothy Perdue, in Fairbanks as a teenager. They taught her business because they were in business.
Annie shared what has been helping her to cope with the pandemic. She especially missed connecting with family, friends and community members. In the beginning, she met with family members on Zoom on Sundays. She even met new relatives on zoom. She went on lock down for the first three months. When the mandates were lifted, she spent a lot of time outside, including going on drives along the road system. She’s also learned about tapping and mindfulness.
I’ve always admired how Annie gets things done for her community. I’ve seen her volunteering at many events over the years. Annie is a doer. To me, a doer is someone who gets things done, steps up without being asked and motivates others by their action. She also doesn’t hesitate to mentor others and encourages them to reach for their goals. It makes such a big difference when you have someone like Annie believing in you.
Annie is a writer and has some ideas for writing projects she’ll focus on as she is in pre-retirement and eventually retirement. I look forward to reading her stories and learning from them. Just getting to know her in this short time has given me a glimpse into a well-lived life. Enaa baasee’ Annie for sharing a little bit of your life.
My friends, cousins and other relatives often share awesome stories on social media. Here’s a story from my cousin, Sterling DeWilde (Koyukon Athabascan) of Huslia and Fairbanks. He grew up mostly in camp outside of Huslia with his late parents, Lloyd and Amelia DeWilde. I always loved listening to my late Aunt Amelia’s stories, and I’m glad Sterling is continuing the tradition. He agreed to share his story below.
“I got my 70 hp Yamaha running and mounted on my 24’ flat-bottom Rhyancraft. It’s fully equipped with hydraulic trim and power lift. Thank you Norvin DeWilde for the lift and Ricko DeWilde for the boat ?. This was my first motor I ever owned back when I was at home on the North Fork. It has a 60 hp cowling. It hasn’t been run in over ten years. It sat in Huslia a while then I shipped it up here and haven’t looked it over since.
It needed some serious work on several electrical systems and the carburetors/linkages needed tuning. It fired up in just a few cranks and runs smooth now. I put it on my dad’s 24’ allweld after his Honda 30 hp broke down, during some of our last years on the homestead. His boat was rated for a 45 hp but handled the 70 like it was meant for it. I used to rip the 120 miles of the Huslia and North for rivers, between our camp and Huslia, in about three hours.
That narrow boat would handle the sharp turns of the skinny North Fork at full speed. Once, I drove from our camp to Huslia and back, then back to Huslia, all in the same day. Then I drove back to camp in the morning. Mom, Amelia, seemed to be pleased with me making the frequent trips. She actually helped me make excuses on a few occasion.
Even though mom wasn’t going along most of the time, I always brought mail, food stuffs, movies, and local news with me. She was real social and I think it made her feel that much more connected. I’d go on the journey for just about any ol’ reason at all. Pops was always like, ‘What, another trip? You just got here.’ But he knew mom was all for it, so he didn’t argue, so long as I covered gas and he didn’t have to fix anything.
The best trip I ever had on that river, I drove down from camp and ran some errands then loaded up the boat for the return that same day. I knew there was a full moon and a clear night coming, so I left Huslia late. About 2/3 the way up it was too dark to see, so I stopped at a well-used camp spot called Birch Hill and had a fire and made tea and chilled.
A couple hours later, the moon came out, then I took off again. The moon lit the water up like bright silver and I could read everything on the surface like I had magic goggles on. The channel stood out like a monochrome sonogram. The dark surroundings made it seem like I was racing through a galactic speedway; it was truly magnificent and utterly exhilarating.
I think that may have contributed to my love for boat racing; the very first time I hopped in “Jen Jen” with Bill Page, to be his bow-man, I was hooked. I will forever be grateful for the experiences he has showed me and the support he’s given. After dog racing, I think I would have been pretty glum, had I not had a fast summer sport to fill the void.”
Enaa baasee’ to my cousin, Sterling DeWilde, for sharing this story on the Athabascan Woman Blog!
P.S. If you would like to share a short story like this, go to the Contact page to reach me or message me on Facebook.
It’s finally here! A groundbreaking PBS Kids cartoon, Molly of Denali, premiered across the country on July 15. I have been looking forward to the show since I heard about it a couple years ago. Producers, animators, storytellers and funders teamed up with Alaska Native writers and cultural advisors to make Molly come to life.
With the support of her family and friends, Vera Starbard hosted a Molly of Denali Premiere Party in Anchorage. It was great to hear some insights on episodes she and others wrote. From what I’ve heard from friends and colleagues who have worked on the show, much thought has gone into every single detail of the show. It was great to hear kids and adults singing along to the catchy theme song! Vera asked trivia questions for adults and children. It was a fun way to celebrate the huge accomplishment of the show’s debut.
At a time when representation matters more than ever, it was great to hear words in the three cultures represented by Molly (Dena’ina Athabascan/Gwich’in/Koyukon Athabascan) in languages of Dena’ina, Dinjii Zhuh K’yaa and Denaakk’e. With repetition, kids across the nation will learn words in these Alaska Native languages. I also love listening to Molly’s voice, because I kept thinking she sounds like my relatives. I also loved seeing the mannerisms and sayings by the characters in the show, like when Aunt Midge said ‘real good’ just like our Elders.
It is awesome people of color are represented. One of the reasons I do the Athabascan Woman Blog is to change the narrative by sharing stories and perspectives of Athabascan and Alaska Native people. The writers, creators and producers of Molly of Denali are truly changing the narrative at the very beginning by reaching kids. If my friends and relatives are any indication, the show is reaching kids, adults and Elders. I love all of the details, like multiple family pictures on the walls and the beadwork on the characters’ clothing.
“My kids just watched the blueberry episode. My son Skyler said, ‘It’s cool they made a show about Natives.’ My daughter Skarlett and her friend Ava were singing along with the theme song. All three of them went to pick blueberries down the road from my house. They went 3X today. Also my son, Keenan, who’s 3 years old said he likes Molly and asked to watch Molly again. Thank goodness I recorded the series, so he can re-watch it.” – Rona Vent (Koyukon Athabascan) of Huslia and Fairbanks
“My son is so excited and has been counting the days down daily. He’s so excited that it’s about Alaska.” – Dena Sam (Iñupiaq/Koyukon Athabascan) of Alatna and Fairbanks
Episodes are packed with educational lessons reaching the hearts and minds of people. I watched a couple short episodes and it touched me to the core. I could probably go on all day about the things I love about every aspect of the show, but I want to share perspectives from my friends and relatives. Molly also vlogs during her show – super cute!
“Molly of Denali aired today on PBS!!!! A huge shout of thanks and appreciation to those of you who made this possible. Princess, you rock!!! Thanks for bringing this to AK and assembling the team you did.” – Sonta Hamilton Roach (Deg Hit’an Athabascan) of Shageluk
April Henry of Fairbanks shared: “A few months ago, we saw that Peter Pan had been brought out of the Disney vault. We popped some popcorn and bought it and sat down with our kids, eager to share with them a cartoon from our childhood. The movie had barely begun when John Darling reminded the other children, ‘Indians are cunning, but not intelligent.’
Our three-year-old Kai sat between us, eyes glued to the screen. My heart sank. My husband and I looked at each other and steadied ourselves for the tears we knew would erupt when we shut it off. But we knew that much bigger than the tears shed over a cartoon promised and taken away is the pain Indigenous children grow up with and carry into adulthood when they internalize the racism so prominent in depictions of Indigenous people in media. Kai saw children who fly, and a land where kids stay young forever, and fairy dust, and a very clear message – you are not intelligent. You are less than.
So when Kai first saw the preview for Molly of Denali, he said, ‘Hey! I think I know her. I think I’m in there!’ And he was really very excited. But I was moved to tears with gratitude. As an activist in these trying times, the victories are few and far between. But progress of this kind means so much.
In the opening scenes…they were going to a tribal hall, and told us that the grandpa had a necklace ‘like dad’s’. But shortly after that, he simply fell into this quintessential American experience that has been a staple to the majority and fully inaccessible to indigenous children until now – he watched a cartoon he could relate to.”
An episode called, Grandpa’s Drum, tackles our boarding school story. I watched it three times already and cried each time. It’s a story of triumph, speaks to honoring our cultures and traditions, and a healing song is shared. When little is taught about boarding school history in the US, I’m glad it touches on the story in a positive way. I loved the song! When you watch the episodes, they also weave in real people and stories sharing singing, dancing, life in Alaska and making aqutaq, and more. Check out a part of the episode below.
After seeing the amazing response to Grandpa’s Drum, Producer Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) shared a little bit more about working with Elder Reverend Luke Titus of Minto. “We came to Luke for his approval – that’s when we took this photo together. Dewey also teaches often in the Denaakk’e immersion classroom so that’s why he’s dressed in uniform ?. Love to our language warriors! What goodness we are capable of when we work together & hold each other up. All this guided by our Ancestors,” says Princess Daazhraii Johnson.
“Oh man how amazing it is to see them identify with a cartoon show!!! They knew the grandpa song thanks to teacher Dewey. This is huge. They love it! So thankful this is now available to them.”– Kimberly Nicholas (Koyukon Athabascan) of Kaltag and Fairbanks
“We just watched two episodes, and tears fell. Our babies will never know a time without representation of their beautiful culture shown so lovingly on TV. So much love to our amazing fam working so hard for years to make this day a reality: Princess Daazhraii Johnson, Dewey Kk’ołeyo Hoffman, Vera Starbard, Du Aaní Kawdinook Xh’unei, Rochelle Adams and everyone else involved. Quyanaqpak from this thankful mama and future ancestor.
I wish everyone would watch this, especially our elders and parents/aunties/uncles generation. I watched Grandpa’s Drum twice today and cried both times. Healing is happening through our storytelling in real time ❤ I love #MollyofDenali.”– Ayyu Qassataq (Iñupiaq) of Uŋalaqłiq/Unalakleet and Anchorage
I’m impressed with the excellent writing, production, animation, storytelling, education, singing, partnerships, actors, and so much more! Kudus to Princess Daazhraii Johnson (Neets’aii Gwich’in) and to all of the contributors to this show. I’m a #MollyofDenali fan. Enaa baasee’, Mahsi’ choo and Chin’an for this healthy dose of truth, racial healing and transformation.
My friend and relative, Sonia Vent, shared about her experience of sewing a ruff made out of rabbit and marten fur. The ruff is for her granddaughter’s parka. A ruff keeps people’s face warm when they have it on a hood. Sonia is Koyukon Athabascan and is from Huslia. Her parents are Freddie and Lorna Vent of Huslia.
Sonia’s experience of sewing a ruff reminded me of my journey for beading and sewing slippers/moccasins for the past year. Taking up a cultural practice can be a spiritual experience. That little knowledge we have is powerful enough to connect us to our culture. I have found beading and sewing to be healing. Learning and practicing our culture is important. She graciously agreed to share her experience. Here it is below.
In honor of all the skin sewers now and those who have gone on By Sonia Vent (Koyukon Athabascan)
“I made a little rabbit marten skin ruff for my granddaughters’ parka. While in Fairbanks I rummaged through my mom’s furs, skins, and patterns helping her to both find and organize things. I had planned to make a ruff for my GD’s parka before then. My mom had some already cut strips of rabbit fur amongst her things which she offered for me to use. She also had a piece of marten skin that was part of something else that she said that I could have. Ana basee’ ena’aa (thank you so much, dear mom)!
What I discovered in skin sewing is that it takes a lot talent and expertise to turn out a well finished product. The fur has to be cut in a certain way so that one does not cut into the fur and the cut is only through the skin. My mom showed me a special way that she holds the fur as she cuts through the skin. Despite her now shaking hands she managed to do it like a professional. Measurement must be adhered to in order for the pieces to come together and for it to match up with the garment that it will go on. The sewing through the furred skin takes skill and talent otherwise the fur can be pulled through the skin along with the sinew or thread. It is important to find the “sweet spot” to sew through so that the seams are even and clean. I’ve also discovered the best light to sew in is daylight. Daylight is naturally bright and clear. I love the daylight!
As I worked on the ruff, I thought of my many relatives and ancestors who worked night after night to make new garments for their families to wear at for the different community gatherings and holiday events. Skin sewing with our people was done out of necessity and love, especially love. I envisioned mothers sitting by a low-lit lamp working into the wee hours of the morning to finish a product for a special event so their children would have perfectly sewn clothing for the Christmas Program, that husband may have a nice wolf ruff to wear to the Winter Memorial Potlatch or that young son or daughter may have new kakkanaa’ (fur boots) to wear during the snow shoe race.
I especially thought of late great aunt Eliza Attla. I thought of all of the beautiful garments that she had made over the years up to the end. I thought of how her loss of hearing seemed to have made her especially talented at sewing. I realized how and why as I found myself lost in my creativity. It’s almost as though creativity deafens one to all external noise. Skin sewing is a skill, if mastered, can turn out a finely finished product. A sign of love.”
I asked Sonia if she has any advice for people who are considering trying to do skin sewing. She recommends finding an experienced mentor to learn from. I can see how that would be important. Her mom, Lorna Vent, is a master skin sewer and beader. I remember learning how to bead barrettes and kkaakene (fur boots) from her at Johnson O’Malley classes at the school in Huslia. Sonia recommends gathering up the supplies needed for your project. She says, “Consider what furs will be used for project. Some furs are not recommended for certain gender.” That’s where an experienced mentor can guide you.
Sonia recommends being aware of your posture and repetitive motions. She says, “Holding a position too long it can create a real problem in certain body parts. Practice timed breaks and movement will prevent body ailments.” I know when I’m beading and sewing, I stay aware of ergonomics. Sometimes, my shoulders and wrist hurt after a long session.