Alaska life

Summer Fish Camp

Huslia men help put my dad's boat in the water in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Huslia men help put my dad’s boat in the water in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

My dad got the boat in the water yesterday with help from the community. Going on the first boat ride of the summer always gives me the best feeling. My parents are getting ready to go to camp.

Camp is hard work, but it has wondrous rewards. Going up and down the bank is hard, but you get a workout. Being healthy makes you live longer.

The views during the day and night are spectacular. It is quiet and after a while you start to hear and discern the sounds of different birds. You hear loons. You hear occasional howls. You also hear sticks breaking in the woods, and it could be moose walking around. The mosquitoes are buzzing and sometimes drive you crazy. Bug spray is key. We also keep a smutch (Koyukon Athabascan), where we burn punk. Mosquitoes don’t like the smoke from punk.

My nephews, Marvin Jr. and Brandon, collect mountain water along the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
My nephews, Marvin Jr. and Brandon, collect mountain water along the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Camp coffee and tea are the bomb, especially if you get mountain water from up and around the bend. Camp food is delicious, and you really enjoy it after working in camp. I love mom’s cooking. We ration the food until we go to town to get more food.

You have to communicate because it is important for your safety. It is like a team and the adults always know where the kids are at all times.

My parents teach the kids how to play card games, like rummy. You sip on tea in the evening and sit around after a long day.

My parents will set a fish net, and check it twice a day. They have a raft in down the bank from camp and they cut fish on it. They have a smoke house on top of the bank where they dry and smoke fish.

Rainbow over smokehouse in the fall of 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Rainbow over smokehouse in the fall of 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

We have to keep the smoke going and use dead cottonwood. The smoke gives it a good taste and also keeps the flies away. It also keeps animals away, because they avoid smoke.

My dad likes to listen to the radio at night. He listens to news, talk shows and music. It kind of drowns out the sounds you hear at night.

We also read books and magazines. There is nearly 24 hours of light in the middle of summer so you have light to to read. We read by lamp or flashlight when it gets too dark. Now, we have e-readers with lighted backgrounds, but the battery eventually dies.

I won’t be going to camp until September when we go home to Huslia. I do plan on camping in Southcentral Alaska though. I’ll have to figure out how to get out on a boat ride before then. I love summer fish camp along the Koyukuk River!

Dorothy, Al Sr., Ermelina, River and Princess on a boat ride on the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Dorothy, Al Sr., Ermelina, River and Princess on a boat ride on the Koyukuk River in 2011. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Native Cousins

My (now) friend, Loretta, sent me a Facebook friend request thinking I was her cousin. That was about two years. We ran into each other last weekend and we talked for a bit and parted ways. Her dad was at the event too. Loretta talked with her dad and told him that she ran into me (her ‘cousin’). He told her that we weren’t cousins after all. Loretta found me and she told me that she thought I was her cousin all this time. We laughed about it!

I didn’t know that she thought I was her cousin all this time. I told her that we can be cousins. Ha ha! Apparently, I have the same first name as her real cousin and I also look like her. I’m always glad for more friends.

Angela, Tanya and Michelle
Cousins Angela, Tanya and Michelle visited in Anchorage last year.

Being from a small Alaska Native village, I’m used to having lots of cousins and extended family. I come from a big family with five siblings. My late aunt had 14 children. That is not to mention all of the second cousins. I basically have relatives all up and down the Koyukuk River and in the interior.

I once told a colleague about what one of my cousins was doing. Then in another time I told him about another cousin. He said, “Angela, everyone is your cousin!”

Cousins collage
Top: Cousins Gloria and Tanya. Bottom: Michelle and Angela. Photos taken in the early 1990’s.

Some of my best friends are my cousins. I’ve gone on so many adventures with them. They are like my sisters and brothers. We are spread all over the place, but still connected. We tease each other. Some of us aren’t technically cousins, like I’m their aunt or they are mine. We consider ourselves cousins because we are close in age.

I once won a dance contest with my late cousin, Hudson, Jr. It was a rock and roll dance contest. Fun times!

One of my first cousins is my adopted sister, Tanya. Our aunts and uncles help raise their nephews and nieces. Native families help each other out.

Simon cousins
My daughter and I visited with my first cousins, Wendy and Olin.

My mom always made sure to tell me who my cousins and relatives were, because we weren’t allowed to date them. Just saying this makes me laugh. I was pretty much not allowed to date anyone on the Koyukuk River.

All kidding aside, I consider some of my cousins are like a sister or brother to me and some are my lifelong friends. I don’t see them as much as I used to, but we manage to stay in contact. It is great to see what they are up to and what they have accomplished in life. Some of them are engineers, nurses, teachers, tribal leaders, and more. I’m proud of them. I love my cousins!

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Koyukuk River Fish Camp Memories

I grew up in a village along the Koyukuk River in Alaska. We went to fish camp every summer from the time school got out to the time it started up again. When I was a kid, I missed playing with my friends in Huslia when I was in fish camp. As I look back, the summers spent at camp were some of my best memories. I had the most fun with my family and cousins.

Fish Camp in 1980
Cousins in 1980 in fish camp. Photo by Eleanor Yatlin

We worked hard all summer on fishing. We set a fish net and checked it once or twice a day. My parents, aunts, uncles and older kids cut fish. The younger kids would also learn how to cut fish too. Younger kids helped by hanging fish, carrying water, and gathering wood. Cooking was also a big part of being in camp. We all had to chip in to make sure everyone was fed.

We had to help take care of each other. Older kids took care of babies while the adults were cutting fish. We cut fish for the winter ahead. If we were lucky enough to get king salmon, my parents would be sure to bring some back for the Elders in Huslia. My dad was a dog musher, so we had to make sure to store plenty of fish for the dogs over the winter too.

We had to keep the camp clean and cut grass and brush. Cutting the grass helped to cut down on the mosquitoes and gnats. We slept in mosquito nets at night, ones made by my mom and grandmother. I loved the fabric and netting my mom used and remember daydreaming and reading under mosquito nets.

The summers were pretty hot in the interior. We didn’t have refrigerators or freezers in camp. My late grandmother, Lydia Simon, kept a couple bags of frozen meat in the ground. We would replenish the supply every couple of weeks when we went to town. We stored food in a big wooden box to keep it dry and cool.

Lydia Simon and grandchildren in camp in 1980s
My late grandma, Lydia Simon, loved to play cards and hang out with her grandchildren. Pictured with her are Soloman, Johnnie and Josephine. Taken in fish camp in the early 1990s by Angela Gonzalez

Grandma Lydia would yell, “Who wants sookaanee?!” We would all say, “Me, meeee!” Sookanee means pancakes or bread in Koyukon Athabascan. My grandmother made the best sourdough pancakes and fry bread. In late July, we would start to pick high bush cranberries. We ate pancakes with syrup or high bush berry jam. We ate a lot of salmon and whitefish all summer.

We would get excited when we heard a boat or airplane and would compete to see who heard them first. We would yell in camp, “First one to hear boat!” or “First one to hear airplane!” Small distractions and games kept us busy. We played card games, dice and other games. My parents played cribbage in the late evenings after they settled down for the day.

Eleanor Yatlin cutting fish 6-11
My mother, Eleanor Yatlin, taught her kids, neices and nephews how to cut fish over the past 40 years. Photo taken in 2011 by Angela Gonzalez

Everyone worked hard in camp and had a role. With the hard work, we also had a lot of fun. We washed the boat every two weeks on a nice day. We got to go swimming. Then, we would sometimes go for a boat ride. My dad would bring us on little adventures when we went for boat rides. We would get mountain water from down river and use it for coffee and tea.

We had visitors in camp every once in awhile. They would spend a few hours or a few days with us. It was good to have visitors. We would hear the latest news from town and sometimes they brought us fresh food or new magazines or books.

I remember playing under the cut bank in the summer. My sisters and cousins made elaborate Barbie mansions out of mud and sand. We played for hours. We climbed trees. The boys had boats carved out of driftwood. The boat would be tied to a string and stick and they had fun making their boats “cruise” in the water.

My grandma made grass dolls and dresses out of grass heads and fabric. She would sew little clothes on them for us. She made a few more like this to sell. The clothes were made out of moose skin and beading. I think they were like $400 or more each. We were lucky we got some to play with. She was a master sewer and beadworker.

We had a couple small cabins and a couple tents that we stayed in. My parents had oil lamps that we used sparingly in the evening to get a little bit of reading time in. We took turns reading comics, books, and magazines. They were worn out by the end of the summer.

We listened to radio all summer. The song of one summer was “Abracadabra” by the Steve Miller Band. Everyone sang along when they heard that song and other popular ones. There was no TV in camp, so we relied on the radio for news. If there was an emergency or someone wanted to reach us from the village, they would send a message over the radio.

We did not go to town very often, and when we did, we took turns going. My parents made sure to bring us to town to spend the Fourth of July holiday in Huslia. There were all sorts of fun festivities for the Fourth of July. We got in all of the races and games for our age levels. After those few days, we headed back to camp.

Mom and dad and kids in 2007
My parents, Al and Eleanor Yatlin, spend as much time in fish camp with their grandchildren, nieces and nephews as possible. Photo take in 2007 by Angela Gonzalez

It wasn’t an easy life, but summers spent in fish camp were some of the best times in my life. I learned how to work hard, to live off the land, and how to have fun. I treasure the stories my grandmother told us throughout the summer. I have a great appreciation for my parents, grandparents, aunts and uncle and wonder how they did it. I try to bring my family back to camp once a year. My oldest daughter spends the summers with her grandparents and gets to spend time in camp. I hope to teach my children some of the important lessons I learned along the Koyukuk River.

Alaska Native culture

What is a Cultural Exchange?

A cultural exchange can be an intentional act of bringing two or more people together to exchange information about their differing backgrounds to understand each other. It can happen as a part of an official program or it can happen informally.

There are many people who go to the village for work or as tourists, and sometimes a cultural exchange will happen on their visit. More often than not, in those cases, people might not get a full picture of what it is like to live in that village. Just as someone from the village comes to the city wouldn’t necessarily get a full picture if they are not staying there for long.

Chris arrives in Bettles, Alaska in 1996! Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris arrives in Bettles, Alaska in 1996! Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Cultural exchanges can also take place between friends. I went to college with Chris from Wisconsin. She had a million questions about Alaska, Alaska Natives and what life was like in the village. As I answered the questions, I learned a lot about my culture by verbalizing it to her. She learned a lot about how we live, what we eat, what it’s like to live in the village through many conversations.

Chris had a thirst for knowledge and was studying to become a teacher. No matter how many stories I told her or how many pictures, she didn’t really know how it was really like to live in a village. During summer break in 1996, I invited Chris to visit me in Alaska. She arrived in a small airplane in Bettles, Alaska. My family was planning a boat trip down the Koyukuk River from Bettles to our hometown of Huslia. I was excited to go home to see close friends and relatives. The trip took a few days and we camped out along the way.

My late grandmother, Lydia Simon, was with us on the trip. Chris got to see generations of Athabascans up close and personal along the way. She learned the importance of sharing food and clothing.

Chris says, “I learned that the idea of family, especially extended family, was very much intact. This is during the 90’s when it seemed like the idea of family was in decline in the rest of America.”

Chris shoots a gun while my brother is goofing around. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris shoots a gun while my brother is goofing around. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris and Tanya sitting at the Huslia graveyard. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Chris and Tanya sitting at the Huslia graveyard. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

Chris got to see how big Alaska is and how we travel. The river serves as a highway to get from one village to the next. In each village, the main mode of transportation was four-wheeler ATVs. Chris enjoyed playing basketball and softball in Huslia. I am not sure if my stories prepared her for the reality, but she had a great time.

This cultural exchange would not be complete until years later when I went to Chris’ wedding in Wisconsin in 2007. The wedding was at her aunt’s farm in rural Wisconsin. The house was over 100 years old, and owned by the family for generations. It had a cellar, which I’ve only ever read about in books. We took a walk around the farm.

Angela and Chris in Wisconsin in 2007. Photo by Melissa Gerald
Angela and Chris in Wisconsin in 2007. Photo by Melissa Gerald

The church was also old and one where may family members also wed. Everyone was nice and welcomed me with open arms. I learned about many of their wedding traditions, with German influence. It was absolutely beautiful, and I was glad to learn about Chris’ background and see where she grew up.

People have many questions about Alaska Native people and culture. I have questions about what it’s like to live in the Lower 48. We can read about the Alaska Native culture in book, but it is difficult to really know what it is like until you experience it in person. Chris and I have a deeper understanding of each other and our backgrounds. Although we have many difference, we found we also have many similarities.

There are many ways we can create cultural exchanges. It can be between two friends, like Chris and I. They also take place through programs, like the Sister School Exchange program with the Alaska Humanities Forum.

It can also be through conversation with someone from a different background. That can happen very easily in today’s electronic world. I find myself talking with people around the country and sometimes the world through Twitter. Cultural exchanges are way to open your eyes and experience the world. I learn a lot about my culture when I articulate it to others. Perhaps you can do the same.

Alaska Native culture

Teaching Native Ways

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?

Athabascan - Badzahoolan
Athabascan badzahoolan and words

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.]

Athabascan - food
Athabascan foods

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. 🙂

Boats As Transportation
Boats As Transportation

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.