Alaska Native culture

Beliefs of Respecting the Land and Animals

Yukon River near Nulato. Photo by Bev Kokrine. Shared with permission.
Yukon River near Nulato. Photo by Bev Kokrine. Shared with permission.

Warren George shared some Koyukon Athabascan stories and beliefs on Facebook recently and gave me permission to share it on the Athabascan Woman Blog. Warren is originally from Nulato and now lives in Fairbanks.

Fireweed near Nulato. Photo by Bev Kokrine
Fireweed near Nulato. Photo by Bev Kokrine

I was always told to always respect the land and animals. There was always rules you had to follow when handling animals that you have killed. Little things like if you get blood on the floor try and wipe it up as soon as possible. Do not walk all over the blood.

Even before you went out hunting you had to show respect. You were not supposed to boast about how you are going to get an animal or how you were going to shoot it. Somehow the animal would know you were coming supposedly and you would not have any luck. Even after you bring an animal home if you had luck.

You had to follow certain rules. Like after eating bear meat you have to burn the bones of the bear. Or you can’t feed bear meat to a dog because it will make it mean. Or you can’t throw bear bones into the river because it will change the rivers channel and a sand bar would appear where you threw the bones. Or rules on what women can or can’t eat of a bear.

Our elders used to have to follow these rules year after year and this is how they passed this knowledge on from generation to generation. We can only speculate who made these rules (maybe it was between the animal spirit and man). Maybe it was just learned over time.

We are a generation that does not totally live off the land and we are chancing the possibility that we could lose parts of our traditions. It would be nice if our elders could somehow document it. There are a lot of rules about trapping and hunting out there.

-Warren George, Koyukon Athabascan

Related:  Athabascan Spiritual Beliefs About Hunting, Fishing and Gathering

Thank you Warren George for sharing some Koyukon Athabascan traditions and beliefs. I think it is important to share them with the younger generation. 

Alaska Native culture

Break-up Poem by Martha Demoski

Thank you to Martha Demoski for sharing her writing and poem on the Athabascan Woman blog. Martha Demoski (Koyukon Athabascan) is a retired teacher who is originally from Nulato. This poem also appeared in the TCC Council Newsletter. Here is here story and poem about spring break-up.

Nulato, Alaska. Photo by Martha Demoski
Nulato, Alaska. Photo by Martha Demoski

Nulato moved back to the new site to be above the flood plain level. It is a relief to be out of reach of the destruction that the river can cause. Although it is a relief, there are some people living in that area who go through tremendous stress. We want a good break up for them. The ice that drift downriver is softer than the huge chunks of the past. I remember hearing crushing, bumping noises from the ice as it was moving and breaking. Years ago, Nulato was a crowded little village and to send out the alert someone would shout in a loud voice…”Ice is moving!” And everyone would be out at the riverbank. People would become very busy moving items higher in their log cabins or to the side of the cemetery hill.

A view of the Yukon River by Nulato. Break-up will soon occur. Photo by Martha Demoski
A view of the Yukon River by Nulato. Break-up will soon occur. Photo by Martha Demoski

The worst flood I’ve been in was in the early 60’s. I remember moving up on the cemetery hill with all the other families. Tents were everywhere. It was fun to be around all the other children. There was hardly any privacy. We had to walk through thick brush, trudging through soft, wet ground to use the toilet. If you did not own rubber boots, your feet would be soaking wet and cold by the time you returned to the tent.

The Airforce provided c-rations. There’s only so much of it you can eat when you are so used to food caught locally. I remember feeling so miserable having eaten something that disagreed with me. People appreciated their help with food, water, blankets and other needs.

A hill overlooks the Yukon River at Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
A hill overlooks the Yukon River at Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski

People sat on the side of the hill helplessly watching the ones who owned boats maneuver around big chunks of ice and in the current to rescue people’s belongings and sled dogs. Families didn’t have much in those days but whatever they had was important to save. My auntie cried out as she watched her log cabin begin shifting around on its foundation. It was a miracle that it did not float out to the river. Everything was floating, boards with little furry creatures clinging, caches, outhouses, and barrels, etc.

After the waters receded, there was a mess. Mud was shoveled off the floors and wiped off everything else. Furniture, clothes, bedding and anything that could be reasonably salvaged were cleaned and dried out for days. I never thought about the contamination. People had wood stoves, in comparison to now, most people use oil. So at least oil and gas did not seep into homes. The ground is always wet during the spring and it was made worst with all the silt.

Hopefully, this year there will be an easy break-up for all the villages along the Alaskan Rivers. I wrote this poem last year before break-up, never knowing what Galena was going to experience. They had so much devastation and loss. It changed many residents’ lives.

Break-up by Martha Demoski

embraced me
wove into my clothing
as I
slipped into a jovial circle
on a solar ray

warmth of a campfire on my cheeks
flying sparks like merry souls
dance and settle
smoldering with anticipation
during the river watch

fish strips with golden oil slick
is nourishment for the conversation
buttered Sailor-boy pilot bread
tea steamed compatible words
vaporized with excitement

river of wonder…
break-up, water shoving ice
uprooted trees…and earth
in the current
enrapturing the moment

– Martha Demoski

A fish wheel sits in the frozen Yukon River by Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
A fish wheel sits in the frozen Yukon River by Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
Alaska Native culture

Washtub Dance Poem by Martha Demoski

Thank you to Martha Demoski for sharing her writing and poem on the Athabascan Woman blog. Martha Demoski (Koyukon Athabascan) is a retired teacher who is originally from Nulato.

Drummers and singers in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
Drummers and singers in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski

Although there were many burials in Nulato since this poem was written, I want to share how people work so hard coming together to uplift each other at these hard times. Everyone knows the hard times from the young to the eldest. The activities that stand out are how the cooks provide all kinds of local foods each night that the body is in town until the day of burial and potlatch. They graciously have a fundraiser (raffle) to help out with travel, supplies for the hall, and any expenses, and each night mostly about 7:00 p.m. They gather together for the rosary and some gospel music.

Our tribal administrator wrote that Nulato people are resilient and we will continue. With Denaahuto’s blessings and people’s praying, we will continue to carry each others through these hard times. May all villages have blessings throughout the year. This is how we began the year.

The first three days of 2014 were so wholesome with the community supporting the Medzeyh Okko Hutnee, the New Year’s Potlatch and the Washtub Dance. The last event washed the Old Year away bringing in the New Year with well wishes of good luck, hope and peace. The Washtub Dance was so amusing and hilarious.

With respect to everyone’s participation in making these events a success, I don’t want to use names, but thank you to all the local Nulato Tribal members. Your help shows the good will and respect you have for your community.

Kids participating in a Washtub Dance in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
Kids participating in a Washtub Dance in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski

The community of Nulato welcomes visitors to these events. The night of the Washtub Dance, Kaltag people came to be with us. Two young boys, Tristan and Tyler, participated in the singing and drumming. Their efforts were deeply appreciated. Thanks very much to the young boys.

As an elder, I want to take the liberty of thanking our Young Nulato Singers. They came out to participate; some even wore their regalia. They participated and observed how things are done traditionally with respect. They took care of each other’s physical well-being and emotional health by being respectful and helpful. They showed the elders how they are willing to carry on what the elders taught them.

The old year is washed away and 2014 is here. Wonderful times and hard times filled 2013. May the future bring a positive lift in our lives. If there are mistakes we regret, then may we learn from the past and gain wisdom. Take care of each other in this New Year.

People enjoy the Washtub Dance in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski
People enjoy the Washtub Dance in Nulato. Photo by Martha Demoski

Washtub Dance 2014
By Martha Demoski

Energy like electricity traveled through a quivering willow
from the strong arm
of a young boy
tapping on the hide stretched between a round frame
captivating the crowd
with a steady beat
accompanied by voices that echoed
through a time barrier to our ancestors

Costumed characters wore
grimacing or grinning masks
mismatched clothing
ragtag wigs
moved body parts without rhythm
haphazardly, hilariously
provoking laughter and amusement

Two women waved willows tipped with fur
over bags of bread, dried fish, berries, candy…
as if sprinkling blessings and good luck

Clowns in a parade
leave chuckling, wild hoots in their wake
ending the drumming
Denaakk’e sung with old tunes
Shook the building’s foundation
final song, Ket’ene’, resonated
people shuffled in a circle
gracefully bending knees
at the command “Yegge!”

Yeggenh yoz sitting in a circle
oblivious of the adults
sitting on benches
feasting, enjoying, visiting

Washtub dance
washed away the Old Year
holding hopes and dreams for the New!

– Martha Demoski

Alaska Native/Indigenous People

Remembering Bernice Joseph – An Alaska Native Leader

Bernice Joseph lost her battle with pancreatic cancer Tuesday. This is heartbreaking news from interior Alaska. Bernice was Koyukon Athabascan from Nulato, and had a big family and had may friends all over Alaska. She was a great mother, wife, daughter, sister, friend, mentor, leader, speaker, advocate and nice person. Bernice had a great smile and a great laugh.

Bernice Joseph at WEIO
Bernice Joseph was a winner of the Race of the Torch-Women in 1993. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

One of my earliest memories of Bernice was when she raced for the torch in the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (WEIO) footrace in Fairbanks over the years. She was a fierce competitor and challenged others. I first got to know her when she served on the queen pageant committee for Miss WEIO in the early 1990s. Bernice was not afraid to speak up with her thoughts and ideas. You just knew she would follow through with actions to put those ideas into reality. She had a great level of professionalism that people took notice of and she often raised through the ranks at many organizations and boards as a result.

Bernice was as beautiful on the inside as she was on the outside. Her smile brightened a room and you felt like you were home. Bernice acknowledged everyone she came into contact with no matter to their station in life. She had a great ability to empower people and encourage them to reach for their goals.

Bernice Joseph spoke at the Rural Providers' Conference held in Fairbanks in June 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Bernice Joseph spoke at the Rural Providers’ Conference held in Fairbanks in June 2013. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

I always enjoyed listening to her speak and inspire people. As the former vice chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF), she inspired many students. In recent years, I got to see her in Anchorage when she attended board meetings for the Rural Alaska Community Action Program, Inc. (RurAL CAP). As usual, she spoke up in meetings and advocated for rural Alaskans. Bernice was the whole package. She was a great ambassador for Alaska Native people. She was a great speaker and storyteller. Bernice had a strong passion for education, and she was at the decision-making table to enact initiatives to support Alaska Natives pursuing their education.

Many people shared Facebook posts and emails and said what a wonderful person Bernice was. Some friends shared these kind words about Bernice:

“Bernice Joseph was the greatest boss and teacher I ever was blessed to have worked and learned from. She was strong, kind, hardworking, intelligent, wise,…I could write books about all she was. I loved and deeply respected all she did as did everyone she touched. I pray for her and her family. Rest in Peace Bernice. I promise I will teach every kid I can the things you taught me. For you might have left us for heaven, but the beauty left behind still grows.” – Travis Cole

“Bernice was one of my first bosses/mentors/role models. Her keen sense of humor and laughter always lifted up my spirit and I watched her with great admiration as she brought together community, inspired, taught, provided an amazing example of healthy living. We loved to tease each other and it was always a joy to be around her. She made me feel like I was capable of so much more and believed in me at a pivotal time of my teenage years. My heart goes out to all those that are feeling this loss. May you rest well dear friend. Each time I put on my running shoes, I will think of your strength.” -Princess Daazhraii Johnson

“Thinking of my friend Bernice Joseph and sending love and light to her family. Like the loads of others, she was a role model to me, a person who led by example with a bright, beautiful smile. Really going to miss seeing her, but her legacy of empowering Native people to achieve their educational goals will remain with us forever!” – Jessica Black

“I first met Bernice at WEIO over 20 years ago. She was a runner and so was I. I wanted to be as fast as she was. Because of her I did eventually win the race of the torch. Later our lives would cross again as I went after my degree in education at UAF through their rural and correspondence classes. When I saw she was in charge of Distance Education I thought what an awesome leader! I am so happy I was able to hug Bernice at WEIO this summer. The games brought us together and they were the last place I saw her. Today when I run she will be in my thoughts and these tears I shed are for our loss of such an incredibly inspiring woman!” – Noel Strick

“Over the past year, Bernice Joseph held space in many of our hearts, thoughts, and prayers. She influenced many peoples lives in many meaningful ways. She was a true leader, a friend, and an inspiration among our people. Bernice was my boss as a teenager and later served on my graduate committee, she was committed to truth and seeing through real change in the lives of our people. May she rest in eternal peace. Prayers and love to her family.” -Evon Peter

Here is a message from UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers:

“Today, our community and state lost an inspiring leader, mentor and educator: Former vice chancellor Bernice Joseph passed away this morning after a long and courageous battle with cancer. Bernice served as vice chancellor for rural, community and native education, and executive dean of the College of Rural and Community Development. Her career was marked by her dedication to education and to Alaska’s students, whether they hailed from her home village of Nulato or from our state’s urban centers. She was a great university leader and a role model for Alaska Native people in higher education. Her contributions to the university, the Interior and Alaska will serve as a legacy for generations. She truly made a difference in the lives of thousands of people. Our sincere condolences go out to Bernice’s family. Her passing is a tremendous loss to the university and Alaska. Her family and friends will hold several events in her memory in the coming days. On Wednesday, Jan. 8, a one-mile memorial walk will begin at 6 p.m. at the Carlson Center. And, on Thursday, Jan. 9, a celebration of life will begin at 10 a.m. at the Sacred Heart Cathedral. In lieu of flowers, the family has suggested that memorial contributions be made to the Doyon Foundation in Bernice’s name. Those who wish to send condolences can do so to the following address: Stewart Joseph P.O. Box 83651 Fairbanks, AK 99708”

Stewart and Bernice Joseph were in Anchorage in December 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez
Stewart and Bernice Joseph were in Anchorage in December 2012. Photo by Angela Gonzalez

At her keynote speech at the 2005 Alaska Federation of Natives Convention, Bernice acknowledged the strides made with education, but reminded people that there was more to be done. Bernice said:  “Our people have come a long way from only a few decades of Western education, to developing our own curriculum, to be recognized for traditional knowledge through honorary degrees and be recognized on Commissions, Boards, and now the Effie Kokrine School to further help us to maintain our sense and knowledge of self, while living in a western world, but empowered through cultural identity and cultural presence to stand tall and be counted for all of our contributions to education, health, politics, economics and science. We have done a lot, but we have only just begun.” – Bernice Joseph on an excerpt from her speech (courtesy of the Alaska Native Knowledge Network).

As a result of her hard work in her personal and professional life, Bernice was the recipient of many awards and acknowledgements. She always made people feel special, and she will be missed by many, near and far. She was a living example of what Alaska Native people could accomplish. Ana basee’ Bernice for a life well-lived and shared with us.