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December 1, 2006
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Volume 34
Issue 48
 
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Arctic natives' subsistence holiday living and their loving lessons
Arctic natives' subsistence holiday living and their loving lessons
by Rev. Barbara Allen, CMP - SGN Contributing Writer

Two old women's 2006 adventure

Two disabled old women, 144 years of life between them, embarked on a three and a half month journey to the arctic circle. Driving a classic GMC motor home with a 12-year-old care in tow, the pair overcome physical challenges to do something few dare try.

SGN Contributing Writer Rev. Barbara Allen chronicles her harrowing trek from Washington State to Alaska on a route that took them through British Columbia and the Yukon Territory. This is the first article in a series to appear in the SGN.

Allen says their were inspired by the book by Athabascan native Velma Wallis, Two Old Women, about two old women who are abandoned by their tribe in a time of hunger to die but, instead of dying, they overcome the ravages and pains of old age.

Allen hopes to one day compile the articles and 5,000 digital images into a coffee table book.



The hand made sign on the roadside of the Haines Junction to Haines road offered bannock bread, hot tea, and native storytelling.

In an act of courage, which included several devout prayers, I turned my almost 50 ft. long rig consisting of a Class A motorhome and towed car, onto the unpromising narrow tree lined dirt road.

If there is no turn-around for my length of rig ahead, I'd be in trouble, because I cannot back-up without ruining the front wheel drive on the Toad (nickname among RV'ers for vehicle towed behind). At the end of the trail there is a turn-around circling a log building. Across the road is a grayed wooden cabin where stories are told.

The late summer morning air is clean, clear, fresh, crisp and cold. A cloud of breath before one's face could easily be seen. Smoke rises through the old cabin roof. It's warmer within, but fleece tops are still needed to endure for any length of time.

Inside, we receive a smiling welcome from natives. Hot water, brand name teabags, freshly made warm bannock bread, packets of jam or jelly from a grocery store are available for a small donation.

The elder made the bread herself, as she did each morning when guests were possible, to greet visitors properly, and live up to the roadside sign. Her only cash income will be from visitor's donations, and the few pieces of world class leather clothing she slowly, artfully embroiders: moccasins, shirts, dresses.

Behind her, on a counter top is a large Aishnik-Champagne nation style fish trap made from carefully gathered and peeled branches lashed together with sinew or peeled root fibers. It is a museum class work of art that her brother made for her birthday gift.

None of these people have much money. They survive in a hostile environment by subsisting. I'd heard the word, but didn't understand what subsistance living meant before journeying to beyond the Arctic Circle, and back again this past summer.

I thought I understood, but didn't know how much I didn't and still don't know. New native friends met along the way are patient mentors, pleased to share graciously.

The aged storyteller sat behind a TV tray, waving her hand and a pointer over a map of the general area as she tried to remember the tale she was recreating in halting English.

Marge Jackson, in her eighties now, never learned to read, and can barely, with help, scratch out a signature. Yet, she has a book for sale, which she dictated to a friend.

For thousands of years these northern people have survived, even thrived, without any of the "modern conveniences" we have been seduced to believe we need, or take for granted. There were no stores or shops, just self-reliance. Gathering or hunting what was available in their environment. They made everything they needed from naturally available materials, wasting nothing.

While any of these folks would be able to make it in our "modern" world, few of us would survive a single year -- or season -- in their natural world, on subsistance terms.

The fish trap is a functional work of art, proudly displayed. The people depend upon salmon fishing season for their survival.

Before the old woman has finished with us, a messenger arrives to bring her to one of the fish camps where her help is immediately needed. The catch must be quickly processed or it will spoil.

This involves cleaning and eviscerating the fish, likely removing the head, then cutting the fish so that it can be preserved by being dried, smoked and stored to safely last through the winter as food.

Salmon are as essential to their survival as was the buffalo or bison to the plains Indians. She is proud of her brother, honored and grateful for the gift he worked long and hard to create for her. There's nothing she has bought that would mean more.

In fact, there's nothing any of them could buy for friends and family that would mean more than what they create themselves from their environment. That has no dollar cost, but its is a labor of love and craftsmanship. Every peeled stick, properly cut and joined piece, is a testament to the love and devotion of the giver.

Across the dirt road is the Klukshu Museum and Craft Shop, which is in a log building. I purchase home made jars of Soapberry and other indigenous delicacies. Thing's they've made themselves from what's available, except the jar, ring, seal, and - perhaps -- sugar.

At the World Eskimo Indian Olympics, which was held in Fairbanks this year, there are "Fashion Shows." The women's fashion show features the clothing of the northern sub-Arctic and Arctic area tribes wear. The garments that they have made themselves, mostly out of the parts of animals, birds, or fish they've caught.

A woman entrant in the show stands before the judging panel and spectators in 90 degree temperatures in her fur parka. She explains in clear, careful, slow speech (English is not necessarily her first language) which skins or furs were hunted by which male relative, who gave the hide to a female relative or friend to clean, and "tan". Whoever contributed materially or with labor - including hand stitching -- is identified, acknowledged, and thanked as an important part of the "show":

"This parka is made from the fur of a seal that my brother killed, hunting from his kayak. He gave the skin to my aunt who cleaned and tanned it. My mother helped cut the pieces and stitch them together. My sister, mother and aunt all helped embroider it and do beadwork. The mink tails were a gift from my uncle and the arctic fox trim from my husband who trapped it. Everybody helped. We worked together," she proudly told the assembled audience.

It was a similar story for the men's and children's fashion show. The gifts they give one another are truly from their hands, hearts, spirit, souls.

What would our fashion contests be like if the contestant was limited only to what had been obtained from the environment, created by the entrant, with possible help from friends and family? What if our people -- in order to survive or show off -- had to make their own outfits?

In their culture, if you had to buy with money some of what you're working with, you have lost status or standing. People look down on you. What would our Christmas be like if we went back a few thousand years to these basic values, free of misleading commercialism? In years past, I had made some of my children's and friends Christmas gifts. I'd not sewn before, but pieced together bits of pastel colored fake fur for a quilt for my firstborn. I sewed on a machine and by hand soft ornaments for our tree -- letting the eldest daughter help because she had the coordination skills to do so safely on the old Singer. However, this angering the youngest who would likely have run the needle through a finger. Instead, my youngest helped by stringing popped corn, decorating the tree, baking cookies, and making Jello.

Friends bred and raised Andalusian horses. I hand-carved the horses' names onto individual wooden mahogany plaques to go next to each stall door. One year, my youngest daughter and I made a marvelous ginger bread house -- beginning with making the batter and pouring it into the flat pan, then carefully cutting the baked pieces, "cementing" them together with thick frosting, decorating with more frosting, non-pareils, gum drops, jelly beans, and other candy.

Those were good holidays when we were together, doing things as extended family. It was not easy as shopping online, but more -- I believe -- in the ancient spirit of midwinter celebrations.

As I write this, the world is frozen outside. There's no traffic on the icy, snowy road, and I'm reminded of the northern folks and the profound lessons I began to learn from them.

Oscar Wilde said: "We live in an age when unnecessary things are our only necessities."

I question which culture is the more civilized and spiritual. May you have a thoughtful, loving, holiday season. Blessings all, and blessed be.

Rev. Allen can be reached by email: spiritual.soul@verizon.net. Founded in 1985 to serve our community, C.U.L.(Church of Universal Love) is an omni-denominational Washington State non-profit, offering personalized ministerial services for groups and individuals including spiritual counseling, commitment, parting, forgiveness and memorial ceremonies, occasional focused presentations, workshops, retreats, and mediation (Alternative Dispute Resolution) services. Visit www.godislove.org for more information (website under construction but some parts are still available).

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