Velma Wallis’ books take the reader directly and swiftly into another world, a land of ice and snow, of cold, a world of her people, the Gwich’in, and her ancestors. A world of humans enduring and living their lives north of the Arctic Circle in Alaska and the trauma they endured and survived as their land was taken from them and their ways eroded away.
Her books are a gift in that they preserve the old stories and also bear witness to what has happened to her people in more recent times.
Velma Wallis was born in 1960, in Fort Yukon, Alaska of Gwich’in Athabaskan Indian descent. Her own story of survival is detailed in her autobiography, Raising Ourselves: A Gwich’in Coming of Age Story from the Yukon River.
“Our family’s two room cabin stood a quarter-mile from the Yukon River in the heart of the hub of Fort Yukon. We were surrounded by the post office, the store, the clinic, the movie house, the restaurant, and the airport. Fort Yukon had about five hundred residents then. To this day many tourists hop off small commuter planes landing in Fort Yukon and then hop right back on to return to Fairbanks, just so they can show their friends back home a certificate proving they have crossed the Arctic Circle.
Before the 1980s, every household in Fort Yukon was a tribe unto itself. Each child was surrounded by about a dozen siblings, as well as cousins, aunts, uncles and grandparents”(RO 18).
Indeed Wallis is one of thirteen. The book is a fascinating read. The glimpses into the everyday life of Wallis and her family as she grew up are unique and compelling. Once again I found myself up against my own ignorance. I have no understanding of life in conditions and temperatures like these or of the myriad names of the first peoples who inhabit the land we now call Alaska and their history. I had no idea people were still living this way, primarily as hunter-gatherers, in Alaska in the 60s.
Wallis grew up in a time when they were still eating mostly raw or wild-caught foods. In the winter, her father would go out on his Toboggan with his sled dogs and return with it heaped full of trapped and hunted game. Then her mother and father would begin the work of skinning, cutting, curing and storing the meat for the winter and beyond, all inside the small cabin they all lived in, using their one wood stove and sharpened blades. They would make money by selling the fur. In the summer they caught, cured and stored salmon from the Yukon River.
“Our life as children in Fort Yukon moved as slowly and steadily as the seasons. We knew winter would bring school, rabbit snaring, sledding, and hauling in wood. In the spring we expected our muskrat tails cooked on top of the wood stove, and our beaver meat boiling in big pots, enough to feed the whole family. In the summer we knew that we would stay up late playing with our neighborhood friends. And when fall came, we would do the same things we had done the previous year. My father hauled in wood and killed a moose, and my older brothers cut the dried grass we call goose grass from along the lakes to serve as bedding for our sled dogs.
Our existence as Native people living in villages was quiet, and except for the occasional outburst of excitement, we were languid as the smoke that drifted out of our stovepipes”(RO 23).
They lived off what they trapped, foraged, and hunted, made all of their own tools and clothes including boots, had an outhouse for a toilet and cooked everything on a wood stove. In 1968 it all began to change for Wallis and her family. Access to their traditional hunting and trapping land changed. It seemed to be a final blow in what had been the slow progression of her ancestors losing more and more of their way of life, their land, their dignity, their sovereignty over the years. Their father lost his desire to live and they lost their way of living.
They were catapulted into the world of processed food, extreme poverty and despair. Wallis was a child embedded within this experience and the condition of extreme disorientation it created in the adults around her. She had no context with which to understand it. The trauma, combined with the pain and dislocation drove many of the adults to alcohol which their bodies could not metabolize. If it didn’t make them violent and angry, then it made zombies out of them.
The world of Wallis and her siblings was isolated and insular and the adults were too confused to bridge together past and present for them. Wallis didn’t even understand herself to be an Indian until she was older.
“During the long, cold winter nights, when my mother settled us down to sleep, she told us about the past. At the time I did not connect the stories to our own ancestors, for she referred to them as Indians. At the shophouse we often watched movies about cowboys and Indians. We thought of Indians as those people in loincloths and braids who killed cowboys using hatchets and bows and arrows. We were frightened of the savages who killed those poor cowboy people. In fact, we hated those ruthless Indians. It would be years before we would come to see the other side of the story.”(RO 76).
A child trying to somehow catch pieces and hold them together for her family and people, Wallis very nearly succumbed to addiction herself. Determined to not let the old ways slip away completely, in her teenage years she went to live once again on the land, regaining the wilderness skills that her people had used for thousands of years and pulling her mother back from the depths of alcoholism by asking her to teach her. In this effort, she also managed to save some of the stories her mother told to her by writing them down and turning them into books. Her work is very important and precious.
Fort Yukon has a population of 586, “located at the confluence of the Yukon and Porcupine Rivers and is 145 air miles northeast of Fairbanks…Daily minimum temperatures between November and March are usually below O℉. Extended periods of -50 to -60℉ are common.”
History: Fort Yukon was founded in 1847 by Alexander Murray as a Canadian outpost in Russian territory. It became an important trade center for the Gwich’in Indians, who inhabited the vast lowlands of the Yukon Flats and River valleys.
The Hudson Bay Company, a British trading company, operated at Fort Yukon from 1846 until 1869. In 1862, a mission school was established. In 1867, Alaska was purchased by the U.S., and, two years later, it was determined that Fort Yukon was on American soil. Moses Mercier, a trader with the Alaska Commercial Company, took over operation of the Fort Yukon Trading Post.
A post office was established in 1898. The fur trade of the 1800s, the whaling boom on the Arctic coast (1889-1904), and the Klondike Gold Rush spurred economic activity and provided some economic opportunities for the Natives. However, major epidemics of introduced diseases struck the Fort Yukon population from the 1860s until the 1920s. In 1949, a flood damaged or destroyed many homes in Fort Yukon.
During the 1950s, a White Alice Communications System and an Air Force station were established. Fort Yukon incorporated as a city in 1959. Culture Most Fort Yukon residents are descendants of the Yukon Flats, Chandalar River, Birch Creek, Black River, and Porcupine River Gwich’in Athabascan tribes. Subsistence is an important component of the local culture. (https://www.tananachiefs.org/about/communities/fort-yukon/#:~:text=Fort%20Yukon%20was%20founded%20in,Yukon%20Flats%20and%20River%20valleys.)
Wallis’ book, Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival, is an international best seller. Set in the Yukon Flats area, it tells the story of The Gwich’in people long before the white people had come. A time when they had no permanent village and moved around in small bands with the seasons and according to the circumstances they found themselves in.
In this story, two old women, Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’, are left behind by their people one terribly difficult winter because the tribe has decided they are too much of a burden to carry any longer. For the good of the tribe they must leave them behind. The women remember and recall stories of others who had been left behind to die in previous years so this is not a new happening. The story follows the two women as they venture forth after being abandoned, find their own inner resources and remember how to survive on their own.
Wallis states at the beginning of the book:
“This story of the two old women is from a time long before the arrival of the Western culture, and has been handed down from generation to generation, from person to person, to my mother, and then to me. Although I am writing it, using a little of my own creative imagination, this is, in fact, the story I was told and the point of the story remains the way Mom meant for me to hear it.
This story told me that there is no limit to one’s ability—certainly not age—to accomplish in life what one must. Within each individual on this large and complicated world there lives an astounding potential of greatness. Yet, it is rare that these hidden gifts are brought to life unless by the chance of fate” (TOW Introduction TOW).
There are so many beautiful passages this book where Wallis skillfully writes of life on the land, of the land itself and extreme conditions most of us will never experience.
“The two women spent the remaining days of spring trying to make their new camp more hospitable. They put up their shelters under the deep shade of tall spruce trees and hidden among many willows. Then they found a cool spot where they dug a deep hole that they lined with willows. There, they laid their large cache of dried meat for the summer. They also placed a few traps atop the ground to scare off any sharpnosed predators. The mosquitoes were everywhere, and as they worked, the women relied on long-used methods of shielding themselves to keep from being eaten alive. They hung leather tassels around their faces and their thick clothing to keep the small insects from biting into their skin. When it seemed as if they would be carried away, the women covered their skin with muskrat grease to repel the masses of flying pests. Meanwhile, they charted a small hidden path to the creek where they got their water and, with summer nearly upon them, made their fish traps. Once the traps were set, the women had no trouble catching the fish and found they had to move nearer to the creek to keep up with the task of cutting and drying. In time, a bear began helping himself to the fish the women had stored. This worried them, but in time they reached an unusual agreement with the bear. They carried the fish guts far from the camp where the greedy bear could laze about and eat at this leisure” (TOW 81).
Wallis’ books remember a world that is gone, yet has valuable lessons to offer today. It is compelling and rewarding to be immersed inside this “tribal” life and experience the troubles they had between and among themselves.Wallis is not painting a fantasy or idealized picture of her people. She tells it in all the truth and complexity that is the human condition. And it is therefore rich with depth, texture and authenticity.
In Bird Girl and the Man who Followed the Sun, Daagoo born a man, wants to do the work of women. He doesn’t like the tasks he is expected to do as a man. He also longs to wander, travel and discover the land that he has heard tell of in the south: the Land of the Sun. But he is not allowed to pursue his dreams because he must pull his weight in the band.
The chief approaches the father saying:
“You will talk to your son. Tell him that we will no longer allow his disobedience. We all know what happens when people refuse to follow our rules.
Daagoo’s father could do nothing but nod his head in agreement. The Gwich’in had lived in the flatlands for thousands of years and had established strict rules. For the band to survive, each member had to fulfill his or her duties without question. Obedience was enforced with punishment; people could be banished from the band for refusal to comply with its age-old customs. It was understood that, besides the animals and the land itself, the Gwich’in people needed each other for survival. They knew the importance of obedience and the terrible consequences of foolish rebellion”(BG 22).
A tragedy strikes their band and Daagoo is forced to take the lead in the role as a man. But he does eventually seize the chance to travel to the Land of the Sun and we follow his journey down the coastline of the Pacific Northwest all the way into what is now Mexico.
Bird Girl likes to hunt and do the work of the men. She doesn’t want to do the typically female tasks. When she is told she must stop hunting, learn women’s work and get married, she leaves the band.
The book is based on two separate tales that Wallis heard growing up which she combined as one intertwining tale. Again we are steeped inside the cultures of the peoples of this cold place and their beliefs and stories of survival.
The book shows how it was really a necessity for the band members to follow the rules, for survival but also how it was constrictive for certain people to have to adhere to such rigid rules. It is a cautionary tale but for both sides: how can the band become a bit more flexible so people do not have to leave and suffer a worse fate? How can they allow for these “different” people to stay but thrive? Also, it shows how much they need one another and how much they should stay together. So it is a story full of contradiction and wisdom, as is life.
Both these books are beautifully illustrated by Jim Grant, an Athabaskan native.
At the end of Raising Ourselves, Wallis speaks of how she sees her work as remembering the past, preserving the stories and ways of her people while at the same time trying to find a way to move forward. And to help others do the same. Hers is a complicated journey, full of pain and despair, but she walks it in balance and with great care. I offer her gratitude and appreciation as well as stand in awe of her fortitude and grace.
Velma Wallis is a #NastyWomanWriter.
© Theresa C. Dintino 2021
Wallis, Velma. Bird Girl and the Man who Followed the Sun. Epicenter Press.1996.
__________. Raising Ourselves : A Gwich’in Coming of Age Story from the Yukon River. Epicenter Press. 2002.
__________.Two old women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival.Epicenter Press. 1993