Arctic Natives’ Subsistence Holiday Living and Their Loving Lessons

Arctic Natives’ Subsistence Holiday Living and Their Loving Lessons

Arctic Native story-teller (Athabaskan)

The handmade 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 was no turn-around for my length of rig ahead, I’d be in trouble, because I could not 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 was a turn-around circling a log building. Across the road was a grayed wooden cabin where stories are told.

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

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

The elder had 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 embroidered: moccasins, shirts, dresses.

Arctic Natives’ Subsistence: Aishnik-Champagne nation style fish trap

Behind her, on a counter top was 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 subsistence living meant before journeying to beyond the Arctic Circle, and back again that 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 were and are to this day, 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 subsistence 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 had finished with us, a messenger arrived to bring her to one of the fish camps where her help was 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 had 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 which has no dollar cost, but 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 homemade 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 that year, there are “Fashion Shows.” The women’s fashion show features the clothing that 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 stood before the judging panel and spectators in 90 degree temperatures in her fur parka. She explained in clear, careful, slow speech (English is not 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 presentation”:

“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 would 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 angered 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 mixing 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.

Decades ago I moved to a home on the shore of the great ocean that surrounds the world, and began serious food gardening. Soon, friends and relatives made it clear that all they wanted for the midwinter holiday was fruit leather from my organically managed fruit trees, and perhaps some fruit butters, or home-made chutney. For a while my youngest daughter put up old country natural pickled cucumbers and gifted me with them. Friends were invited to pick fruit and berries in season.

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

What can each of us give of ourselves, besides money, that will be long and fondly remembered?

As I write this, the world is frozen outside. There’s little or no traffic on the icy 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, blessed holiday season.