The towns of Eagle, Circle, and Central are tucked away in the cold, rugged, and sparsely populated central-eastern interior of Alaska. These communities have fewer than three hundred residents in an area of more than 22,000 square miles. Yet they are closely linked by the Yukon River and by history itself.Through their Eyes is a glimpse into the past and present of these communities, showing how their survival has depended on centuries of cooperation. The towns have roots in the gold rushes but they are also located within the traditional territories of the Hän Hwëch’in, the Gwichyaa Gwich’in, and Denduu Gwich’in Dena (Athabascan) peoples. Over time, residents have woven together new heritages, adopting and practicing each other’s traditions. This book combines oral accounts with archival research to create a rich portrayal of life in rural Alaska villages. Many of the stories come directly from the residents of these communities, giving an inside perspective on the often colorful events that characterize life in Eagle, Circle, and Central.
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About the Author
Michael Koskey is assistant professor and chair of the Center for Cross-Cultural Studies at University of Alaska Fairbanks. He is the author of Cultural Activity and Market Enterprise: A Circumpolar Comparison of Reindeer Herding Communities at the End of the 20th Century. Laurel B. Tyrrell is a resident of Central, Alaska, and lives a subsistence lifestyle with her family. Varpu Lotvonen is a doctoral student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
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The People, the Land, the River
SOME TIME AGO, in the early years of the twenty-first century, an Alaska Native man — a local leader — was asked to try to explain his understanding of what traditional knowledge meant to him. In front of a room filled with government bureaucrats, and with few of his own Hän Hwëch'in people present, this guest began by slowly walking to the front of the room, visibly nervous in spite of countless years of survival in the Alaska woods, in spite of years of recognized leadership and formal educational achievements, and in spite of the widespread admiration of him shown by friends and strangers alike. Bearing himself with dignity and pride but cloaked in humility and deference to those around him — equals in all ways to him, in his mind — Isaac Juneby, of the community of Eagle, stood for a moment thinking of the best way to try to explain his notion of knowledge to the room of college-educated professionals, from communities across the United States and Canada, who had come together in this meeting. Knowing nothing of the lives of most people in the audience, Isaac began his explanation:
You see, somebody asked me, "What is traditional knowledge?" That's the first thing they would ask me and I couldn't go to a dictionary because there's no meaning there. So I said, "It is that what is instilled within my heart from learning; somebody teaching me," and I know that in the Western philosophy of education, a lot of the things we learn is by reading. Well, this one — traditional knowledge — is a passed-on deal. It's word of mouth. And it's also values; what values I know about traditional knowledge. And I'm a collective owner of that type [of knowledge]. It's not like, say, I can write about it and become famous because this is what it is right here — life, survival. It's a value system within the way that I think, and I project it. By that I mean that it's also used in experience and observation ... (Upper Tanana Cultural Resource Summit, March 22–23, 2005)
In this same way, Isaac explained to those involved in compiling and writing this ethnohistorical account that the way things are "recorded in books and on paper" isn't the "true truth," as he stated it, but "one of many truths that people believe with equal sureness." When people remember events of their lives, the realization revealed is that individuals carry many worldviews, and that these worldviews help to shape their beliefs and their experiences of the world. Isaac recognized that knowledge is derived from where worldviews overlap, and where they do not, and so each person possesses knowledge that others do not. Each person has something to teach, and each person has more to learn; traditional knowledge "recognizes" this, and so through humility can one best learn about something. Fully aware of this condition, Isaac sought to help write a history of the people of the central-eastern Interior of Alaska from their own perspectives. To facilitate this effort, many people were interviewed in the villages of Central, Circle, and Eagle — the three principle communities of the central-eastern Interior. This book is the culmination of Isaac's efforts, in cooperation with the authors of this text.
Subsistence Livelihoods and Mixed Economies
This is a story of the people of a region — the central-eastern Interior of Alaska — and through the people we can draw general conclusions about their history, their lives, and their place in the contemporary world. Through the lives of the characters who are historical and local people, an account of the region is revealed. As a series of shared experiences, this work is historical and traditional knowledge — the way the people remember the happenings of their lives, and of those with whom their lives have been shared. Such a reckoning as this is an ethnohistory — a history of a people rather than of a political entity, such as a country or government. This ethnohistory represents and depicts the past from the point of view and perspective of those who lived it, through their own recollections and recordings or through the records, recordings, and remembrances of those who were their peers or later chroniclers.
We will meet many people from Alaska's central-eastern Interior from the three communities of Eagle, Circle, and Central, and each adds to their community's and the region's history. Many are mentioned in passing, in historical reference, or through the accounts of others, but each community focus will feature one or more residents through whom these stories are largely, though not exclusively, recounted. In Eagle, we focus on Isaac Juneby, introduced above, who was a longtime leader and Elder of the Hän people who dwell in Eagle alongside a settler population. Isaac, like the others to be introduced, was adept at living in both worlds — that of Alaska Natives and that of settlers originally from outside Alaska. In Circle, we focus on Albert Carroll, a leader and Elder of the Gwichyaa Gwich'in people, who knew well the particulars of the channels, sloughs, and dangers of the Yukon River. One of the authors of this text, Laurel Tyrrell, a longtime resident of Central, a local historian and teacher, trapper, and hunter, is also featured alongside the historical accounts of the Larsen and Olson families, who were some of the first settlers in the region. Through their eyes, and those of the many community members interviewed for this project, is this ethnohistory created.
Much of the information gained in an ethnohistorical work is derived from oral traditions — especially oral history. These oral historical accounts are then put in their historical place both in their proper time period (chronologically) and also according to other relations with other events and people. Since this work is most fundamentally an account of the lifeways of the indigenous and settler populations of the region, it is told through their accounts, supplemented by recorded accounts from historical, government, church, and other documents. The recollections and oral histories through which an ethnohistorical account is created serve to tie together historical documentary evidence and reckoning with local events and perspectives, thereby personalizing historical developments and people's experiences of them.
Formally, ethnohistory is a branch of cultural studies (usually within anthropological contexts) that focuses on the history of peoples and cultures rather than on historical documents that largely reflect the perspectives of the society's privileged individuals, families, or institutions — often those who write history and control the narrative through the authoring function. This is not to say that formal historical documents written by authors looking in from the outside are dismissed, or that the privileged in society are not relevant to a history of a people, but that these are supplemented by oral accounts of events as remembered by community-respected and recognized knowledge bearers from within all portions of a society's population. In this way an ethnohistory is the history of a people rather than being limited to a history of their polities, their elites, their dominant institutions, and their achievements and conflagrations. An ethnohistory, then, is an account of a people's history from multiple — ideally all — portions of their society.
Ethnohistorians recognize the value of maps, music, paintings, photography, folklore, oral tradition, ecology, site exploration, archaeological materials, museum collections, enduring customs, language, and place names (Axtell 1979, 3–4). By taking the time to learn knowledge of the defined group, including through linguistic insights and an understanding of cultural phenomena, this makes for a more in-depth analysis than if research is based only on written documents (Lurie 1961, 83). Ethnohistorical research attempts to understand a culture on its own terms and according to its own cultural values, expressions, and worldviews. Axtell described ethnohistory as "the use of historical and ethnological methods to gain knowledge of the nature and causes of change in a culture defined by ethnological concepts and categories" (Axtell 1979, 2). Ethnohistory must fundamentally take into account the people's own understanding of how events are constituted, including their ways of culturally constructing the past. Simmons formulated his understanding of ethnohistory as "a form of cultural biography that draws upon as many kinds of testimony as possible over as long a time period as the sources allow," and it is based on a holistic, diachronic approach that is "joined to the memories and voices of living people" (Simmons 1988, 10).
Pivotal to this document as an ethnohistory and apparent throughout this text is the notion, as portrayed by Isaac's insight, that the sharing of knowledge is a reflection of the sharing of culture in general. This is evident throughout the historical narrative and discussion, and this sharing — directly tied to the immigration of settlers into the region — led early to the emergence of conditions of interdependence between indigenous peoples and settlers. As settlers arrived, their economic activities, essentially resource extraction, differed greatly from those of the local indigenous peoples, who relied greatly on subsistence. Soon after arrival, however, many non-Natives learned how to survive in the unfamiliar country by learning traditional knowledge from Alaska Natives — critically important for success in what seemed to settlers to be the edge of the world. Likewise, soon after the settlers' arrival, the local indigenous people began participating in the economic activities of the settlers, including woodcutting for fuel for riverboats, trapping for fur sales to outside buyers, and providing supplies and transport for gold prospectors and others. Through the cross-cultural experiences now long common to the region, a condition has arisen of interdependency — shared experiences characterized by persistence and change. The familiarity with the lands and waters of the region is a common trait among its residents, though how they depend on the land differs between cultures.
Such cross-cultural contact often gradually leads to a common set of values — at least in part — and this can help to develop and maintain respect in cross-cultural interactions. The learning, and sometimes adoption, of others' customs helps to break down social and intellectual barriers that lead to misunderstandings, prejudices, and racism. For example, Isaac Juneby of Eagle pursued a formal Western education to better enable him to work with and understand non-Native government and bureaucracy. Albert Carroll developed into a widely respected riverboat pilot. Laurel Tyrrell was a schoolteacher and earned a master's degree, though she is also a successful subsistence provider. Isaac and Albert, too, continued their subsistence activities throughout their lives. Each one crossed cultures to learn from others, resulting in improved self-sufficiency through expansion of skills while recognizing and maintaining social links through sharing and interdependent support. This pattern can be seen throughout this eastern region of rural Alaska and is representative of processes of social cooperation throughout the North in Alaska and Canada.
This ethnohistory focuses on the central-eastern Interior of Alaska because the rapid changes seen in the region, especially from mining but also from other activities, accentuates the potential for culture clash. The central-eastern Interior is a unique region of northwestern North America that experienced rapid changes due to the presence of nearby mining districts, including the famed Klondike to the east. A cold, dry, rugged region of high plateaus, hills, and boreal forest interspersed with lakes and marshes, the central-eastern Interior is sparsely populated by any standard but provides well for those who are familiar with its lands and waters. Interest in similar resources brings different peoples together, creating economic interdependencies that prove beneficial to all involved.
Crossing the region from southeast to northwest are the Yukon River and its important tributaries — especially Birch Creek and the Fortymile River — which connect the communities of the area. Eagle and Circle lie directly on the Yukon River while Central lies near Birch Creek (more a river than a creek), a tributary of the Yukon. The Yukon figures prominently in the cultures of the central-eastern Interior and also ties the communities together conceptually. Through the focus on the three communities of the area — Eagle, Central, and Circle — the interdependency that enables success in this otherwise-harsh land is a central ethic of local people, particularly through the custom of sharing, and this is especially emphasized culturally among Alaska Natives.
The central-eastern Interior has long been the home of indigenous Athabascan peoples — Alaska Natives — including the Hän Hwëch'in and Gwichyaa Gwich'in (both Athabascan, or more properly Dené or Dena, peoples). For the last 120 years or so, the region has also been the home of settlers from outside Alaska. While the vast majority of these settlers arrived from the United States, many also came from Canada or Europe (and, in modern times, increasingly from the Pacific Rim). In spite of very different origins, worldviews, and spiritual traditions, indigenous and settler groups share a surprising number of similarities, especially in the lifeways practiced in the region. These include subsistence hunting, fishing, and trapping; large-scale woodcutting for the sternwheelers (riverboats); and, of course, gold mining.
Alaska Natives also participated in mining, though it was not common for them to have direct ownership of claims. In the beginning, subject to the sometimes- capricious judgment of the individual miners' associations that constituted early law enforcement, some associations did not permit Alaska Natives to own claims, while others voted to allow such ownership, and still others switched positions over time. For example, the two miners who first discovered gold on Birch Creek in 1893 were of mixed descent (Native and non-Native). Sergei Cherosky and Pitka Pavaloff's original discovery spot was "rediscovered" by three non-Natives. Cherosky and Pavaloff later recorded other claims on Deadwood Creek but apparently lost the claim at the original discovery site due to their Russian and Alaska Native heritage. It is presumed that the mining associations in the Deadwood Creek area must have voted to "allow" them to own their claims there.
As pursuits such as mining led local indigenous peoples to participate in new activities, indigenous peoples also influenced local settlers — particularly in areas of survival. Oftentime, it was the descendants of mixed marriages who formed the cultural bridge between two distinct lifeways and cultures. These individuals, while little noticed in official records, are sometimes well remembered in local accounts and stories. These include Hän leader Isaac Juneby from Eagle and his wife, Sandra, from Chicago, and Albert Carroll's father, James A. Carroll, from Minnesota and his Gwich'in wife, Fannie, from Fort Yukon. Before these, pioneer traders Mayo, McQuesten, and Harper also married Alaska Native women.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Through Their Eyes"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations vii
1 Shared Traditions: The People, the Land, the River 1
2 A Story of Eagle, Alaska 29
3 A Story of Circle, Alaska 71
4 A Story of Central, Alaska 105
5 New Traditions: Subsistence, Commerce, and Shared History 149
References Cited 155
About the Authors 173