Sunday, June 1, 2014

Gwich'in Legend

Here in the new-shoot-green days leading into summer, I read a legend told by the Alaskan Native Athabaskan people, who have made their lives in the frozen landscape of the far North for thousands of years. I want to share the story with you. This story belongs to Velma Wallis, a Gwich’in, who wrote it down in a little book called Two Old Women. The Gwich’in are one of the Athabaskan tribes. Velma’s tribe’s legend goes something like this.

During the deepest days of winter, in a time of famine, a tribal chief decreed that two old women were to be left behind when the tribe moved on in search of better hunting grounds. The people of the tribe were starving and weak, the hunters had not caught anything much to eat for many days, and the tribe’s resources were exhausted. The chief thought that the two old women were an unbearable burden on the tribe. The two old women moved slowly when the tribe traveled, they could not carry anything and so others had to carry their belongings, they were two more mouths to feed at a time when it was important to maintain the strength of the hunters with what little food they had. Other tribal leaders and members agreed with the chief’s verdict. No one was pleased with the decision, but it was the sort of decision that was made from time to time in that place by those people under desperate circumstances. The two old women could remember times from their youth when elderly tribal members were left behind.

But the elderly people who the two old women remembered being left behind were near death, and these two old women were not. They still had some spirit in them. So they rallied. Neither one of them had hunted since they were young, but they set a snare and by great luck caught a rabbit. They made a shelter, stoked a fire from coals, ate their rabbit, and laid their plans. They devised a way to pack up their belongings so that they could pull them along behind them like a sled. They kept the coals from their fire hot in an animal skin, which they carried with them. They made tools and hunting weapons. They remembered a place where their tribe had found fish in the river decades before and they decided to walk there.

Although they moved slowly and had great difficulty hauling their meager possessions behind them, they traveled one step at a time and one day at a time to the place they remembered. They stopped in their travels every few days to set snares and they were lucky enough to catch squirrels and rabbits to eat. While with the tribe, they had come to depend on others for all their needs, but out of necessity they were now forced to look after themselves. It was painful for them to force their aging bodies to push the outer limits of their endurance. It would have been easy for them to lay down in the snow and freeze to death. That would have been a comfortable way to die. But they had decided to live.

Eventually they found the place they remembered. They set up their shelter by the river to wait for the spring thaw when it would flow again and bring them fish. In the meantime, they continued to trap and hunt small creatures. They smoked and dried their extra meat. They made clothing from the fur of the rabbits and squirrels. They made hats and shoes and gloves. They pieced together blankets and coats. They made more clothing than they could possibly use. Their hands, though arthritic with age, were never idle. In the spring, the river flowed, and they caught fish, which they smoked and dried and stored. During the summer they foraged for other edibles, such as cranberries. Summer flowed into autumn and soon it was dark winter again, but they were not concerned since they had stored far more food than they could possibly eat.

They made a good life together, a life of remarkable abundance. But they missed the company of their tribe, especially the children.

Then one day in mid-winter, a member of their tribe stumbled upon them at their home. He was stunned to find them alive. They invited him into their shelter and fed him. He told them that the tribe had not fared well after it abandoned them the previous winter. Many tribal members, especially children, had starved to death. They had traveled to other places but never found much to eat. Now, in a second winter of famine, the tribe was in dire straits.

The two old women stepped aside and discussed what to do. They agreed to forgive the tribe for leaving them behind. They sent the man back to the tribe with an invitation for the tribe to come to their home to share the food they had stocked. The chief came to them in shame and apologized. He had suffered terrible remorse over his decision to abandon them. He was overjoyed that they had survived. He confessed that he thought the continued misfortune of the tribe had come because of his bad decision to leave the two old women behind.

And so the two old women rejoined their tribe and saved the lives of their people. The tribe stopped traveling and made a permanent home by the river where they could fish in the summer months and stock up for the winter. The two old women were treated with respect and consulted in all tribal decisions. Never again would the tribe undervalue their elders or forget that there is no substitute for the wisdom that comes with age, for it is earned over the course of time. As it turned out, the weakest among them were the strongest and those whom they thought were their greatest liability were their greatest asset. 

As the Pomo Natives from around these parts where I live say at the end of a story with much truth:  OH!

 Athabaskan homes in winter.

 Athabaskan homes in summer.

Athabaskan family.

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