“…a reflection of our people’s ability to overcome and survive throughout the many thousands of years of existence.”
In the Yukon Flats, those whose memories reach back far enough, speak of a time before others drew lines across the map of their ancient homeland. They recall a strong, self-sufficient people who, by their own hard work, intelligence, cooperation and sense of community, provided decent livings for their families. They speak of Elders knowledgeable in the traditions of the people, the ways of the animals, and the nature of the land, Elders who joined with strong chiefs to provide guidance and leadership.
“Being an original nomad who came from this region,” recalls Clarence Alexander, “we were pretty much independent people. We worked for what we needed. We knew how to survive on the land. But things changed. Our people were going through a transition without even knowing it.”
Alexander, a former first Chief of Fort Yukon, was one of the original founders of the Council of Athbascan Tribal Governments.
The transition Alexander speaks of occurred in unexpected and often seemingly benevolent ways. In 1949, Fort Yukon was devastated by a flood. The Red Cross came in to help rebuild. People were assigned house lots, which, contrary to tradition, were surveyed, staked and deeded. Judged by Outside standards, self-sufficient people who well knew the country and who were skilled at living off the richness of the land were suddenly deemed to be impoverished and were put on welfare. Government agencies, having no concept of traditional tribal law, issued rules and regulations that dictated when, where and how much tribal people could hunt, fish and carry out the activities of life.
By the mid-1980’s, there was almost no local economy. Frustration and anger had intruded upon self-sufficiency, generosity and pride. Once unheard of health problems – such as diabetes, cancer and alcoholism – besieged what had traditionally been a fit and robust population. Alexander was now First Chief of the Native Village of Fort Yukon. Traveling downriver to Beaver, he dropped into the home of Paul Williams, Sr., where several other people had gathered, to visit. On the Flats, it is tradition to feed your guests; to share with them the best food in the house. So Paul Williams pulled some muskrat from his freezer and began to prepare it as a meal to feed to his guests. As he did, Williams spoke of Chief Esias Loola, a strong, widely-respected Gwich’in leader who had died in a Seattle in 1957 and had been buried there.
Loola’s family felt it was time to honor the late Fort Yukon chief with a memorial potlatch. Alexander agreed, adding that this might also be a good time to bring together people from across the Yukon Flats to begin a discussion on how to generate a local economy.