The First Gathering
A great gathering took place in Fort Yukon in September of 1985. In the evenings, Chief Loola was properly honored with song, speech, dance and ceremony. During the days, the people discussed the problems they faced and sought solutions for them. “To me, I find that we are lazy, because we have been holding our hands out for too long,” Chief Alexander told those gathered. “I’ve seen the village degrading. It’s been degrading since around 1950. I was 10 years old at the time when I saw the change taking place. At that time, we were kind of put into a little box of house lots and city streets.”
Before that, the village was organized but in a different form… we also had people who were very productive as far as taking care of traplines, and doing their summer jobs… I think we need to put our heads together and think about economic development.”
“We don’t unite as a Native people,” John Titus of Venetie counseled. “When one of us is advanced in a certain area, we begin to get jealous and then we turn our hatred against him, or her, because they’re doing better than us. I think that our number one enemy is the jealousy among one another… Let’s go back and be Indian, and start over again.”
“Long time ago, 1940, there was lots of smart people,” Simon Francis of Chalkytsik added. “We don’t get no help, no pension, no check. It’s tough life, but people smart that time. Go out in the woods and get anything you want. Get meat, trapping, fishing and work all summer. Nowadays, not like that. Nowadays, just check the post office for checks. We can’t do it all the time that way. I never gone school, but I always got job, carpentry job. I make snowshoe when I was kid. Today, still make snowshoe… But we say we got no jobs. Lots of things in this world: lot of wood, lot of fish, lot of game. We got to work for it.”
Participants felt they had planted a good seed, but knew if they did not act soon, nothing would grow.
Assisted by an Administration for Native Americans grant, villagers gathered in Beaver the following July. Many ideas were presented – sawmill development, marketing fur, creating a tourist industry. People spoke of their frustration with all the different government systems that had been created elsewhere and which were staffed by people from other places but which sought to extend their powers into the Yukon Flats and to control everything, from the management of fish and game to education and health care. The people of the Flats had little input into these systems, and felt no sense of ownership over them.
The following September, the fledgling organization began a series of meetings to determine where they wanted to go and how they could best get there. Rejecting the idea of a non-profit corporation, they chose to create an organization under the authority of the tribal governments. It’s board would be the elected chiefs from 10 villages, reaching from Circle down to Rampart on the Yukon River, and out into the drainage areas to include the communities of Canyon Village, Chalkytsik, Birch Creek, Venetie and Arctic Village. Pat Stanley was hired as Executive Director, a job she would hold for 17 years. So began the Council of Athabascan Tribal Governments.