FAIRBANKS — Chief Paul Williams, of Beaver, was named Elder of the Year at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Anchorage this October. This award is given to the elder who is “recognized as a leader, an educator and a preserver of the Native culture whose contributions have benefited Alaska Native peoples throughout his/her life,” according to the AFN website.
Williams, now 75 years old, lives in Beaver, where he has been the Traditional Tribal Chief since 1984. He spoke by phone to the News-Miner and discussed his long life and strong commitment to preserving the ways of his people.
Williams was born in Salmon Village, near Chalkyitsik, in 1936. He attended high school at Mt. Edgecumbe, a boarding school in Sitka. After graduating in 1958, he moved to Inglewood, Calif., which is part of the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area. There he trained as an airframe and powerplant mechanic. After 11 months in California he joined the army and was sent to Schofield Barrack in Hawaii. Williams remembers his time in California and Hawaii as one of isolation.
“It was kind of strange living in Los Angeles, you know, and being in the army. I missed my people and my language and my way of life. I was the only Indian in the whole division, and we were 12,000 strong,” Williams said.
There are some things, about Hawaii especially, Williams misses now.
“Right now I would rather be in Hawaii — it’s 45 below this morning,” Williams said, chuckling heartily.
Williams served as a corporal specializing in small arms and platoon tactics in the 25th Infantry Division, known as the Tropic Lightning Division, for three years. He intended to stay in the Army longer, but a trip home after his first tour changed his plans.
“I met my future wife at that time, in 1963, and then I threw all my military career out the window,” Williams said, chuckling again.
Williams was married to Lois (nee Peter) for 45 years and they had five children together, four of whom are still living. Though Williams considered Beaver his home, he stayed in Lois’ home of Arctic Village for two decades.
“I told her mom I’d work for her for 20 years, and I did,” Williams said.
Williams worked as a firefighter, carpenter and heavy equipment operator in the summertime, and hauled wood and water, hunted and trapped in the winter.
“I’ve been a trapper all my life,” Williams said.
After his mother-in-law passed away in 1983 and he “completed his 20 years,” he and Lois moved to Beaver. Williams went to work as a research information technician for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1996, acting as a village liaison and interpreter for 14 years.
“I worked there until three years ago — after my wife passed away I retired, because I was having a hard time. Now I’m doing a lot better. I feel like living again,” Williams said.
Williams now devotes his life to teaching Native Alaskan ways to the next generation.
“You know, one of the things that I did after my wife passed away is I dedicated one of my Native allotments, it’s a 40-acre allotment, to teaching kids about living out in the woods. I call it the Athabascan traditional way of survival,” Williams said.
Every summer, Williams takes Native youths from Fairbanks, Minto, Fort Yukon, Venetie, Arctic Village and other Interior villages to his land. With the help of friend Ron Prapp, a pastor from North Pole, he teaches the kids practical skills they no longer learn in their day-to-day lives.
“We teach them about how to build a fish wheel, and how to maintain it, and fish nets, and how to dry fish. We do some tanning, and canning, and smoking fish. We teach them all that, and how to keep the bears away — you know, survival,” Williams said.
Williams also teaches the kids map and compass reading, and how to make shelter and find food in the wilderness.
“Alaska is a big land, people still get lost. They know what plants are good to eat, and where to find them, like roots and certain plants, wild onions and certain vegetables. How to catch fish with just a willow loop, how to makes snares out of roots and catch a rabbit, how to catch a ground squirrel — there’s quite a few ways you can live,” Williams said.
Williams said he also receives some help from his former employers at Fish and Wildlife.
“Sometimes they supply the gas for travel, and that’s a big deal because it’s a big cost. And they come up and teach kids about how to manage the Yukon Flats National Refuge, you know, it’s a congressional mandate. (They teach) how they do it, and how to talk to the people, and game law enforcement and game regulation, and the different management areas,” Williams said.
Williams can now add acting to his resume. He recently appeared in an educational movie about diabetes, made by his friend Tim Langdon, a nurse from Tok.
“I play the old guy who tells about how to live on the land. In the movie, a bear gets into my cabin and destroys my medicine,” Williams said.
Williams and Langdon hope to make another movie soon, this one about suicide prevention. Williams sees the movie making as yet another way he can carry out his mission of helping his people keep their traditional ways and values.
“There is a lot of stuff going on and it didn’t used to be that way. We’re all living in the village — we used to be out on the land and very seldom we came to the village — we were out at summer camp and winter camp and spring camp. We’re losing our language and we’ve stopped trapping,” William said. “It scares me what we might be losing, this valuable cultural stuff. We’re Native people, we’re not white people.”
Contact staff writer Dorothy Chomicz at 459-7590.