FAIRBANKS — It was the raven’s idea. He was hanging out on an island with the loon, laughing and telling jokes over the fire. In ancient times, the two birds were friends. Feeling playful, they decided to decorate each other with charcoal. They were both grayish white, and wanted some other accents. The loon went first. When the raven was done, the loon looked really sharp, with a black throat, striped neck and faded gray crown.
Then it was the raven’s turn. The loon mixed some water with the charcoal and started painting him.
“Don’t look — close your eyes,” he said.
The raven chuckled, excited about the makeover.
The loon painted and painted, until the raven was the color of black ink. But when the raven saw his new coat, he wasn’t happy. The loon, anticipating his reaction, had already jumped in the lake and started swimming away. Before he could dive under, the raven grabbed a burning stick from the fire and hit him in the back of the head.
“That’s why today the loon’s got this marking here,” Paul Williams said.
Williams, 78, first heard the story from his grandmother when he was a young boy. Storytelling was always a big part of Gwich’in culture, a way for elders to share lessons, values and spirituality with younger generations as they sat around a fire.
Today, they’re continuing the tradition, but over an electronic fire pit, of sorts. For the past two years, a group of elders has been calling into a conference line from in and around the Yukon Flats, taking turns telling stories they heard from their grandparents — of people who could move land with their minds and animals that could talk. In the style of a talking circle, elders chime in from Beaver, Arctic Village, Venetie and Stevens Village to piece together stories that have been passed down for thousands of years.
On the other end of the line, this ancient history is being recorded on a digital memory card, preserved for future generations before it’s forgotten.
“Time is changing really fast. We need to accomplish as much as we can to help other human beings understand,” Williams said.
Williams is traditional chief in Beaver, a small village in the Yukon Flats. He was born in 1936 in Salmon Village, a seasonal settlement on the Black River that’s no longer inhabited. His family lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle, moving between fish camp, caribou camp and the trapline, traveling by dog team and sleeping in small cabins and canvas tents.
When he was 4 years old, they moved to the nearest village — Chalkyitsik — so he could attend school. From there, his life changed rapidly: he went away to boarding school, learned English and ultimately joined the Army. Years later, he returned to the Gwich’in region, marrying Lois Peter, of Arctic Village, where he served as a leader before eventually moving back to Beaver.
But Williams missed sitting around the fire, listening to stories in his Gwich’in language.
In 2013, he started an effort to save the traditional stories, organizing a group of eight elders from across the Yukon Flats and teaming up with the University of Alaska Fairbanks Center for Cross-Cultural Studies. Every few months, they meet telephonically to record stories in Gwich’in.
“It’s the best project I’ve ever worked on,” said Mike Koskey, a professor of indigenous studies at UAF.
Most oral history projects are led by researchers pursuing an academic interest, he said.
“What makes this one so unique is it is community-initiated and driven by the elders,” he said.
They tell stories together, building on each other’s memories to add detail and perspective.
Though the Athabascan people have lived in Alaska for thousands of years, there are no books or journals to describe life in the old days.
“The story was never written because there was no written word. It was all handed down verbally, by generation through generation,” Williams said.
But most of today’s youth don’t speak Gwich’in. A few weeks ago, the group met in Arctic Village to share traditional knowledge with students in the Brooks Range community. They partnered with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to host a five-day science and elders’ camp. The camp, in its 12th year, focused on learning about the land from both scientific and traditional perspectives.
Students learned to sample streamwater, weave baskets out of birch bark and build a caribou skin canoe, among other skills.
They also listened to stories — stories of humans migrating across the Land Bridge, of the first contact with Europeans, of ravens and wolves and animal spirits.
The ultimate goal of the storytelling project is to produce a book in both Gwich’in and English, along with short films geared toward youth.
The stories will help young people learn their Gwich’in language. It also will help them learn who they are and where they come from, Williams said, making them more resistant to problems like drugs, alcohol and suicide.
“That makes them proud, you know. Anybody who respects themselves and other people are stronger and better for the fight.”
Molly Rettig is a freelance writer who lives in Ester.