Life in Alaska

Children Of The First People

Story and Media by
Wendy Wesser
Media by
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Written by
Wendy Wesser

Review by Wendy Wesser, story by Tricia Brown

“Fresh Voices of Alaska’s Native Kids” is an apt subtitle for Tricia Brown’s new book: Children of the First People. Brown shares uplifting profiles of ten kids from all across Alaska, along with photographs by Roy Corral illustrating these children’s experiences.

The first story I read was about James Williams from Metlakatla, a Tsimshian [sim-she-ANN] community. I chose his story because I lived in Metlakatla myself for three years, attending elementary school while my parents taught and coached at the local schools. I could relate to James exploring Yellow Hill, attending multiple church youth groups, and staying busy with various opportunities. 

My dad, Gil Hjellen, was surprised at the lack of native art in the community when we were living there from 1969-1972, and encouraged community leaders to embrace their culture. His ideas were not well received at the time, but since then, David A. Boxley, a successful Tsimshian artist and one of my dad’s students, has become an inspiration to James and Metlakatla. I loved seeing the photos in Brown’s book dominated by Tsimshian designs and reading about James William’s aspirations to learn more about his culture. We didn’t have a totem pole in front of our school when I lived in Metlakatla and when I showed my dad the story and photos in the book he smiled. 

The other nine unique stories I read, including the story about Aaliya Tiedeman from Cordova on the next page, were just as engaging as the story of James Williams. A map in the book shows where the various Native cultures are located and a very helpful glossary in the back teaches how to properly pronounce many Native names and words. If you are an Alaskan, a visitor, or someone interested in the multitude of cultures that make up today’s Alaska, this is a book you will want to read and learn from. The positive outlooks each of these children share are inspiring and give me much hope for the future of Alaska.

Growing up in Cordova sets Aaliyah Tiedeman apart. First, by geography: Cordova is nestled at the base of Eyak Mountain on the Gulf of Alaska’s Orca Inlet, surrounded by deep forests, migratory bird nesting areas, and sparkling water. The town is unreachable by road, so everyone comes and goes on planes or ferries (aka the Blue Canoes) of the Alaska Marine Highway.

Cordova was a mining boomtown that was officially organized in 1906. It was the end of the line for the Copper River & Northwestern Railway and a deep-water port for outgoing gold, silver, and copper. But centuries before the miners arrived, the Eyak [EE-yack] people lived in villages throughout this region. The place was and is bountiful—deer, fish, birds, and marine mammals for food and clothing; tall, thick trees for building homes and making art. 

“There was no town,” Aaliyah says. “This was just all trees. There were villages at Eyak Lake and other places. They used the Alaganik Slough to catch reds and silvers [salmon]. They just used all the natural resources. It’s like a protected area now. You can’t dig artifacts up.”

The Eyaks are the fewest in number among all of Alaska’s first people. They clashed with neighboring cultures to protect their hunting and fishing grounds. The Alutiiqs lived to the west, Athabascans to the north, and just beyond their eastern border, the mighty Tlingit. Eyak identity has survived through border disputes, a shrinking population, intermarriage, and the death of the last Eyak Native language speaker.

Nearly all of today’s Eyaks are a blend of cultures, including Aaliyah. Her father, Nick, has Unangaxˆ (Aleut), Tlingit, and Athabascan ancestors. Her mother is from the Upper Midwest and is part Chippewa Indian. Together, Aaliyah’s parents teach their three daughters about living traditionally. They built their own cabin, fish and hunt for meat, and process the fish. They also preserve berry and currant jams, jellies, and sauces to last until the next summer.

Each year, grades six and under participate in the school’s Culture Week, where elders share language skills, traditional crafts, and old stories. In summers, Aaliyah’s creative side blooms at Nuuciq [NEW-check] Spirit Camp.

“I’m really, really artistic,” she says. “So I’ll do a lot of skin-sewing. I’ve probably done about fifty things with skin-sewing and beading.” Using furs of seals and sea otters, she has made wallets, pillows, and beautiful bags. At camp, her imagination casts back to the ancestors who walked this land and kayaked these waters. This year she made a model kayak.

“It’s like the real thing,” Aaliyah says. “That’s exactly how they used to make it. Wood floats, obviously, but they needed to put a cover on it, and it was seal or sea-lion skin, but we used nylon.” 

Aaliyah’s little hometown is a popular destination for tourists exploring its historic streets, the Pioneer Hall, the modern museum and library, and the Ilanka Cultural Center. They walk the fishing docks and enjoy seafood at local restaurants. There are no traffic lights here. The one flashing light is for the school zone.

Each February since 1961, itchy for spring, locals have hosted the Iceworm Festival. There are games, food, and a Miss Iceworm competition with a $2,500 scholarship prize. When she’s old enough, Aaliyah hopes to enter. The parade finale features the town mascot, a blue iceworm, slithering down the street like a Chinese dragon, dozens of Cordovans walking inside. 

“It has a huge face,” Aaliyah says. “The person in the front, they have to work hard to keep the head up. And you kind of move it up and down.

“We do have iceworms here,” she adds. “It’s not a fairy tale.” Aaliyah’s right. Since the mysterious worms were discovered in 1887, scientists have learned they’re only a few centimeters long, and that living on glacial ice suits them fine. If the temperature soars to 40°F, iceworms actually melt and die from the heat.

Most Cordova residents fish commercially or work in fish-processing plants. They were deeply affected when the Exxon Valdez tanker went aground in 1989 and brought disaster to their beloved Prince William Sound. The massive oil spill killed birds, marine mammals, fish, and other wildlife. For families that fished and gathered food for survival, it was devastating. 

Aaliyah helps feed her family by dip-netting for salmon and deer hunting. Her .243 rifle, in pink camo, was a reward for passing the hunter safety course. She was thrilled to bring it on her first deer hunt.  

“We were in a marshy area where the deer beds were,” Aaliyah remembers. “We hiked up a couple hills; they weren’t that steep. There were little hemlocks—the perfect tree for a gun positioner—so when you shot, your gun would be steady.” Aaliyah and her father identified a small buck about sixty yards away. Her heart pounded as he coached her.

“I was shaky—I was like, ‘Okay, calm down,’” Aaliyah says. “My dad was holding my shoulders and saying, ‘Steady breathing.’ Then I shot at it once, and it dropped. I was so proud of myself.”

Afterward, Aaliyah followed the tradition of her people. “I thanked the animal, because I know my ancestors did it. They’ve given their life for you, for your family. That’s the first thing we do. Once you drop the animal, you go down there and thank it.”

In the spring, Aaliyah will fly to Anchorage for the Native Youth Olympics. She’ll compete against girls from around the state in the Alaskan High Kick, which requires exceptional balance and strength. She also loves basketball, both watching it and playing it. Plus there’s listening to music while working out, spending time with friends, babysitting, and schoolwork. She’s in advanced math and plans to study sports medicine someday. 

As much as she has learned, Aaliyah still has many questions for her teachers. Not surprisingly for the future doctor, most are about health. “The medicine men . . . how did they figure out the people who were affected by this disease and what medicine they needed? And how did the first Eyak people learn how this plant was good [for medicine] and this plant wasn’t?” Aaliyah is still learning.

Excerpt from Children of the First People: Fresh Voices of Alaska’s Native Kids, ©2019 by Tricia Brown, photos by Roy Corral, Alaska Northwest Books, reprinted by permission.

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Children Of The First People

Life in Alaska

Author

Wendy Wesser

Writing, history, gardening, and traveling are a few of Wendy Wesser’s interests. She grew up in Alaska, living as far south as Metlakatla and as far north as Fairbanks. Her family’s history of six generations in Alaska reaches back to the Gold Rush years. She loves reading, hearing, and sharing Alaskan stories of newcomers and oldtimers alike—Last Frontier Magazine has provided her the opportunity to work in this very venue.Alternate bio for articles: Wendy currently resides in Wasilla, Alaska, but has also lived in Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. She enjoys sharing her life experiences of hiking, skiing, gardening, winter camping, etc…, as well as helping other Alaskans (old, new, current, or past) to share their own tales. Since she always says, “Yes!” to the next adventure, her backlog of stories is varied and almost endless. 


Author

Tricia Brown

TRICIA BROWN has written and edited dozens of books since she first made Alaska her home in 1978. In a career that evolved from newspapers to magazines to book publishing, her writing is inspired by Alaska, reflected in nearly thirty titles on Native cultures, dog mushing, Last Frontier living, reference, and travel. She travels often for school and library visits, where she urges students to water the creative seeds inside of them. Tricia and her husband Perry make their home in Anchorage.

Review by Wendy Wesser, story by Tricia Brown

“Fresh Voices of Alaska’s Native Kids” is an apt subtitle for Tricia Brown’s new book: Children of the First People. Brown shares uplifting profiles of ten kids from all across Alaska, along with photographs by Roy Corral illustrating these children’s experiences.

The first story I read was about James Williams from Metlakatla, a Tsimshian [sim-she-ANN] community. I chose his story because I lived in Metlakatla myself for three years, attending elementary school while my parents taught and coached at the local schools. I could relate to James exploring Yellow Hill, attending multiple church youth groups, and staying busy with various opportunities. 

My dad, Gil Hjellen, was surprised at the lack of native art in the community when we were living there from 1969-1972, and encouraged community leaders to embrace their culture. His ideas were not well received at the time, but since then, David A. Boxley, a successful Tsimshian artist and one of my dad’s students, has become an inspiration to James and Metlakatla. I loved seeing the photos in Brown’s book dominated by Tsimshian designs and reading about James William’s aspirations to learn more about his culture. We didn’t have a totem pole in front of our school when I lived in Metlakatla and when I showed my dad the story and photos in the book he smiled. 

The other nine unique stories I read, including the story about Aaliya Tiedeman from Cordova on the next page, were just as engaging as the story of James Williams. A map in the book shows where the various Native cultures are located and a very helpful glossary in the back teaches how to properly pronounce many Native names and words. If you are an Alaskan, a visitor, or someone interested in the multitude of cultures that make up today’s Alaska, this is a book you will want to read and learn from. The positive outlooks each of these children share are inspiring and give me much hope for the future of Alaska.

Growing up in Cordova sets Aaliyah Tiedeman apart. First, by geography: Cordova is nestled at the base of Eyak Mountain on the Gulf of Alaska’s Orca Inlet, surrounded by deep forests, migratory bird nesting areas, and sparkling water. The town is unreachable by road, so everyone comes and goes on planes or ferries (aka the Blue Canoes) of the Alaska Marine Highway.

Cordova was a mining boomtown that was officially organized in 1906. It was the end of the line for the Copper River & Northwestern Railway and a deep-water port for outgoing gold, silver, and copper. But centuries before the miners arrived, the Eyak [EE-yack] people lived in villages throughout this region. The place was and is bountiful—deer, fish, birds, and marine mammals for food and clothing; tall, thick trees for building homes and making art. 

“There was no town,” Aaliyah says. “This was just all trees. There were villages at Eyak Lake and other places. They used the Alaganik Slough to catch reds and silvers [salmon]. They just used all the natural resources. It’s like a protected area now. You can’t dig artifacts up.”

The Eyaks are the fewest in number among all of Alaska’s first people. They clashed with neighboring cultures to protect their hunting and fishing grounds. The Alutiiqs lived to the west, Athabascans to the north, and just beyond their eastern border, the mighty Tlingit. Eyak identity has survived through border disputes, a shrinking population, intermarriage, and the death of the last Eyak Native language speaker.

Nearly all of today’s Eyaks are a blend of cultures, including Aaliyah. Her father, Nick, has Unangaxˆ (Aleut), Tlingit, and Athabascan ancestors. Her mother is from the Upper Midwest and is part Chippewa Indian. Together, Aaliyah’s parents teach their three daughters about living traditionally. They built their own cabin, fish and hunt for meat, and process the fish. They also preserve berry and currant jams, jellies, and sauces to last until the next summer.

Each year, grades six and under participate in the school’s Culture Week, where elders share language skills, traditional crafts, and old stories. In summers, Aaliyah’s creative side blooms at Nuuciq [NEW-check] Spirit Camp.

“I’m really, really artistic,” she says. “So I’ll do a lot of skin-sewing. I’ve probably done about fifty things with skin-sewing and beading.” Using furs of seals and sea otters, she has made wallets, pillows, and beautiful bags. At camp, her imagination casts back to the ancestors who walked this land and kayaked these waters. This year she made a model kayak.

“It’s like the real thing,” Aaliyah says. “That’s exactly how they used to make it. Wood floats, obviously, but they needed to put a cover on it, and it was seal or sea-lion skin, but we used nylon.” 

Aaliyah’s little hometown is a popular destination for tourists exploring its historic streets, the Pioneer Hall, the modern museum and library, and the Ilanka Cultural Center. They walk the fishing docks and enjoy seafood at local restaurants. There are no traffic lights here. The one flashing light is for the school zone.

Each February since 1961, itchy for spring, locals have hosted the Iceworm Festival. There are games, food, and a Miss Iceworm competition with a $2,500 scholarship prize. When she’s old enough, Aaliyah hopes to enter. The parade finale features the town mascot, a blue iceworm, slithering down the street like a Chinese dragon, dozens of Cordovans walking inside. 

“It has a huge face,” Aaliyah says. “The person in the front, they have to work hard to keep the head up. And you kind of move it up and down.

“We do have iceworms here,” she adds. “It’s not a fairy tale.” Aaliyah’s right. Since the mysterious worms were discovered in 1887, scientists have learned they’re only a few centimeters long, and that living on glacial ice suits them fine. If the temperature soars to 40°F, iceworms actually melt and die from the heat.

Most Cordova residents fish commercially or work in fish-processing plants. They were deeply affected when the Exxon Valdez tanker went aground in 1989 and brought disaster to their beloved Prince William Sound. The massive oil spill killed birds, marine mammals, fish, and other wildlife. For families that fished and gathered food for survival, it was devastating. 

Aaliyah helps feed her family by dip-netting for salmon and deer hunting. Her .243 rifle, in pink camo, was a reward for passing the hunter safety course. She was thrilled to bring it on her first deer hunt.  

“We were in a marshy area where the deer beds were,” Aaliyah remembers. “We hiked up a couple hills; they weren’t that steep. There were little hemlocks—the perfect tree for a gun positioner—so when you shot, your gun would be steady.” Aaliyah and her father identified a small buck about sixty yards away. Her heart pounded as he coached her.

“I was shaky—I was like, ‘Okay, calm down,’” Aaliyah says. “My dad was holding my shoulders and saying, ‘Steady breathing.’ Then I shot at it once, and it dropped. I was so proud of myself.”

Afterward, Aaliyah followed the tradition of her people. “I thanked the animal, because I know my ancestors did it. They’ve given their life for you, for your family. That’s the first thing we do. Once you drop the animal, you go down there and thank it.”

In the spring, Aaliyah will fly to Anchorage for the Native Youth Olympics. She’ll compete against girls from around the state in the Alaskan High Kick, which requires exceptional balance and strength. She also loves basketball, both watching it and playing it. Plus there’s listening to music while working out, spending time with friends, babysitting, and schoolwork. She’s in advanced math and plans to study sports medicine someday. 

As much as she has learned, Aaliyah still has many questions for her teachers. Not surprisingly for the future doctor, most are about health. “The medicine men . . . how did they figure out the people who were affected by this disease and what medicine they needed? And how did the first Eyak people learn how this plant was good [for medicine] and this plant wasn’t?” Aaliyah is still learning.

Excerpt from Children of the First People: Fresh Voices of Alaska’s Native Kids, ©2019 by Tricia Brown, photos by Roy Corral, Alaska Northwest Books, reprinted by permission.

No items found.

Author

Wendy Wesser

Author

Tricia Brown

Author & Media

Wendy Wesser

Author & Media

Tricia Brown

No items found.

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