Thanks to the determination of a mother and daughter, and with the help of the Yukon Native Language Centre, a new book provides a fascinating glimpse of a 20th-century life lived in the traditional First Nations way.
Family and Traditional Southern Tutchone Stories, by the late well-respected elder Bessie Allen of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nation, documents episodes from Allen’s long life lived in and around the Nisling River Valley between Kluane Lake and Carmacks.
The book also includes a map with Southern Tutchone place names and their English equivalents, and a genealogical record of Bessie Allen’s family tree, making it an invaluable record of traditional names as well as a repository of traditional techniques for living on the land.
The book began life a decade ago when Bessie Allen’s daughter Lorraine, a native language instructor in Whitehorse, undertook the task of tape-recording her mother’s stories in the Southern Tutchone language.
She translated and transcribed them in English, but wrote the names of people and places exactly as her mother pronounced them in Southern Tutchone.
“I would tape my mother for three or four hours at a time, but after that she got tired,” explains Allen. “That’s why it took me a long time to complete the work.”
Still, it was important for her to record her mother’s stories because so many elders had passed away without their knowledge being written down, she says.
“My mother said that maybe when I listened to the tape later I’d think about it,” says Allen.
“I guess she felt that as I listened to the stories again I’d understand the importance of what she was telling me.”
Allen hopes that the book will not only help people remember the traditional ways, but that “people can share the kinds of experiences my mother had, from a time when they travelled hundreds of miles to trap and hunt and visit.”
Staff have put a lot of work into preserving the names of the people and places that Allen remembered, says language centre publications officer Sheila Maissan, who helped to produce the book.
“It’s vital to record those names as accurately as possible so we can preserve them for future generations, because fewer and fewer people now remember them.”
Allen was born near Aishihik Lake around 1901 to Robert Isaac and Sadie Roberts Isaac.
A member of the Wolf clan and the grand-daughter of a renowned Southern Tutchone Chief Isaac, she was given the Southern Tutchone name of Äshèn.
As a young woman she met her husband-to-be, Jack Allen, in Burwash, where he worked at the trading post, and until the 1940s they lived at Aishihik Village with their children.
Here Bessie served as a midwife and also used traditional medicines. For instance, she treated flu victims with the broth from boiled moose bones, which gave strength.
Her book documents a time when rivers, not roads, were the main centres of family and community life in the Yukon, and when families moved on foot between river drainages, following well-travelled routes.
In its first section, Family History, Bessie speaks directly to her daughter, explaining who particular ancestors are, how each is related to Lorraine, and how these names are passed on to younger generations.
Marriages in those days, Bessie explains, connected families from distant communities and strengthened connections.
For example, her father-in-law came from Northway, Alaska, and married a woman from Hutshi, several hundred miles away.
Two sections of the book, entitled Making a Living Long Ago and Making a Living in My Time, are filled with descriptions of the day-to-day work of making tools for obtaining food and shelter.
Here is Bessie describing how to make snares, which were used to trap gophers and rabbits as well as larger game:
“When they killed a moose they twisted sinew. They scrape the moose skin first, then cut it in strips and twist it. The snares are black, so the moose cannot see it.
“When you set the snares for moose, you set it the same far-up height as a moose would stand, along the trails to the lakes, where the moose go down for water.”
Chief Isaac was skilled in the use of big-game snares, and she gives a delightful and humorous account of how he taught Old Allen, her husband’s father, to make sheep snares.
In Section 4, Nisling River Childhood Travels, and Section 5, Starvation at Nisling River, Bessie recalls specific events of her childhood and adulthood.
Like modern children, she and her friend Bessie Crow (Shänlaya) resisted some of their tasks — in this case digging spruce roots, she says.
“Gee, I really didn’t like the way my mom made us pull out spruce tree roots!”
Her gripping account of starvation along the Nisling River sometime in the mid-1930s is also a story of courage and survival, because the supplies that Bessie and her husband had hauled from Kloo Lake helped to save a number of their friends and relatives.
“In times of starvation people don’t see anything, not even moose,” Bessie recalls. “Animals move away from people. There were no rabbits or squirrels. Even the grouse — there was nothing.”
The book also records the traditional round of the seasons — muskrat and beaver trapping in spring, fishing and small game harvesting in summer, and moose, caribou and sheep hunting in the fall after the young of these animals began to put on fat.
In the fall, families dried fish and meat to store in tree caches until they could return in winter by dog team and sled.
Bessie and her husband later moved to Haines Junction, where Bessie continued to raise her family, tan hides, and sew traditional garments, making slippers, vests, mittens and blankets.
She was still tanning hides well into her 80s.
But by the time she began the work of recording her stories with her daughter, she was one of the few people still living who could remember the years when the Nisling River was a busy route.
Travellers from Aishihik, Fort Selkirk and Carmacks regularly met there to carry out subsistence activities and to trade, and as recently as the 1930s and 1940s, Nisling remained a place of great sociability and exchange.
But it was bypassed by the highways built following the Second World War, and already seemed remote in her mid-90s when Bessie and her daughter began documenting these stories.
Bessie, who passed away in 2005, is survived by five children — daughters Lorraine, Rosalie and Virginia and sons Percy and James — as well as 15 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
Once printed, her book, which also includes a preface by CYFN grand chief Andy Carvill and photographs of Bessie and her family, will be available from the Yukon Native Language Centre at a cost of $25.
Submitted by Yukon Native Language Centre.