Anthropologists create portrait of tribe

Posted: Thursday, February 12, 2004

Fate dealt the Han Athabaskans a strange hand.

The Han homeland revolved around the upper Yukon and its tributaries, one of the world's remotest and wildest regions for centuries. But in the late 19th century, outsiders found gold there. When the Klondike stampede began, the tribe became homeless in its own homeland.

The Han provide a different view of the often-romanticized gold rush chapter of northern history. One chief poignantly told a visitor that his people did not mind strangers taking the gold, but the prospectors' decimation of the region's game left them in dire straits. A century later, the Han are still recovering from the disruption.

For example, although the tribe's beadwork (praised by visitors a century ago) endures, other skills have languished. The tribe was famous prior to the gold rush for its dramatic singing and dancing, but missionaries discouraged such pagan activities and banned traditional potlatches. Now the performers' descendents are turning to other tribes to borrow and reinvent music so, as one elder puts it, the heartbeat of the drum can return.

Anthropologists Craig Mishler and William E. Simeone tell the tribe's story in "Han, People of the River," a book that is both an informal introduction to the group and a formal ethnography. Although concise and compact, it contains an encyclopedic overview of the Han, covering topics as diverse as prehistoric migrations, transcriptions of oral legends, chiefs' biographies and how to play contemporary card games.

"Our narrative, like a churning fishwheel, catches major events and contemporary issues of importance to the Han, even though it allows a lot of smaller fish to escape upriver. After finding an eddy, however, we abandon the broad sweep of Han history and grab our long-handled dip nets to touch the bottom of the river, to reach more deeply into the ethnographic past and present," they write.

The book's origins are unusual. The National Park Service commissioned it via the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to document the traditional culture linked with the Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve. The authors decided to write about the entire Han homeland, extending beyond the preserve and across the border into the Yukon. To complete the project, they drew upon a generation of work by many Natives and scholars and worked closely with the agencies and community leaders, especially in Eagle Village.

Mishler and Simeone avoid academic jargon, and much of their writing is lively and personal. They portray tribal leaders and elders past and present, including what they call "snapshots" of village life. Often they let the Han speak for themselves. For example, elder Percy Henry (former chief of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation in Dawson), explained how he worked hard in his youth to earn the right to listen to elders' tales:

"I used to work like slave to get story," he told the authors. "Pack water or cut wood or empty slop buckets. That's the way I trade the story."

Mishler and Simeone describe an arc of Han history that can be summarized as the fall and rise of a culture.

Early fur traders came into the area in the mid-1800s, and in their wake waves of disease decimated the Native population. By the end of the 19th century, missionaries moved in, promoting cultural changes. After the gold rush dispossessed the Han, they left the subsistence economy for the cash one. After World War II, they found themselves on the road system and under assimilation pressure. Only in recent decades have trends such as Native land claims, tribal governments and cultural renaissance pulled them back from extinction.

Now, even though their language is endangered, the Han are finding renewed pride and purpose. "Han, People of the River" ends on a hopeful note, describing recent developments such as regional gatherings, the opening of a Han museum in Dawson and the establishment of a culture camp for young people.

The book's historic photographs, many dating from the gold rush era, do much to enrich the book. In addition, it includes maps and color plates, which showcase Han traditional arts.

The authors make it clear that there is much more to say about the Han and their rich traditions. Rather than try to include every detail, they provide a sampler that gives the reader a taste of many aspects of Han culture, past and present.

This is a readable introduction to a fascinating corner of Alaska.

Shana Loshbaugh is a writer and former Peninsula Clarion reporter who now lives near Fairbanks.

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