Elder recalls old ways at Native American History month

Posted: Wednesday, November 27, 2002

FAIRBANKS -- Howard Luke's memories of Fairbanks during the 1930s and later requires listeners to use their imaginations.

''I used to drive my dogs right up Cushman Street. Now you can't even walk down Cushman Street,'' Luke told a small gathering at the University of Alaska Fairbanks on a recent Friday afternoon. ''And I used to camp with my dogs overnight near where Lathrop School is.''

The 80-year-old Athabascan elder shared not only early day memories, but some strong opinions about the future and eroding Native customs. And for good measure, he threw in a couple of traditional stories to the delight of the children in attendance and to mark Native American History month.

Long before the University of Alaska was perched on ''the Hill'' west of Fairbanks, the area was called ''troth yeddha,'' meaning ''wild potato hill,'' by the Athabascan people, Luke said. The promontory's Athabascan name came about because of the abundance of wild potatoes cached underground by mice and gathered by the Natives in the fall, Luke explained. He described his mother's expertise and his own ineptness at locating these caches of long white tubers by poking a long stick into the ground.

The area around Ivory Jack's in the Goldstream Valley was fenced long ago by Native hunters to drive moose into for the kill, Luke said. He came across some of the original 10-foot high fence posts made by those ancient hunters when he was working in the area during the 1950s.

''You could still see some of those post in the ground,'' Luke said. ''They burn the end of it (post) so it don't get rotten.''

Birch Hill was another spot frequented by earlier inhabitants of the Tanana Valley.

''People go up there who were working on sleds,'' Luke said. ''They always want to get birch (to make sleds and runners). When you bend the birch it's a lot stronger.''

Wearing a plaid shirt and jeans, his steel gray hair slicked back, and peering through thick, plastic-framed glasses, Luke was comfortably at ease in the informal setting, speaking from his heart, which he often pointed to saying it was better than the brain.

''I strongly believe with my heart. You can do anything you want to do. You just put your heart to do it.''

Luke, who grew up in the Old Chena Village on the Tanana River, where he has developed the Bear Child Gaalee'ya Camp, and has made it his personal mission to pass on the Athabascan culture to young people.

''I want to share what I was told so young people will know how to respect the animals. ... Respect that animal you want who gives himself to you.''

Luke recently helped bury a nephew in the old way -- the men digging the grave by hand. They turned down an offer of mechanical equipment to do the job.

''We feel good about it,'' he said. ''That's what they give these things to us,'' he said, raising his hands up, ''To use. Now it is going the other way, going against nature.''

Luke doesn't like to see past taboos ignored today. ''We never used to have women serving (at potlatches),'' he said. ''The men do all the cooking, the meat and stuff, and do the serving, too. The girls stay in the kitchen and make fry bread and the men stay outside and cook.''

Luke also laments the loss of the Native tongue by the younger generation and recalls being whipped for speaking his Native tongue when he was a mission school student.

Luke predicts that times are going to get hard and he worries that the younger generation won't be able to survive. ''How are they going to get a fire with no matches? What are they going to do when they fall in the water and get their feet wet? They don't know that snow is their insulation.''

He also talked about outdoor survival and using the ''old snow'' -- the snow at the bottom that is almost crusty -- to quench thirst, and not the soft, fluffy or ''baby'' snow on top.

''It really helps me when I'm sharing with people. I learn from you too,'' he said gesturing to his audience. ''We make ourselves stronger.''

His advice to the younger generation included nuggets such as: ''When you see a friend doing something wrong. You go over and explain it. ... Doing that, you're making yourself bigger.

''Be proud of yourself. Say, 'I'm me!'''

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