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Alaska Travel Magazinenext

A bunch of us boys were whooping it up in the Malemute Saloon. Actually, it was me and my teen-age daughters, Bernadette and Colette, trying to reach the operator from a radio-relayed telephone, the only one in Galena, Alaska, that just happened to be located in a saloon. In walked a lady named "Lou".

Found out later her real name was Sasha. An Alaskan native. Indian, to use a white-man's term, so as not to confuse them with Eskimos, who live more toward the sea, or further north.

Yet, for those who may feel "Indian." is not a polite label, possibly because of the connotations "drunken" and "dirty," Sasha was neither of these. Neither was she from India. So I will describe her instead as a Koyukukon of the Athapaskan nation; sometimes called the "Stick" Indians because of the size of the trees of the Yukon basin. Her name is Russian, from the days of the Czar's Russian-American fur trading posts. Mixed blood is common along the River, so this would also make my "Siwash" a "Creole".

Bernadette, belly-up to the bar with the phone, talking long-distance to her boy friend, 20 minutes worth, collect, was having trouble making herself heard above the blare of the juke-box. "Danny, you turkey ... T-a-v-e-r-n!" — when Sasha, pausing after sinking five straight shots at the pool table, (the only recreation for teens in this town), volunteered her help, "Hey man, you want me to explain to him?"

The lights were turned up. I found myself looking anew at Sasha. Not as a native Indian tourist attraction, but just another very pretty teen-age girl, who by birth just happens to be Alaskan.

Just that. I had come north looking for categories. For example, a noble native in moccasins, as a subject for travel folder style photographs. After much searching, I did come across an old blind man sitting in the sun in front of his log cabin, remembering. A singer of old songs.

His father had been a bow and arrow hunter. He himself had tales to tell about the first time a silver eagle landed outside his village; and how he and a friend had taken apart a talking box to let the little man, they thought was trapped inside, out.

But as much as I had hoped, he was not typical. Another generation sings a more modern tune. A Western blues with a native beat. Sometimes, emigrants in their own land.

For too many of these people, airplanes and radio are as familiar as beer. Without an education, young men are leaving the old life to compete with Cat drivers from Texas, for the high-paying seasonal jobs that Alaska is famous for.

Winter finds them back with their families, broke. Paying any price for canned goods to replace the salmon they didn't have time to catch and dry during the fishing season; fuel oil to burn instead of firewood. The laws of the wilderness have been replaced with those of economics. I asked one how he could afford to pay $1.25 for a loaf of bread, and $1.50 for a dozen eggs [obviously 1970's prices!], and was told, "You just have to know how to live poor."

Finally, there are the grandchildren of the singer of songs. Folk-rock best describes them. Products of the Bureau of Indian Affairs schools, they have gone out into main-stream America and have returned wearing navy dungarees with peace signs on the back pockets, and under their arms they had plans and blueprints of water and sewage systems for their villages.
How they will handle the ambiguity of the wealth of the recent native land claims act, while preserving the values of the old life, remains to be seen.

At the same time that the State of Alaska is considering the feasibility of a tourist-oriented ferry along the Yukon [A dream I still would like to see happen!], many of the younger boys up here are leaving their snowmobiles to return to dog sled teams.

I personally hope that the "quaintness" of the villages can be saved, and that the villagers themselves can enjoy a good rewarding life, for they are some of the most hospitable, patriotic, and fun-loving people I have ever met.

You notice I call them people now — not Indians, natives, or cliche's from some economic impact report or travel folder. Of course, calling them people sounds rather silly, too. So why not — since they were the first inhabitants of this country —call them American Americans.


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