Gwichyaa Zhee

life in a village

It is Ft. Yukon on the map, but the native Alaskans call our village Gwichyaa Zhee, house on the flats. We have about 600 residents, a post office, a radio station, a general store, a police station, a liquor store, a coffee shop (May – August), three churches, a school, and a fine clinic.

We also have lynx, marten, ptarmigan, grouse, rabbit, black bear, salmon, pike, grayling, grizzly bear, vole, raven, camp-robbers, mosquitos, gnats, moose, fox, wolf and two million migratory birds that visit us in the summers to nest including many, many geese and duck.

The Gwich’in people that populate this area are Athabaskan Indians. The Navaho of the Southwestern United States are their relatives, the ones that didn’t like the cold, I guess. Gwich’in are a reserved people who treasure family; even the teenagers are affectionate toward their younger siblings.

For nearly 60 years I have listened to Texas weathermen berate the seasons. They don’t seem to like any of them. Springs are always too windy or too wet, summers too hot. There is too much pollen in the fall and too much cold in the winter (cold? they have no idea!). I never heard a Texas weatherman show real respect and gratitude toward the seasons.

Here’ nature is friend and teacher. This culture inhales and exhales with the passing of the seasons. Life still moves to the rhythms of the earth: the return of pleasant sunny days in the spring, the melting of the snows in late April, the breakup of the Yukon, Black and Porcupine rivers in May, the hunting season soon to follow, the brief but warm summer, and the return of the long winter and the longer darkness.

As the seasons change, so do the activities of the people. The rivers will break soon and fishermen will begin repairing nets and fish wheels. Driftwood will be gathered to fuel wood stoves. The migration of the birds is nearly upon us, and when the geese arrive many of the boys and some of the girls will miss school to hunt with their families. Later they will hunt the moose and fish for salmon and white fish and pike, but mostly for salmon. Hunting and fishing are an excused absences at school because subsistence is at the heart of our culture. The bounty of the spring and summer will fill the freezers and caches for next winter.

And guess what? Though everybody looks forward to the summer now and the hunting, nobody is complaining about the cold and the snow that has been on the ground now since last October. Because every season is appreciated and revered, here where we live.

I don’t suppose that one culture is better than another. The all have their strengths and their weaknesses. But I have always believed that we should show respect for nature, and I think our newly adopted culture does that well. Nature is older than us all, and that deserves our respect.


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