VILLAGERS: Athabaskan Indian Life Along the Yukon River by Claire Fejes

VILLAGERS: Athabaskan Indian Life Along the Yukon River

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Athabaskan Indian life, past and present, as told to and observed by Fejes, a white artist and longtime resident of Alaska, on her travels along the Yukon and Tanana rivers. Painting the people as she goes (incidental line vignettes accompany the text), Fejes recalls old legends, quotes from early missionaries' and miners' reports (""There have been three fatal shootings since I arrived, so we have had a dead man for breakfast every morning""), talks to old women who ""raised ten kids by washboard, no Pampers"" and who remember going ""under the blanket"" at puberty--living in isolation, fed only dried meat and dried fish for six months--and to men nostalgic for the old days when game was abundant and women did all the work. (The men take a dim view of the land-claims settlement, aware that the land is worth more to them than the money controlled by councils.) Fejes comments on the Indians' present life as engineered by white men who did not bother to understand the culture or the climate, and wherever she goes she shares in the Indians' ceremonies and daily life. She gives art lessons in schools, shares tea and the evening radio hour, Tundra Topics (""Margaret Charlie wants her mother to send her salmon strips""), deplores the ubiquitous junk food and Coca-Cola and, for many men and some women, alcohol. In the early pages especially, Fejes' shifts from past to present are abrupt and graceless, and there are too many names and brief encounters for any to stand out; but as she travels up the river the narrative achieves more flow and coherence. And it comes to a moving culmination at a potlatch, given by Chief Peter John and his wife for their dead son and two murdered girls--a much misunderstood custom whose description here testifies to Fejes' genuine empathy for a group one might almost call her adopted people.

Pub Date: June 29th, 1981
Publisher: Random House