CAMPFIRE TALK

with TOMMY ANDREW

AUTHOR’S NOTE: The following is a fictional story told by a young Alaska Native man, a Gwich’in Athabscan named Tommy Andrew. Tommy is a fictional character sketched by me – a real-life, white-guy writer and longtime Alaskan. As currently presented, Tommy Andrew has little formal education. He is, however, “woods smart” and highly educated about life in the subarctic wilderness. Be assured that, despite the colloquial and inconsistent English, sparse Athabascan, and phonetic presentation he’s provided with here, Tommy Andrew is nobody’s fool.

As you read, imagine Tommy’s voice as husky and soft, sort of a cross between an echo and a whisper. Also, as you begin reading, please know that “dinjik” is Athabascan for moose. 

Finally, the writer is not an expert or authority on Athabascan culture, language, or history. The following story fragment is respectfully offered for entertainment only.  

– Ken Marsh

***

When Gwich’in catch dinjik, it is our custom to roast the nose in a campfire. The young boys make a fire near the kill while the men skin dinjik and cut up his meat. We do not skin the nose. The fire does that. We lay the nose on the coals and the hair singes off. It flies in the wind and fall soft, like snow, over the river. Gwinoh’ii!

My people are Nantsaii, which means “first on the land.” There are many Nantsaii. In our village we are Ihshaa Dinjii, The River People. The river flows by our village and provides things we need. We catch salmon and jackfish; those fish feed us, and our dogs. In summer, the season of light, the river carries our boats. In the season of darkness, gweedhaa, the ice comes and the river carries our sno-gos and sleds.

In the season of darkness, the elders tell us younger people stories. These are passed down through the generations. My uncle, Ephrem Peter, sometime tells a story about curiosity. Uncle is dinjii nazhan – a shaman – and the wisest man I know. He says curiosity is good, but you must treat it as you would a young bear – with caution. Here is the story:

Many years ago one of the River People, a man named Frankie Dementoff, say he never feel no curiosity. He was an elder and a good hunter. He said he know everything he need and questions only waste his time. One gweedhaa Frankie travel way beyond the big mountain range to the north. He go long, long way. He want to trade with Yupiks up there who were rich with oil of seal and whale. Back then, most Athabascan distrust Eskimos almost as much as they distrust white men. But Frankie, he say the oil would be good for lamps and curing hides in the dark season.

In those days, the people travel over snow by dogsled, and one night Frankie Dementoff camp on open tundra in his sled, covered with a moose hide. He was sleeping when his dogs start barking, but Frankie ignored them. He was not curious and want to sleep. The barking got loud and then, one dog at a time, got quieter until no dogs barked. Frankie, he was pleased because it was quiet and he start to go to sleep. But that changed when something tear through that moose hide over his face. Gwinah’ii! It was a white bear!

I bet Frankie Dementoff scream when he see that.

The bear bit Frankie’s head in its jaws and pull him out of the sled and shake him, hard. Frankie passed out and when he woke up later he could see the white bear standing in the moonlight eating one of the dogs. Frankie Dementoff’s rifle was nearby in the sled, so he crawl over there and pick ’er up. The white bear heard him and it attacked, but Frankie was a good hunter and shot that bear dead. 

Frankie Dementoff did not come home to the River People until early the next summer. His face was scarred and he was missing one eye that had become a raw pit that wept all the time. He wore a white bear skin vest, but after that he never went hunting again.

That was a long time ago. Uncle said the story was passed down by generations of River People and now he tell it to the young boys so that they will be wiser than Frankie Dementoff. It is good to be curious, Uncle says. Sometimes it can save your life.

Look, Gwinoh’ii! That dinjik nose is peeling in the coals. The young boys are poking it with green willow sticks. Soon it will be time to eat.

###

Published by kenwildcountry

Writer, photographer, and editor specializing in Alaska's outdoors.

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