A gathering to learn traditional ways

traditional knowledge gathering river landscape

The "Shriijaa Khalii" River Traditional Knowledge Gathering near Arctic Village on the southern boundary of Arctic Refuge taught valuable lessons and left local youth with lingering memories and a hunger for more.


Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and Arctic Village residents have been working together on various projects for many years. Both of these long-time partners face the challenge to minimize impacts of human activities on the resources of one of America's last frontiers. 

Three years ago, when Refuge staff and residents of Village gathered at Old John Lake (Van Choh Vee), about 20 miles east of the village, that special relationship blossomed. Old John Lake has been an important fishing site for Arctic Village people for thousands of years, and still serves that purpose to this day. The lake, which is within the Arctic Refuge, is also a study site for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's on-going fisheries research. At the end of that particularly intensive research season, a gathering was organized to thank the local people for helping support the research projects. That first celebration was so successful that it has evolved into an annual event. Every fall a traditional site is chosen in a different remote setting near Arctic Village and a traditional knowledge gathering and potlatch is held.

During the event, Elders teach the youth why the chosen location is important for subsistence use, and instruct them in the ways of the Gwich'in Indian traditional culture. This education is supported by information concerning the things that western science says about the land and its resources. Elders and special guest speakers teach the youth a mixture of survival skills and science, including fish biology; wilderness travel preparation and gear choice; wild food preparation and cooking; animal trapping; edible and medicinal plant use; and hunting practices. In addition, Elders tell traditional stories, identify historical sites, and lead the youth in visits to lands owned by Native residents of the village.

In 2002, the gathering was held at K'aiizhuuzhitgwitsik-or First Tower- within the Refuge about twenty miles north of Arctic Village. In 2003 it took place at Shriijaa Khalii River, in the Refuge about 5 river miles north of the Village. As word about these events has spread to nearby villages, there has been increased interest and involvement from other areas. At this most recent gathering, many young people and Elders participated, representing a number of different villages across Alaska. It was a valuable opportunity to observe and compare the traditional knowledge and skills of different Tribes.

On July 31 of this past year (2003), with the rainy fall season making an all-too characteristic beginning, the activities began in early afternoon with a mapping session in the Arctic Village community hall. Local youth learned how to design and label a map indicating areas of traditional and subsistence use.

The following day, with the sun beaming through the clouds and a warm, gentle wind blowing, a large group gathered in boats to travel to Shriijaa Khalii for the beginning of the traditional knowledge gathering. About fifty Elders, adults and young people took part in the event. It was inspiring to observe the Elders, who have a wealth of knowledge and expertise, passing their valuable traditional wisdom and skills on to the younger generation. Almost everything that was taught at the camp involved hands-on demonstrations using locally gathered natural resources.  

At the beginning of the gathering, a local priest and respected Elder blessed those assembled and discussed the history and use of fishing gear. He described the history of Shriijaa Khalii and how it got its name. It means "he pulls out grayling (on a hook)." Using a hand-made willow fish trap, he demonstrated how fish are caught in the trap, as well as how to remove fish and store them. 

traditional knowledge gathering making fishtrap 

Before items were transported into the Village, local residents ate a variety of local wildlife, and used furs for the cold-weather clothing that is needed in this area. Another knowledgeable Elder spoke about animal trapping, and demonstrated setting traps and snares. The students then had an opportunity to make snares of their own. They also learned how to prepare a duck for cooking on a willow branch over an open fire, and they discovered that this is a delicious way to cook duck. From another Elder they learned a second method of how to prepare and cook a duck on a stick over an open fire. It was interesting to see two local ways to accomplish the same task.

traditional knowledge gathering making deadfall trap 

A porcupine can be a challenging meal. Students were taught ways to remove the quills and then singe, cut, and cook the animal. Tips for handling porcupines without getting injured were especially appreciated. Everybody had a taste of the meat and enjoyed it. The quills were later used to create beautiful quill and bead earings.

Plants play an important role in traditional survival. Participants learned which native plants to eat and which to avoid, and they identified materials with medicinal use, including specific roots, pitch, bark and leaves. Shelter is essential in this sub-arctic land. Gathering participants learned how to build a temporary shelter out of a spruce tree and branches. The shelter looked very cozy and useful as protection from harsh weather.

traditional knowledge gathering making spruce-tree shelter 

During the evenings, a group of women who are talented bead-workers taught various methods of sewing beads onto a skin medicine pouch. During this time of quiet conversation, one instructor discussed survival skills, describing what to pack and carry when traveling on small airplanes (the only way to get into and out of the very remote village), spoke of her own experiences in dangerous situations, and described how she had been able to survive these ordeals with the help of a few simple survival items such as tea, matches, knives, fish hooks and rabbit snares.

traditional knowledge gathering leather and beadwork pouch 

On the last day of the gathering most of the participants hiked to Kiivitanlii Mountain within the Refuge. The purpose of the trip was to show the youth that their ancestors used to migrate all over the Brooks Range country, traveling after the animals that were key to their survival.

Starting from the banks of the Chandalar River, the young men and women respectfully picked walking sticks from scattered dry wood and the journey began. The first ones to reach the top were excited to spot two Dall sheep rams. At the peak, there was a rapid change in weather from hail, to rain, to snow. In spite of this, the excursion, and the gathering, was an event that all will remember and treasure--an exciting (and very tiring) time.

traditional knowledge gathering mountain hike