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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide


Submitted to the
Alaska Natives Commission
Social/Cultural Task Force at

Ft. Yukon, Alaska
June 9, 1993

4000 Old Seward Highway, Suite 100
Anchorage, Alaska 99503


Witness List | PDF Version



MR. EATON: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: How are we fixed on time, we have about 10 minutes?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE SPEAKER: Okay, this'll be the last speaker, then.


MS. ESMAILKA: Hi. My name is Mary Esmailka. I'm from Kaltag, Alaska, on the Yukon River, 90 mile -- 90 air miles south of Galena. Three hundred and some miles out of Fairbanks.

I've lived -- I grew up living off the land. My dad -- I'm going to talk about subsistence. I'm very close in that issue because I'm mother of -- oh, I have 10 children. I had seven of my own and raised my two brothers and my one sister. And we raised our 10 children on a -- my husband and I, off the land, back when (indiscernible) was very scarce. We did everything to keep a decent meal on our table for our children. The same way my dad brought us up.

Like now we have freezers. Now we have food savers, the freezer are food savers. We can kill a moose in September and eat it through the winter. With all the -- with the help of all the other games that's out there, like (indiscernible), like chicken, like all seasons, it's important to me, this woman. I never find any (indiscernible) season that I don't want. Like I enjoy the summer because I could cut -- go out and cut fish, put enough fish away for my family for the winter.

I have -- nine of my children are living now. All are married except the youngest one. And all have children, all of them. They have this one -- is living with a girlfriend, he has a baby. I put all my kids through high school. I pushed very hard. At one time I had four of my children going to boarding home school in Fairbanks when we didn't have a high school in Kaltag. All four of them wanted to come home for Christmas, so I had to bring them all home, bring them all back.

Every weekend these four kids would call; they want to quit school, they want to come home, crying on the phone. But I urged them on through school. Today my -- four of my girls are working.

I have a little grandson who is seven years old. This winter he kept coming home from school, he want to eat pizza, he want to eat poor boy, fast foods. And I was very against that. So one day I talk to his mom and I told his morn, you can't feed him fast foods. I say, you can't do that. I say, he's got to eat what we cook, just like how you kids were brought up. I say, we have good food on the table. And that he's got to eat.

And I feel that if we ever lose our subsistence way of living, we're going to lose our culture. There -- our culture will be dead forever. Except for my age people, 50 and over, know our Native languages really good. My Christina (ph.), now, she's not 50, but she know our Indian language. She understand it but she cannot talk it. My youngest daughter understand it but cannot talk it either, because my grandmother -- my Christina lived with grandmother part of her (indiscernible) years, her younger years, And, you know, Grandma used to talk in Indian all the time. And so, you know, she understand it but can't speak it. Just some words she could say.

The only way I figure the language will come back is going to the school and talking to them, telling them stories. Telling them about how we grew up. I think this will help our Native young people of today.

As you know, alcohol and drug is getting rid of all our young people around our home. I've live to see that and I've lived to say it too. Never drank all my life. But all my 10 children drank. I never taught it to them. It didn't come from my home. And today they say the young people learn it from -- I mean, today in the mental health department they're saying, you know, they saw this -- they saw the kids saw that this, so this is what they're doing today, from the home. No, I don't believe that.

I didn't feed my children alcohol, not one time. I didn't let -- I didn't allow people to drink in my home, not one time. Because I don't use it and I have no use for it. And I didn't want my children to use it either. Unfortunately, my nine children are living; I lost one, but not due to alcohol. He just drowned.

We have lost so many of our young people in my home due to alcohol. Now I just gave a speech over here this morning saying the Fish and Game would come down the river during commercial fishing. And I hold a commercial fishing permit card that I use every summer for 19 years this year. I pay self-employment tax. And I work nine months out of the year for 20-some years. And I know that it costs to live in Kaltag. Now all my kids are grown up, they all have homes of their own. But still I barely make ends meet with my working.

This winter I began to think about it. I sat down and I began to think about it. I donít have any more little babies in my home. But still, I barely make ends meet . And my husband, he don' t work anymore due to medical reason. Last year, March 14th was the last day he had worked because a doctor had told him that he can't go back to the warehouse as an operator for the city. So he donít work for over a year now. But that's all right. I don't mind about that.

I have three sons, the last three of my kids were sons who -- the oldest son, ever since they were -- he was 12 years old, he started trapping. I taught him how to trap, I taught all my three boys how to trap. The way my dad brought us up, just so my kids will not drink, I thought. They'll be out there in the beautiful wilderness, to keep away from alcohol.

You think that stopped them from drinking? I did everything. I bought my oldest son a snowmachine just to keep him occupied and away from drinking. But just like everybody else's kids, they started drinking, at very young age too.

And the Fish and Game would come down every closing period, 5:30, just buzzing our camp so close. Oh, that just make me so mad. Just like we're criminals. Just keeping a close watch. We know that -- we know how to follow the rules. They say close your -- stop your fish wheel at 6:00 Friday night; we'll go do that. Rain, big wind, or no nothing, we'll go do it. Everybody will do it.

Now, the alcohol and the drugs are coming into our village. We live 90 air miles away from Galena. Our young people back home, most of our young people don't have a lob. Yet they're drunk every weekend. Where from? A bootlegger. I've been working on this issue for many, many years. It hurts me just to talk about it, because all the good people, there's a lot of good young people that's gone from drinking in my village.

And I try to teach the young people. I don't keep my education that I learn, experience that I learn to myself. I try to teach not my own children, everybody else's children around Kaltag, how to preserve our Native food, like here just a little while, that we're going to be allowed to go drifting for king salmon.

I went about five or six years ago, I went to Anchorage to testify before a full board of 13 board members in Anchorage. I knew that was the easy way to preserve the king salmon, one of the best fish that run up the Yukon River. And I went and testified and I got my what I went out to Anchorage for, I thought I'd fulfilled, my wish came true that we can go drifting for king salmon. We found out, all the young people found out in Kaltag, we can go across the river and put in 100 foot of king salmon net and drift along and catch the amount of fish we need for the winter.

And everybody, all the young I noticed that more and more young mothers and more and more young people are beginning to call me up every June, Marylene, how you can fish? Marylene, how you can fish? So, you know, busy time, I take off and go to that lady who wants to learn how to cut can fish, gladly pass on my knowledge to the younger people.

I've been an active grandmother in my hometown. I've talked to -- I've been counseling a lot of young people. I was just sitting here, over here at the youth, listening to one of the youth talking about suicide or he'll...and he made me cry. That boy made me cry. And then he -- then he's calking, he blame his mother and his dad.

Then I think about my own kids. That's what make me cry, I guess. Because his parents drank so much that he started drinking. But then I think of it, that's not right, that's not true. I did - - I never drank. And yet my kids drank. And so I don't know. I don't know what to believe, you know, I don't know what to believe.

And this morning I spoke on subsistence way of living. That's how I was brought up. My dad and my mother took us children out in September to what you call a fall camp and we'd say in this camp till December 22nd or 23rd, come home for Christmas, spent a few days after the new year; immediately after the new year we'd head back to our camp, and never come back until March 30th, after the beaver trapping season.

And we'd stay a few days in Kaltag at home and then go back to the spring camp, where my dad would -- now would go hunting for muskrat to get our groceries for the summer. During the summer months we worked at fish, we worked at fish, we worked at fish. Our fish wheels would run seven days a week. Now today, we don't have as much fish wheels on the Yukon River as when I was growing up. Today there's commercial fishing. Last summer we fished only 48 hours. Four 24-hour periods is all we had in Kaltag, Y-4-A. That was our commercial season right there.

Where is -- when I was growing up, 1949, 1950, that's not too far back, seven days a week and there was fish wheel from four-mile above Kaltag to eight mile, almost every mile apart, there was fish wheel turning, seven days a week. We were cutting the fish, we were cutting it commercial, for commercially too. A trader from Koyakuk would come down and buy the dried fish, so we had to take care of. And that helped us buy groceries for the fall.

And this is what I try to put into the young people's head. Now, my oldest son, he makes his living off trapping. And they're saying they're taking away our subsistence way of living. I heard this -- this is my concern.

I know there's a lot of money out there because my son does it. And I think he's the only one in our home, in my hometown that does it, he and my son-in-law. None of the other people, none of the other boys his age or even a little older never do that, never go out trapping. But what I taught him from 13 years old on, he keep it up. He keep that up.

And I know that if the subsistence way of living is not ever taken away from us, that other people will be -- I don't mind about President Clinton saying he's going to cut the budget on welfare. Now, I donít mind about that. I -- matter of fact, I feel more happy. Maybe it'll save more of our Indian young people. Too much free money. Maybe our young people in our village need to come out -- go out and work for their money. So I don't mind about cutting -- President Clinton's issue there. I want our young people to -- it they don't know how, then other people in my village will show them how.

In my hometown we have a -- we have women's club that's been going since 1952, every Wednesday. This winter, one -- more young mothers, single young mothers that have little ones, are coming to the women's club, where we teach beading, we teach crocheting, netting, skin sewing. All these years, they kept saying, the women's club, you know, (indiscernible) be over there too. They didn't know what time we had -- when all women get together, besides learning hew to sew, skin sewing and do bead work and stuff like this. I would very gladly --

(Tape changed - Tape 5, Side 2)

MS. ESMAILKA: -- subsistence way of living. If you take that lifestyle away from the Indian people, we'll have no Indian people left.

MR. EATON: I think you can rest assured that this Commission will be very, very strong on issues of subsistence and supporting that position and recommending to both the Congress of the United States and the State of Alaska that implementation of these laws and changes in regulations be made immediately regarding it.

MS. ESMAILKA: Yeah, thank you. I just -- I mean, you know, this one issue that I'm really, really stick to my mind, because of our young people. And our young people, you know, a lot of our young people, you know, just graduate from high school and they're set. Never go out to further their education. And here I am struggling for education. In my old age, I'm still going to school, you know. Because I didn't have that when I was growing up. And it's not even education, even education would do anything to our young people. When the pipeline was available, I made a note to all those young people that were hired about the -- at the pipeline. Keep at it, don't quit, don't quit, just stay at its. No, everybody worked two or three years on the pipeline, big money, and now who's in operation at the pipeline? We have educated people going out to the pipeline, so you see what I'm talking about, how I try to talk to the young people, the young graduate people, to go on and further their education, to be something.

I just really don't know. The stories I hear, the talk I hear over here at the elders and the youth. I just really don't know. Got a mixed feeling now for every little thing. I don't think we'll have to use our subsistence way of living very much longer. That's my feelings, my inside feelings. Because the outsiders are coming in to rule us and tell us how to live. Couple years ago I was commercial fishing. It was salmonberry picking time. We went 22 miles down the river with my little children and in a motor and a boat that didn't even have a house. We just took our good chances to go and just be out for the day. When we got down to 22 mile and we went way up the slough, we went to a tundra, we went to another little slough, and we went on a tundra there where we knew, you know, it was good for salmonberries. We just got up the hill, we just got up the bank, and my husband said he was going to cook lunch there at the beach for the kids. And I say, well, while you're making a fire and stuff, I'll run on up here, look in the flats for salmonberries. And while we're going in this little slough, all the ducks with the babies, you know, just, you know, swarming all over the place.

Those boys were not even we were excited to see the baby ducks and stuff. We saw a lynx back there around the beach killing the baby ducks, eating it. I talked to my kids after we came back. We came up on the flats, it was hot. Here comes an airplane. Me and my one daughter, we had little plastic pitchers. I told them, if we find, you know, salmonberries a lot, plentiful, we'll come back and get the bigger buckets. And so we got up there and we just started swarming around, all over the place, just like something was lost from us. No salmonberries.

Here comes an airplane, pontoon plane. I told my daughter, I said, I bet that's Fish and Game people. I bet that they're wondering what we're doing. Sure enough, you know, here comes this airplane right over the flats, right above the willows.

You see how close we're being watched? So, you know, we're coming back out of the slough, and I told my husband, stop at that Fish and Game camp. I want to give them piece of my mind. This is where I grew up. This is where I grew up. And I know that in the summertime in the month of July, August, all bearing animals are not good to eat, because they have the young ones. We know that from growing up. I'm going to tell those Fish and Game people that. But eventually, I guess they just left our camp and just went on back up to Galena, I don't know. Because they never came back to the camp, we were up the slough many miles and many gallons of gas, and (indiscernible) our motor, looking for berries, just looking for berries, is all we were doing.

You see how close we're being watched? It's like we're criminals. And yet, people can come into our village with booze and drugs. What -- which are killing our young people at my home. Yet people can do that. Why are these things not being watched up on, the drug and the alcohol. Our city is a dry village. And we -- like I say, we live 90 air miles away from Galena.

MR. EATON: And we are due to be (indiscernible) out of here at 5:30. If you just maybe sum up your point, or if you've told us what you want us to know, we thank you very much.

MS. ESMAILKA: Okay. I just wanted to speak my piece on subsistence way of living

MR. EATON: I enjoyed it very much.

MS. ESMAILKA: Uh-huh (affirmative).

FATHER SEBESTA: Marylene, I think that each of us have this (indiscernible) not only your testimony today, but what weíre given at the conference also, are very much impressed with the need for maintaining all the cultural values that have been expressed. And I think that you certainly have made a point with subsistence, which I do agree with Mary that certainly we'll be very, very firm in making recommendations to preserve that.

And I think the one thing that kind of was said earlier (indiscernible) gave testimony; he's saying that, you know, the people have to say something that they call their own. And it's this life, it's the culture. And it's very much wound up with the subsistence lifestyle. And so those things are important, and I think that many people besides yourself have impressed us with that.

MS. ESMAILKA: And I wanted to add on to Irene Nicholi's statement about the Athabascan language. It's been tried at home. But you know, I don't know why the teacher has to write the Indian word and present it. I don't know if you say in -- the word will be this long when you write it down. The word will be this long, then (indiscernible) will be that long too or even longer, one whole page. One whole tablet, the one word, in our language.

I just don't know why the school districts or the school will not go by lust, you know, talking and acting on our culture and our language. I think our people would learn it pretty fast if we just went to the school and said like, you know, Ena (ph.) means Mother, Eta (ph.) means Father in Indian. And it's better just to say it out and act it out other than to write everything down. Just like you're planning, just like a schoolteacher, a certified schoolteacher. This is why there isn't very much of our Indian language today. I figured that out.

MR. EATON: Thank you very, very much.

MS. ESMAILKA: You're welcome.

MR. EATON: And thank you all for coming (laughter).


(Hearing adjourned at 5:30 p.m.)



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Last modified July 27, 2011