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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
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Athabascan RavenAthabascans of Interior Alaska


Written by
Shirley David Jimerson

Edited by
Patricia Partnow

Illustrated by
Michael Jimerson


A Production of the
Alaska Bilingual Education Center
Of the Alaska Native Education Board
4510 International Airport Road
Anchorage, Alaska

Copyright 1975 Alaska Native Education Board

Table of Contents

Chapter I------A trip around Tetlin
Chapter II-----Getting ready for winter
Chapter III----Wintertime: Beaver Camp
Chapter IV ----Spring and Muskrat Trapping
Chapter V-----Fish camp at Last Tetlin

A Trip Around Tetlin

Let's imagine we're looking at the fish campsite - Last Tetlin. From the riverbank, we can see a tent frame and a smokehouse for each family. Trails branch out here and there from the campsite. Fireweed is growing all over.

We walk to the back of the village. From there we can see all the lakes - there are lots of them - which empty out into the Last Tetlin River.

We take a boat downriver toward the fish traps. In the clear spots we can look down to the bottom of the river and see whitefish and northern pike swimming around.


The river curves, back and forth, so we can't see very far down it from any one place. Along the banks there are spruce trees and willows, and once in awhile we have to steer the boat out of the way of a fallen tree that hangs over the river. As we go down toward the mouth of the river, we can see that the trees are getting taller and more dense.



Last Tetlin River empties into Tetlin Lake - the largest lake in the area. When we enter the lake from the river, we see the mountains at the far side. They seem to flow into the lake.

We'll go around the lake clockwise. The first creek we come to is Bear Creek. It's very clear and ice cold, and there are lots of fish in it in the summer and fall.

We go on past the creek, along the lake-shore, until we come to an island. The lake between the Island and the shore is very shallow and is a favorite place for moose. They feed on the water lily roots.

All along the west side of the lake, there are marshy areas like this where moose feed and ducks of all types can be found.


Tetlin Lake is a major area for molting ducks in the summer. Canvasbacks, widgeon, pintail, shovelars, greenwing teal, and some mallards can be found there.

We'll go on to the north side of the lake. The land becomes more hilly and the shores are rocky. This is one place where my family fishes.

We'll keep going around the lakeshore. From the northeast side of the lake we can see a hill we call "Rock Hill". We pick raspberries on Rock Hill.

We go past Rock Hill, and the banks be-come high and steep. We can't see much over the bank from our boat until we come to the mouth of Tetlin River. Then we can see the area between the mouth of Tetlin River and the mouth of Last Tetlin River; it's flat and willowy.

(the canaries referred to are yellow warblers).

Going up the Tetlin River, we can see only the high banks for quite awhile. Once in awhile we can see bears up on the banks -brown or black bears. Common snipes skitter along the riverbanks. Blackbirds chatter. Woodpeckers hammer away somewhere in the forest. We hear canaries, chickadees, and crows, all singing or talking. How beautiful it all sounds!

Every now and then a creek empties water out of some small lake into the Tetlin River. There are lots of willows - river willows - hanging over the river.

Finally we see Tetlin Village. It sits on the left bank of the river, and we can see it clearly from the place where we beach the boat. People come down to meet us - it doesn't matter if we're strangers. They'll come down to meet us anyway!

Before we go inside we take a look around. The land rises from the village toward the north. One of the hills, called Tetlin Hill, is a good place to find blueberries and cran-berries. And to the south of the village, the land becomes marshy. That's where the muskrat and beaver can be found.


From Tetlin Village we can follow a trail anywhere we want to go - all over our land.

But that's a different journey!


berry picking


Fall was the time to get ready for the winter - the start of another yearly cycle. There was lots to do.

When I was little, the women and children (and one man, to protect us from bears) used to leave the village and go up into the hills to pick berries. We picked cranberries, bearberries, and rose hips. We'd be gone all day, and come back to the village at night.

We dug roots, too - a kind called Indian potatoes. They are very good when they're fried in moose grease.

Indian potatoes were obtained on the crest of the hill between the river and the village on the winter trail to Midway Lake. They're also called "Eskimo potatoes", and are the species Hedysarum alpinum L.

Bears were not systematically hunted by Tetlin residents. Berries were picked in the hills behind the village. Blueberries were also picked there. The berry area is to the right in photograph #2 of Tetlin.

Fall was also the time to do some last minute fishing. We fished for whitefish and northern pike in the Tetlin River close to the village, and we went up the Kalukna River for grayling.

The men - my dad, brother, uncles, and some other relatives - went hunting at Tetlin Lake. They stayed there until they shot a moose. Then they cut it up and brought the meat and hide back to the village.

Sometimes, if someone had a car or truck, the men drove up the Taylor Highway to Mt. Fairplay to hunt caribou. In the old days, my dad told me, they hunted caribou down by Last Tetlin. There used to be a caribou fence there. But when I was little, the men had to go all the way to Mt. Fairplay.

The meat, both moose meat and caribou meat, was brought back to the village. There, the women dried it and smoked it. The children had to keep a smoky fire going in the smokehouse all the time. Besides smoking the meat, the fire kept the flies out, too.

The women also tanned the hides. My mom used tanned hides to make mittens, mukluks, and moccasins. She did beautiful beadwork on the hides.


If we didn't do all these things -berry picking, fishing, and hunting - our caches would be empty before the winter was over. My mom and dad used to tell us that in the old days, an empty cache meant sure death. So fall was a very important time of the year for us.


Chapter III
Wintertime: Beaver Camp

Both beaver meat and muskrat meat are eaten, dried or cooked.

dog sledding

The trip took about 12 hours from 4a.m. till 4 p.m

In early February my family used to move to a beaver camp called Sea Lake. We went by dog sled. My dad drove the first sled packed with all our gear. He went ahead to break trail. Then my mom followed, driving the second sled. This sled was packed with us children.

At that time there were three of us: I sat in the back, my brother Charles sat between my knees, and our baby sister Betty sat in front of him. We were all wrapped up in sleeping bags and canvas, and tied in with strong rope. We couldn't move at all, we were tied so tightly. What a relief it was when Mom and Dad finally decided it was time for tea break! It never came soon enough for us.

When we got close to camp, my dad started setting some of our beaver snares. Then when we got to the campsite, we pitched the tent and started fixing it up. Dad put the stove in place while Mom, my brother, and I gathered spruce boughs and spread them on the tent floor. Dad got the fire going in the stove, Mom cooked supper, and then we all went to bed early. Tomorrow would be a busy day - we'd be setting the rest of the snares.


Next day we got up early and ate a quick breakfast. While Mom was packing lunch for all of us, Dad was hitching the dogs to the sled. Then the whole family was off to set snares.

Dad knew where he had set snares the year before, and he went to those places to check out the old beaver houses. Some-times beavers had abandoned their old houses and moved to new ones. But sometimes the old houses were being used again this year.

When we found a live house, Dad would chisel an opening in the ice nearby. He cut a pole of fresh birch to use as bait, and stuck it down into the opening he had made. By now the beavers were tired of their stored birch, so they welcomed the fresh pole my dad put down as bait. Then we looked for another pole - a dry one this time - and put one or two snares on the end of it. We didn't have to worry about the beavers eating the dry pole. Dad lowered it down the hole next to the bait pole, kicked some snow over the opening, and continued on to the next beaver house.

beaver snaring

We checked the beaver snares every day. On a good day we'd come home with a load of beavers. Usually, after the first day, just Dad and I or Dad and my brother would go along the trapline, and the other three members of the family would wait back at camp.

At night, Mom and Dad used to tell stories about the days when they were growing up. Mom told us stories about how she and her brother came to Tetlin to live with the chief after their parents had died. Mom was only about 10 years old. She came from Chena, and she had to learn a new language when she got to Tetlin. She was often scared and lonely when she first moved to our area.

woman with children

Mom and Dad also remembered when white teachers and ministers came to the Tetlin area, and how terrifying it was for them. The people had to give up their old nomadic way of life and settle down in one place. In order for their children to go to school, they had to live near the school, and the children had to learn English. People tried to make a living the new way -men hunted for jobs, but jobs were scarce. This was a scary time for the people of Tetlin.

When I think of the stories my parents told us at beaver camp, I can still smell the fresh spruce boughs on the tent floor, biscuits, tea, and the firewood in our tent. And I remember lying in bed listening to the owls talk at night after everyone else was asleep.



Sometime before break-up my family used to move by dogteam to Dog Lake be-tween Tetlin and Northway for muskrat trapping. We had a cabin there, so we didn't have to pack many things - mostly some food and blankets. We joined another family, the Tituses, who also had a cabin at Dog Lake.

Mom and Dad went out to set the musk-rat traps while we children stayed around camp. The older children had to look after the younger ones.

Sometimes we older children would go out on the lake, find our own muskrat houses, and set traps in them. It's easy to set traps. Just cut the top off the house and put a trap inside in the ice entryway. Then put the cover back on the house, and move on to the next muskrat house. We went back every day to check the traps. We children used to get from 50 to 100 musk-rats during one spring at muskrat camp.

Each of us skinned his own muskrats. We learned how to stretch them and dry them, so we could sell them to the General Store.

Around break-up time, when the snow became slushy, we packed up our sleds and headed back to the village.

Even when we got back to Tetlin, we weren't yet through with muskrats. We used to walk out to some of the lakes. We'd take a dog with us who could retrieve and pack. Since the lakes were open by now, we shot the muskrats with .22 rifles, and sent the dogs out into the water to retrieve them. Once again, we had to skin and dry our own muskrats. But we could keep the money we got for the skins ourselves.


In late May, my family moved again. This time we went to Last Tetlin by boat. By the time we got there, the whitefish were running.

Almost the whole village moved to Last Tetlin in the summer. Each family had its own campsite with a smokehouse. The first thing everyone did was to fix up the tent and smokehouse.

In our family, Mom and Dad put the tent up. Meanwhile, it was up to the older children to repair the smokehouse. We gathered long, thin willow sticks, and wove them together into the wall of last year's smokehouse. We made the walls pretty solid--solid enough to keep out dogs. We used the smokehouse both as a place to eat and as a place to smoke fish during the summer.

building a smokehouse

By the time we children had finished the smokehouse, Mom and Dad had pitched the tent. We spread spruce boughs on the tent floor, and moved everything inside. Then we were ready for summer. The next day we would start cutting fish.

BLM planes came to Tetlin to pick up men for firefighting whenever three was a fire.

Dad usually left camp to go firefighting with other men from the village once we were settled in at Last Tetlin. So, Mom took our family's turn at tending the camp fish trap and caught all the fish we were going to need for the winter.

cutting fish

There are two ways to cut up whitefish: ba' is for eating and ts'ilakee is dog food. Mom prepared the ba', but she let us children cut up fish for ts'ilakee.

We took the fish up to our family's campsite to clean and smoke. Each fish cutter had his own fish cutting board made of a split log. Mom and we children sat next to our cutting boards and worked until all the fish had been cut. Then we could go visiting around camp. We were always offered tea and fried fish or fish stew.

After a fish was properly cleaned and prepared, it was hung up to dry on a pole in the smokehouse. My mother and grand-mother kept a smoky fire going all the time. Besides smoking the fish, they had to keep the flies out. A good, big rotten log will burn all night with no tending.

Sometimes we dried the eggs along with the fish, and sometimes we just fried the eggs and guts and ate them right away. Dried fish eggs are better!

smoking fish

Birch bark was usually obtained in late May, behind the village on the wooded hillside.

Once in awhile, when fish weren't running, the women and children went berry picking. While Mom and Gramma picked, we children sometimes trimmed the bark off a birch tree and scraped up the sap with a knife. Delicious!

We stayed at fish camp until late July. Then we packed everything up, went back to the village, and started the yearly cycle over again, to prepare for the coming winter.

Section 1 Adaptations to Basic Needs
Section 2 Athabascans
Section 3 Upper Tanana Athabascans
Section 4 The Yearly Cycle
Section 5 There's More To Culture Than Basic Needs
Section 6 Could You Survive?
Appendix A
Appendix B
Appendix C
Appendix D
Appendix E
Appendix F



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Last modified August 17, 2006