Honoring Alaska's Indigenous Literature
NAME OF BOOK: The Way of Our People
AUTHOR: Arnold Griese
ILLUSTRATOR: Glo Coalson (cover illustration)
YEAR BOOK WAS PUBLISHED: 1975
IS THE BOOK PART OF A SERIES (DESCRIBE)? No
WHAT IS THE SETTING OF THE BOOK (TIME AND PLACE)? 1838,
Village of Anvik, Alaska
The author, Arnold Griese, is currently a professor of children's
literature at UAF.The author taught for 'several years' in a one room
school in Tanana and traveled by plane to other villages where he
heard tales of ancient days.
The main character is a thirteen year old Athabascan boy, Kano.
The story takes place in and around Anvik on the Yukon river in 1838.
The story begins with Kano being honored in the Kashim because he has
gotten his first moose. He is expected to become a great hunter. But
Kano is afraid of the Nakani, the spirit of the forest. When Kano's
father finds out about his son's fear, he is angry and sad and says
in the fall Kano must go out and hunt caribou by himself and if he
will not, he would have to leave the village because of the shame he
would bring to his family and village.
Kano decides to go live with an Elder, the Old One, to help him
deal with his fear. The Old One was also once banished for being
afraid. People also fear the bear, as it is the only animal that
tries to kill men. The book calls the bear a devil animal that is
hunted only in the winter in its den. Another fear that Kano has to
deal with is the fear of getting lost when his brain goes empty and
he becomes like a child.
Kano deals with his fear and joins his family at summer camp. When
he goes out caribou hunting all goes well until he gets lost, then
the fear returns. His father asked if he wanted to go and live with
the white traders at St. Michael. Kano knew it would bring less shame
and he agreed to go.
Kano then meets a Russian traveler who is giving the small pox
vaccine. Kano agrees to be vaccinated but the Anvik elders do not
give their approval for the vaccine to be given to their people. When
small pox starts to spread, Kano travels by dog team to a neighboring
village to bring back the Russian but the Russian says that Kano can
give the vaccine. Kano convinces his sister and grandmother to talk
to the women about the vaccine and the elders are also finally
If the book is accurate for the time period, it does provide a
good description of what life was like in the Anvik area in the late
1830's. There are good descriptions of subsistence activities in
spring, summer and winter. The relationship of Kano to his family
also provides good information on how boys were taught to be good
hunters and the values of sharing and generosity. The function of the
village elders and life in the Kashim was also very interesting.
There is also good historical information regarding trading at St.
Michael and the effects of small pox and Russian contact.Although the
book does touch on the spirituality of the people, it does seem to
oversimplify the relationship to the bear, calling the animal a devil
animal. And also oversimplifies the representation of the Nakani.
According to the book Make Prayers to the Raven, the Koyukon
Athabascan believe that the bear is fearless, but it is highly
respected and has a very strong spirit with many taboos associated
with its hunting and consumption. Likewise, the Koyukon Athabascan
believe in the woodsman. It is called nuhu'anh, nik'inla'eena,
nik'il'eena, which is very close to the Nakani mentioned in this
book. The Koyukon Woodsman is always there, almost never seen, often
responsible for missing things, sneaks here and there, and children
are warned they may be taken.
This book would work well with middle and junior high school
students to give them an idea of what life in Anvik was like at time
of western contact. Added discussion would be necessary especially
regarding spirituality and the relationship with nature. The book
discussion could lead to interesting reflection on first contact,
small pox, the devastation that occurred, and how traditional
lifestyles have adapted and changed.
The book reviews are a result of students enrolling in special topics course
Ed 493 Examining Alaska Children's Literature taught by Esther A. Ilutsik
in the Spring of 2004.
The book reviews are written by the students and are a reflection of their
own analysis of the books and have not been altered in any way. The reviewers
have given permission to share the book reviews on the HAIL website.