TANANA, Alaska (AP) — The long blade of Cliff Wiehl's paper trimmer arced downward through strip after strip of dried salmon, filling the air with a rhythmic slicing noise. The measured swishing of the blade fused with a chorus of voices and the joyful screams of children sharing the lawn where Wiehl worked.
Wiehl took strips from about three dozen silver salmon Thursday, June 12, cutting them into bite-sized pieces to be eaten later that day with the arrival of boats for Nuchalawoyya — the biennial gathering in Tanana of Alaska Natives from around the Interior. The village is nestled in the center of the Interior, at the confluence of the Yukon and Tanana rivers.
The celebration of Nuchalawoyya in many ways defines the village of Tanana. The celebration and the place are tied together in a way that seems, at times, impossible to disentangle.
It has been a festival so integral to the people of Tanana that for many years the gathering's name was simply the same as the place at which it occurred. Early European visitors transcribed the name of the village now known as Tanana as Nucklakayette or Nuklukayet: "The meeting of the two rivers, "the two powerful arteries of Interior Alaska that have sustained Athabascan peoples for centuries.
Connecting young and old
Wiehl stood at his paper trimmer well into the afternoon Thursday. He was born in Rampart, a small village upriver from Tanana with a population of about 25. He moved to Tanana 19 years ago.
His salmon cutting methods were the subject of many a friendly jab as he stood at table's edge. "It's highly traditional," one person joked of the paper trimmer in passing, "that's the way they do it in Rampart."
As Wiehl brought the paper trimmer's blade down repeatedly on each strip of dried salmon, he talked about the changing nature of the village. He wasn't there for many of the older gatherings, he said, but his impression of the old Nuchalawoyya was that of a large-scale carnival where people would gather to meet and fish and enjoy each other's company. These days it's more of a homecoming for those who have left.
"People've got to go away to get an education. ... You get a proper education in something that might take you up north, and it's easier for them youngers to stay up that way to stay out. I understand all those young people. I tried that," Wiehl said. "I don't blame them."
The younger generation has to leave to go to college or trade school. And once those children get a degree, there often simply aren't jobs in their field to come back to. At one time there was a lot of work in Tanana, Wiehl said, but now "they're all gone. It's all gone"
"A lot of people from the village will come home. You'll see it in the next couple days — fast to come in, fast to leave," Wiehl said. "They don't live here. They're members of the villages, but they went out and got an education. Their jobs are out there. I don't blame them."
In many ways, the Nuchalawoyya of today is focused on the youths. As with many contemporary Native gatherings, the spring celebration in Tanana gives the elders a chance to share their knowledge with a younger generation whose attentions are frequently being drawn between lifestyles. Befitting of its location, Nuchalawoyya is the place where cultures meet — the confluence of modernity and custom.
Miss World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, 23-year-old Megan Leary, of Kalskag, traveled to Tanana last week to experience her first Nuchalawoyya. She said seeing the celebration for herself helped her better understand the village in which her friend grew up. Nuchalawoyya, like many other Native celebrations held throughout the state, is an important part of connecting the youth with the culture, she said, but she's less sure whether there's enough being done.
"Elders say, 'Go to school and come back and get a job and do good things for our people,' but there's no jobs," Leary said. "We're (the younger generation) still confused. ... I still think there's more that needs to be done. There's still a gap between the elder and the 5 year old, but it's a big step in a really bigger plan."
After an evening potlatch, as the daily celebration winds down Thursday, the young children change out of their jeans and T-shirts and don moccasins and regalia. The tribal hall reverberates with the enthusiastic echo of drum beats, and everyone gathers in a circle to sing and dance well into the night.
Resolving as if from nowhere, young boys — still of grade school age — form smaller circle inside the larger one and dance with as much energy as anyone. It's a moment that might not have happened at all if not for the efforts of village leaders.
The distance of history
Shannon Erhart became executive director of the Tanana Tribal Council one year ago. She had been to several Nuchalawoyya celebrations before moving to the village but has had a considerable role in making the 2014 event a reality. It hasn't been easy, she said.
Erhart said she worries the village is losing much of its cultural knowledge. She cited the canoe race that takes place each Nuchalawoyya. Formerly, the race was done in traditional single-person "muskrat canoes." Recently the racers have turned to using store-bought two-person canoes, a trend Erhart is trying to reverse by asking an elder work with boys to create several traditional canoes.
"I want the elders together," Erhart said. "Let's learn something from them."
The tradition began long before the first Outside visitors and continued after contact, but the Nuchalawoyya of today differs in many ways from the Nuchalawoyya of the past.
"It used to more or less just happen because it was tradition. It did because it did," Mary Edwin said Thursday. "It used to be tradition, and now we're trying to get it to be a tradition again."
Edwin, 70, has lived in Tanana off and on since the 1960s. For part of that time she traveled and taught in a handful of other towns and villages in the state. She returned to the village for good in 1994 after major flooding at the village of Allakaket.
Before contact with non-Natives, the gathering at the meeting of the two rivers took place each year as naturally as the eventual breakup of the ice and the return of the king salmon. Groups from all along the rivers would meet at the confluence to fish and to discuss hunting territory and to compete in singing and dancing and games of strength.
Children from upriver would meet children from the Yukon Delta for the first time. Marriages would take place, and for as long as an entire month each spring the riverbanks near the village would hardly be visible for the thousands of boats that lined the shore.
"Because the people lived a seasonal life, this was a natural gathering place," said Kathleen Peters Zuray. "It kind of went away for a while ... a lot of things happened, between statehood and ... a lot of things happened with the land ... and boarding schools."
Zuray, 47, was born and raised in Tanana. Former executive director of the Tanana Tribal Council and a former Miss Nuchalawoyya, Zuray grew up while Nuchalawoyya and the village itself were transforming in the wake of statehood and the creation of the Tanana Chiefs Conference.
When representatives from 32 villages met in 1962 to discuss the creation of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, they naturally did so at the meeting of the two rivers. Through that meeting they did more than create an organization that advocates for Alaska Native rights to this day; they also helped revive the tradition of Nuchalawoyya.
The current of that tradition stayed strong through the 1960s and '70s. Zuray said she remembers that revival.
"I remember hearing just passionate speeches about holding on to our traditions because that's what makes us a unique people in a unique culture," Zuray said. "When I was a kid, I grew up with a lot of the elders here and their first language was not English. There used to be a lot of elders. They all sang and they all sang beautifully. We lost a lot of them in the '70s."
Nuchalawoyya, like the village itself, suffered setbacks in the 1980s and '90s. The Tanana hospital, with a 20-bed capacity and a staff of two doctors, nine nurses and other non-medical staff, was shut down by the federal Indian Health Service in 1982.
In that same timeframe, the Federal Aviation Administration closed its office in the village in favor of automation and remote operation. The loss of work was hard on the village, and, combined with many other factors, contributed to Tanana's population decline. The village that locals claim once housed as many as 600 people in the 1960s and '70s is now home to closer to 250.
When Edwin returned to Tanana in 1994, Nuchalawoyya looked like it had been added to the list of lost traditions.
"They just weren't doing it," Edwin said. "The whole thing just became harder."
The celebration was revived in the early 2000s as an every-other-year event. Selina Sam, the 20-year-old reigning Miss Nuchalawoyya, witnessed the event's return to life much in the same way Zuray did years earlier.
For the first half of Sam's life, the meeting at the confluence of the two rivers was nonexistent. Then, "all of a sudden there's all these people come to town when I was 10."
Whatever its purpose, Nuchalawoyya is vital to the community, according to Zuray.
"Everyone has their ups and downs," Zuray said. "Because, good lord, we've had some tragedies here, where a part of holding onto our traditions is to not ignore the bad things but to remember why we have the good things ... to encourage each other to be strong, to be kind to one another, to help somebody who looks like they're really messed up."
The gathering, like the paths of the rivers and the salmon runs that flow through them, has changed over the years. Its influence and existence has waxed and waned, but Nuchalawoyya — like those two mighty rivers in the heart of the Interior — continues to help sustain the people of Tanana.
Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com