on the Koyukuk
Sidney Huntington & Jim Rearden
1993 Alaska Northwest Books, Anchorage AK USA
Reviewed by Jim Kerr
In Shadows on the Koyukuk Sydney Huntington combines first hand experiences with stories handed down to him to share rare glimpses of Alaskan history. The Koyukuk in the early and middle 20th century came alive while I read this book.
Sydney's father was a Klondike gold seeker named James S. Huntington who, like my own grandfather, Carl Emil Jensen, came to Alaska from Europe at the turn of the century. While Carl continued working up and down the Yukon as a boat engineer, James settled into the Koyukuk region. At about the time my grandfather married my Deg Hit' an Athabaskan grandmother in Anvik, James married Anna, a Koyukuk Athabaskan. Gold mining profoundly influenced both their lives. James came to find gold. Carl stowed away on a boat from Denmark to live with the Indians and ended up making a living hauling freight up and down the Yukon River for the miners. Once I discovered these parallels I became very curious about Sydney's life, since I suspected it would provide insights into the daily lives of my grandmother and grandfather, two people I barely knew.
The book starts out with the story of Sydney's mother Anna who, after being taken to Nome as a witness in a murder trial, walks over 400 miles from Nome to her home on the Koyukuk River in the dead of winter rather than wait until the spring breakup to be taken back by boat so she could be with her children sooner. This incredible story reveals historic hostilities between Athabaskans, Yup'ik and Inuit and how those hostilities melted away in Sydney's lifetime.
Nine years after surviving her incredible journey, Anna gives birth to Sydney. By June of 1920 Sydney is five years old, he has a brother, Jimmy, three years old and a sister, Marion, one and a half years old. It was then that Anna ate an Athabaskan delicacy described as the white gristly tentacled part of whitefish guts. After eating this she dies leaving Sydney, Jimmy and Marion alone. In the next few remarkable days the three luckily survive mosquitoes, diaper rash, a bear who bites a diaper off Marion, a boat ride, and food poisoning without the help of adult supervision.
All this is in the first 40 pages of the book!
In the pages that follow Sydney and his brother attend the Anvik Mission, located in the village where my mother and grandmother were born. Eventually they attend the Eklutna boarding school. These chapters provide firsthand student accounts of life in these schools and reveal some philosophical differences between the two schools. These chapters are an important contribution to the history of Native Alaskan Education. I have driven past Eklutna hundreds of times and never even knew there was a boarding school in Eklutna.
By the time Sydney and Jimmy are teenagers they have moved back to the Koyukuk with their father to learn how to survive on their own. They build boats, buildings, tools, furniture and more - all without the help of power tools and using lumber they cut down and whipsawed by hand. Using this same lumber Sydney even makes a fiddle and a guitar with glue he renders from moose hooves.
There are fascinating tales of the brothers and others hunting and trapping ferocious animals. Yet, throughout these experiences Sydney makes a point of mentioning the Athabaskan tradition of respect and appreciation for animals. This includes the practice of not wasting meat, fur or other parts of the animals they caught.
When the brothers get older they adapt to new technologies, they rely less on dog sleds and more on airplanes. The stories of replacing fish traps fish with fish wheels, and feeding the dogs with rice and fish are consistent with stories my folks and other Athabaskans have told me. For example, until the early 1930s the US postal service relied heavily on dogs to deliver the mail. Eventually airplanes took over. My own grandparents' family took care of dogs for the postal service until planes took over.
The Huntington brothers were fascinated with building things. After reading articles in popular mechanical magazines about perpetual motion machines Sydney made a respectable attempt at making one of those. This story reminds me of the story about my own grandfather and my uncles, who, like Sydney, read these same magazines and made a snow machine by putting bulldozer tracks on an old truck.
Near the end of the book there is a harrowing experience involving a snow machine and other modern outdoor gear that stands in contrast to earlier stories in the book. New dangers are created by technology and new solutions come to the rescue.
There are incredible stories of near death experiences while hunting and trapping. These stories provide great outdoor wisdom handed down from Athabaskan Elders. Everything from how to prevent hypothermia to tips on hunting and fishing is covered in very down to earth stories. Common sense is a cross-cultural asset, but unfortunately it is not all that common. This book addresses this issue well with chapters on sled dogs, beavers, fish, ferocious animals, and old Koyukon ways - to name a few.
The book attempts to follow a chronological path, but fortunately it digresses into fascinating forward motions. In the course of several chapters themes re-occur that deal with food chain biology and how it affects the economics of the region. As the forces of nature cause scarcity or abundance in one region it forces migration of people and animals to areas that provide resources for survival. There are stories with early trading between Eskimos and Athabaskans. There are stories of Athabaskan and white traders as well. Even though the economic depression in the 1930s lowers the price of fur, Sydney, Jimmy and their father adapt well using a subsistence lifestyle.
Of course World War II's effect on Alaskan life was not trivial. Mining was all but shut down. In Sydney's attempts to do his part for the war effort he ends up working as a roofing foreman building military bases in Anchorage and Galena. This is quite a shift from living off the land and creates another big change in life.
Later in life (1972) Sydney is appointed to the Alaska Board of Fish and Game where he would tell stories of his life on the Koyukuk to help illuminate subsistence and related issues. Incidentally, this is where he meets Jim Reardon, who eventually helps Sydney write the book.
Sydney was an entrepreneur. In his chapter on Galena he talks about the fishing business and how it changed. Going from subsistence to commercial status and what it entailed. He is even mentioned in Gunnar Knapp's discussion about village fish processing plants: In fact there is a reference to his fish processing plant on the ISER Website: http://www.iser.uaa.alaska.edu/ResourceStudies/VillageFishProcessingHandbook/Ch%206%20Facility%206.pdf
This book fits the bill if you need to read about: outdoor survival;
big game hunting; trapping; Alaskan Native Education in the 1920s; history
of Alaska from about 1900 to 1980 - especially the 1920s and 1930s;
Athabaskan culture and history; the food chain biology of the Koyukuk
region; economics of trapping, gold mining, and trading in Alaska. All
that is packed into one blockbuster story after another. Although I
have written a rather long book review, I have only touched on a few
of the incredible stories in this book. I leave those for you.