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Capturing voices, struggles of Alaska Natives in 'Windows to the Land'

  • Author: David A. James
  • Updated: August 17, 2016
  • Published August 14, 2016

The front and back cover of the book Windows to the Land, An Alaska Native Story Vol. Two: Iditarod and Alaska River Trails, by Judy Ferguson.

Windows to the Land, An Alaska Native Story. Volume Two: Iditarod and Alaska River Trails

By Judy Ferguson; distributed by Voice of Alaska Publishing and the News Group; available on the author's website.

In 1975, Delta Junction resident Judy Ferguson, her husband Reb, and her 5-year-old son Clint set off by canoe from their homestead along the Tanana River, bound for the Yukon. It was seven years after she arrived in Alaska, but she had yet to travel beyond the road system. What the family encountered as they passed through the Native villages along Alaska's largest river were a history, a people and a way of life that Ferguson would connect to on a personal level. Ferguson collected stories from people she met along the river and kept them in a diary, adding more accounts from others she met around the state. Somewhere along the way, it became an obsession.

Four decades later what started as a hobby has come to fruition with the publication of the second volume of "Windows to the Land," a kaleidoscopic collection of life stories from Alaska Natives throughout the state. Coupled with the first volume, published in 2012, the books contain some 800 pages of personal accounts offering an unparalleled look at the struggles and triumphs of Alaska's first people as they've found their way in a larger society that often threatens to overwhelm their cultures.

Ferguson came at the project after several years of writing columns for the Anchorage and Fairbanks newspapers about her family's experiences, her neighbors and friends, the local history around Delta, and life histories of old-time Alaskans. Her drive and independent streak had led her to a career as a self-taught oral historian and self-published author who by the late 1990s was well known throughout the state.

It was around 2003, she said in a recent interview, that she was wondering what direction to head next. Turning to her deep Christian faith for guidance, she was drawn back to what had first enchanted her along the Yukon.

"I was on the fast ferry in Southeast and was meeting Alaska Native cultures that I had no intersection with before. It was all new to me. I was sitting there and I prayed. 'What direction should I go next, Lord?' And I felt that the Alaska Natives would be my windows to the land.  They would be my teachers and that was the next way to go."

Fitting the puzzle together

The first volume of the collection, subtitled "Alaska Native Land Claims Trailblazers," focused on the long struggle that led to the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

"I wanted to learn," Ferguson said. "I knew the terms ANCSA and ANILCA (Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act). I lived through both. I remember the tug of war on both sides of the fence. But I wanted to know how all the pieces of the puzzle fit together."

The book included interviews with elders who experienced the legalized discrimination Natives faced, offering readers the chance to understand the starting point for Alaska's civil rights movement, an effort that spanned much of the 20th century.

Ferguson feels the role of the Tanana Chiefs Conference in renewing the push for land claims in the 1960s is an under-reported part of the story. Speaking of the man who revived the Tanana Chiefs Conference, she said, "I think it was amazing that Al Ketzler had not really been given voice, because to me, he was the whole movement.  It all started with him."

It's a long complex history that she covered from the viewpoints of many involved. The lands settlement required bringing Alaska's disparate Native groups together, negotiating differences, accepting compromises and overcoming setbacks. It culminated in historical success. Through Ferguson's dogged work the story was offered in the voices of many who fought the battle, something that had not been previously available to a general reading audience.

Reviewing that volume for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner at the time of its publication, I wrote, "This is a tapestry of many voices, including a number of the people who are no longer with us. Along with the stories come hundreds of photographs, many of them historic and never seen in print before."

Alongside the stories of the land-claims struggles, the first volume also provided insight into life in Native communities through personal histories. The new volume, "The Iditarod and Alaska River Trails," continues that theme.

History brought to life

The book opens with the story of the late lands activist Katie John of Mentasta Lake, who shares family lore and describes growing up in the subsistence culture of early-to-mid-20th-century Alaska. Her son, Fred John Jr., an activist in his own right and a good friend of Ferguson's, follows. Well known for his long walks across Alaska to draw attention to Native issues, he told me that Ferguson "writes good stories for Natives. Good, truthful stories."

John acknowledged that nothing like what Ferguson has done with her books had been previously attempted.

"She brings Native history to Alaskan audiences," he said. "What she wrote in those two books should be in schools throughout Alaska. Because we don't have Native history in schools."

This history is brought to remarkable life. Alaska Natives who shared their life histories in these books include Gwich'in Chief David Salmon; activist Cynthia Erickson, who made her fight against domestic abuse public; and Alice Snigaroff Petrivelli, who lived through the internment of Aleutian Island Natives.

Sports figures are also prominent, including the legendary mushers George Attla and Emmitt Peters, Iron Dog and Yukon 800 winner Tyler Huntington, and longtime World Eskimo-Indian Olympics general manager Chris Anderson, who said of Ferguson's finished product: "the three interviewed for their involvement of the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics (Big Bob Aiken, Reggie Joule and Anderson) far surpassed anything I expected."

Non-Natives who played key roles in Alaska Native history are also found in the first book, including Niilo Koponen, Judith Kleinfeld and former Rep. Nick Begich Sr., whose story was told by his son Tom.

Some stories are painful, exploring people's personal struggles with substance abuse, domestic problems, the loss of loved ones (Alaska Natives suffer a vastly disproportionate suicide and accidental death rate, something all Alaskans should consider intolerable), and feelings of being culturally adrift. The long account that Lisa Yoshimoto of Copper Center relates is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all.

Several interviewees tell of life in the boarding schools, where Alaska Native children encountered sexual and physical abuse by those in charge, and the administration attempted to cleanse them of their own cultures. Fred John Jr., who attended one of these schools, told me, "Boarding school experience is something that people don't talk about. So I talked to her (Ferguson) about what happened down there."

Countering the tragedies and hardships for many, however, are experiences of redemption through Christian faith and the reclaiming and restoration of culture as a means of recovering themselves and rebuilding their communities.  Evangelists Arnold Marks and Gary Simple tell lively stories of traveling the state, spreading the gospel. A particularly inspiring account comes from Tsimshian artist David Boxley, who single-handedly set about reviving the all-but-lost traditional crafts of his people.

Commitment to her subjects

The largest share of the interviews Ferguson conducted were with Alaska Natives from the Interior, a result of the many years she has spent in Delta and the connections she has built, but in both books she worked consciously to include people from all the Native groups across Alaska. She also explains the distinctions between subgroups that are frequently missed by white residents. These smaller groups often have (or had, sadly) their own languages and very specific cultural histories. Both books are richly illustrated with photographs.

Many of the elders Ferguson interviewed also provided family histories, relating the experiences of parents and grandparents who lived through the very end of the Russian era and the arrival of Americans. Hunger and hardship were constant companions in those days, yet more than one interviewee bemoans the effects of relief programs that have ended hunger but brought reliance on the government.

Ferguson worked closely with each of the people she included, letting them review and edit the chapters discussing their lives to ensure as much accuracy as possible, as well as to allow them to tell their stories as they wanted them told.  This commitment to her subjects undoubtedly helped her cross the cultural divide between Alaska Natives and white residents, and the value of her work can't be overstated. These are stories we wouldn't have without her, and they offer vital insight into who all Alaskans are, where we have been and where we are going as a people and a state.

For Ferguson, who is finally slowing down after 20 years of relentless story collecting, seeing these two books come to market has been deeply rewarding. 

"It's been my privilege to hear these people's voices, to know the stories," she said. "It's been gold to me."

Judy Ferguson will be selling her books at the Alaska State Fair in Palmer at Purple Trail 14 Aug. 25-Sept. 5. Both volumes of "Windows to the Land" are available in print and digital editions, and the first volume is also available as an audio book on CD. An audio version of the second volume is forthcoming. 

David A. James is a Fairbanks freelance writer and critic. 

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