Book review: A gifted storyteller shares her early Yukon River life

“Tiny’s Stories: An Athabascan Family on the Yukon River”

By Theresa “Tiny” Nellie Demientieff Devlin. Cirque Press, 2023. 139 pages. $18

“Tiny” Devlin, born in 1945 in Nenana, Alaska, was the eighth of 10 children in a family that lived in Holy Cross and Fairbanks and ran freight barges up and down the Yukon and Tanana Rivers. It was, Tiny writes, “a rather unusual occupation in those early days for Alaska Natives, but Dad was a determined man.” With a mixed heritage of Athabascan, Yupik, Russian, and German, Tiny grew up within her family’s Athabascan culture in a time when Native values were not generally appreciated. She died in 2020.

Tiny was known to be a gifted storyteller and late in life compiled stories from her earliest memories through her time in high school. Each short memory is rich in specific detail and shows her to have been a smart, fun-loving, and adventurous young person within a kind and loving family.

In what was surely an unusual arrangement, the entire family lived on its paddlewheel boats and barges in the summer, servicing villages that included Tanana, Ruby, Galena, Nulato, Kaltag, Shageluk, Anvik, Holy Cross, and St. Mary’s. They even traveled the Innoko River to the mining town of Flat. As Tiny writes at one point, “It amazed me, as I’m sure it did most of the people in the villages, that we all grew up to adulthood and none of us drowned.”

In her early years, the family lived in the Athabascan village of Holy Cross, which was also the location of a Catholic mission run by nuns. The mission included a huge church, gardens, a small hospital, residences for the staff, and a school for both boarding and village students; although it was uphill from the village, it seemed to dominate much of its life. Religious holidays were celebrated, and community dances featured square dancing and waltzes. In summer, most of the villagers lived at their fish camps. The Demientieff family, like everyone else, worked feverishly during the king salmon run to catch and preserve an essential food.

For a child, life on the riverboat sounds idyllic. “After a busy visit to one of the villages, I liked to stand in front of the pilothouse and watch as we pulled away ... Usually, friends or relatives would be standing on the riverbank, seeing us off. We would wave until we could no longer see each other. Sometimes I was glad, thinking about the next village and the people; sometimes I was sad to leave the one we were in.” Adventures included the time a bear came aboard and her sister shot it and another time when her father called the family together to watch so many geese fly up that they darkened the sky.


When Tiny was school-aged, the family moved their operation to land along the Chena River, near Fairbanks. For a reason Tiny doesn’t explain (or perhaps didn’t know) she was sent to a different school from her siblings. There were no other Natives in her class, and she was lonely. Two of her highlights from this time were skating on the river and helping a brother feed his sled dogs (and sneaking hot pieces of fish for herself.) And there were so many new things in the city — bakeries, movies, a store that sold chameleons!

As she got older, Tiny became more aware of how she was perceived in the world. Once, in one of the villages, she was taunted with cries of “You’re not Native!” and began to wonder why other children would say that to her. “What is it that makes a person Native? I realized then that we didn’t speak our Native language and I wondered why.”

When she was seven, her parents put some of the children in the mission boarding school for about three weeks, the first time they’d ever been separated from the family. The regimented life was very different from family life, and Tiny was homesick — and concerned for her “little buddies and the rest of the mission kids” who did not have homes to return to.

The Holy Cross Mission closed in 1956, and the staff and students were transferred to the Copper Valley School, a new, integrated, Catholic boarding school (which operated only until 1971.) Starting in seventh grade, Tiny spent six years there. Aside from having blackboard erasers thrown at her and being told by a nun of her goal to “break my spirit,” Tiny found the school a happy place, “a source of strength, the beginning of long friendships, and spirit as a driving force of values to pass on.”

Tiny went on to become a caring wife and mother, a friend to many, a significant leader, and a revered elder. Her professional work centered on promoting community health and cultural revitalization. She held positions as a producer and director at KAKM-TV (Anchorage’s public television station), as the leadership coordinator at UAF, and in the enrollment division of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act. The many traditions she drew upon are suggested by this line from a biography written by her husband and brother at her book’s end: “Tiny loved her Holy Cross King salmon strips, banana nut bread, and spicy Russian tea.”

Many people helped bring “Tiny’s Stories” to completion. The final book includes a wealth of contributed photos as well as several maps. The acknowledgments section notes, “Throughout all of this process, the circle of family and friends of ‘Tiny’s Stories’ kept growing — a whole village to raise a book.” The result is an intimate look into an Interior life shaped by family and cultural values during a little-explored period of Alaska’s history.

Nancy Lord

Nancy Lord is a Homer-based writer and former Alaska writer laureate. Her books include "Fishcamp," "Beluga Days," and "Early Warming." Her latest book is "pH: A Novel."