Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Legend of Two Old Women by Velma Wallis, Alaskan Author

I admire those who follow the history of their ancestors, and, especially, pass down legends, stories to encourage the youth of specific cultures. After reading The Legend of Two Old Women, I wanted to learn about their present lives, so I found several videos that I enjoyed, and am sharing for your possible interest as well.

The air stretched tight, quiet and cold over the vast land. Tall spruce branches hung heavily laden with snow, awaiting distant spring winds. The frosted willows seemed to tremble in the freezing temperatures. Far off in this seemingly dismal land were bands of people dressed in furs and animal skins, huddled close to small campfires. Their weather-burnt faces were stricken with looks of hopelessness as they faced starvation, and the future held little promise of better days. 
These nomads were The People of the arctic region of Alaska, always on the move in search of food. Where the caribou and other migrating animals roamed, The People followed. But the deep cold of winter presented special problems. The moose, their favorite source of food, took refuge from the penetrating cold by staying in one place, and were difficult to find. Smaller, more accessible animals such as rabbits and tree squirrels could not sustain a large band such as this one. And during the cold spells, even the smaller animals either disappeared in hiding or were thinned by predators, man and animal alike. 
So during this unusually bitter chill in the late fall, the land seemed void of life as the cold hovered menacingly. During the cold, hunting required more energy than at other times. Thus, the hunters were fed first, as it was their skills on which The People depended. 
Yet, with so many to feed, what food they had was depleted quickly. Despite their best efforts, many of the women and children suffered from malnutrition, and some would die of starvation. 
In this particular band were two old women cared for by The People for many years. The older woman’s name was Ch’idzigyaak, for she reminded her parents of a chickadee bird when she was born. The other woman’s name was Sa’, meaning “star,” because at the time of her birth her mother had been looking at the fall night sky, concentrating on the distant stars to take her mind away from the painful labor contractions. 
The chief would instruct the younger men to set up shelters for these two old women each time the band arrived at a new campsite, and to provide them with wood and water. The younger women pulled the two elder women’s possessions from one camp to the next and, in turn, the old women tanned animal skins for those who helped them. The arrangement worked well. However, the two old women shared  a character flaw unusual for people of those times. Constantly they complained of aches and pains, and they carried walking sticks to attest to their handicaps. Surprisingly, the others seemed not to mind, despite having been taught from the days of their childhood that weakness was not tolerated among the inhabitants of this harsh motherland. Yet, no one reprimanded the two women, and they continued to travel with the stronger ones—until one fateful day.
On that day, something more than the cold hung in the air as The People gathered around their few flickering fires and listened to the chief. He was a man who stood almost a head taller than the other men. From within the folds of his parka ruff he spoke about the cold, hard days they were to expect and of what each would have to contribute if they were to survive the winter. 
Then, in a loud, clear voice he made a sudden announcement: “The council and I have arrived at a decision.” The chief paused as if to find the strength to voice his next words. “We are going to have to leave the old ones behind.”

Velma Wallis, an Alaskan writer from the Athabascan people, has been writing the legends handed by her ancestors and has received wide attention. I was honored to learn of her heritage...and, as an older woman, not yet as old as the Two Old Women, I gained a new perspective--perhaps, even hope, as I read their stories.

Is the legend totally true? To me it is irrelevant. It is clear that whoever the first woman or women who shared their story, wanted to make sure that change in custom needed to be made... just as some authors now write to bring about change in today's world. 

The Athabasca people were nomadic, moving as the weather changed, trying to keep alive by going where basic needs could be met. But some winters became so bad that death came on the winds, pushing the group to pick up and move again.

The two old women were old, but they still provided for The People by tanning animal skins in trade for support by others. But the arrangements for the two women slowed the others down. Even the daughter of one of them had voted to leave them. Custom had been established, still the daughter and grandson were devastated they had to choose and the mother was heartbroken at their betrayal. Of course, both women felt they were providing support and should have been allowed to continue...

This is the story of those two elders, as they watched The People walk away, leaving them with minimal support, assuming they would die soon...

“We are going to prove them wrong! The People. And death!” 
She shook her head, motioning into the air. “Yes, it awaits us, this death. 
Ready to grab us the moment we show our weak spots. 
I fear this kind of death more than any suffering you and I will go through.
 If we are going to die anyway, let us die trying!”

The book has small drawings to complement the story, while the writing is lyrically presented as gifted natural storytellers present. This is a book of despair, but courage that can only be found when a human is forced to deal with the reality that exists at any given time. 

Most of us will never know or comprehend this type of suffering and hunger, and fear as death walks behind, waiting. Yet, the stark reality of many of our ancestors shows us what we can really do if it is demanded. Even today, as we no longer fear the dangers historically faced, many of our elders, our older generation fear of hunger, fear of lack of medical support, homelessness...still exists!

Two Old Women is recognition of the strength of women, in particular. We are able to recognize and learn from the legends of former women, and men, who have worked to learn from the past and establish what will be our present and future. It is important to remember the past, see what happened, and move on from there..."if we are going to die anyway, let us die trying!"

Don't pass up this opportunity to read about Two Old Women... Highly recommended...


Velma Wallis' career as a bestselling author may have been destined from the start, but it most likely would have seemed improbable - if not fantastical - to her as a young girl growing up in a remote Alaskan village.
Velma Wallis' personal odyssey began in Fort Yukon, Alaska, a location accessible only by riverboat, airplane, snowmobile or dogsled. Having dropped out of school at the age of 13 in order to care for her siblings in the wake of their father's death, Wallis passed her high school equivalency test - earning her GED - and then surprised friends and relatives by choosing to move into an old trapping cabin 12 miles from Fort Yukon.
For almost a dozen years, she survived on what she gathered from hunting, fishing and trapping - a daring and strikingly independent lifestyle during which she struggled to define her personal identity.
In fact, it seems difficult to separate Velma Wallis from the imagery of hardship and the mere pursuit of survival itself - which is actually the underlying theme of her first and widely successful effort as a writer, Two Old Women.
Inspired by an old Athabaskan legend passed on by Wallis' mother, Two Old Women follows Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak as they struggle to coexist with an unrelenting Nature as well as conquer extreme old age after being abandoned by their own tribe for fear that the two elders would cripple any chance of surviving the harsh winter. Determined to live and so disprove the tribe's belief that they lack social worth, the two women discover strength and self-confidence they never knew they possessed.
In this regard, it seems possible to read Two Old Women as a kind of metaphor for Wallis' own childhood and role as a once emerging - but now accomplished - writer whose legendary tale has sold 1.5 million copies and been translated into 17 languages worldwide.

It should come as remarkable, then, that Two Old Women is widely considered to be a word-of-mouth bestseller - what many have called a "publishing phenomenon" - gaining in popularity as mothers, daughters, teachers and mentors share the native wisdom of Sa' and
Ch'idzigyaak amongst themselves.

Composed on an antiquated typewriter, the aspiring author's retelling of the Athabaskan legend seemed infused with magic from the beginning. Even so, the question of whether Wallis' work would actually be put in print was complicated by a lack of financial resources on the part of her publisher Epicenter Press, which was still in its infancy at the time of Wallis' submission.

But in spite of such a formidable challenge, a group of University of Alaska students taught by Lael Morgan - co-founder of Epicenter Press along with Kent Sturgis - started a grass roots effort intended to raise enough money to publish the manuscript. Since that time, Wallis has written two additional books - Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun and also Raising Ourselves.

The now middle-aged author currently divides her time between Fort Yukon and Fairbanks along with her three daughters. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including both the 1993 Western States Book Award and the 1994 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for Two Old Women as well as the 2003 Before Columbus Foundation Award for Raising Ourselves.

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