JoAnn Polston was interviewed on August 17, 2000 by Don Callaway and Connie Friend in Healy Lake, Alaska for Mendees Cheeg Naltsiin Keey': An Oral History of the People of Healy Lake Village (annotated and edited by Donald G. Callaway and Constance A. Friend, Revised June 2007). In this interview, JoAnn talks about her memories of her grandmother, Jeany Healy, living at Healy Lake, her work to establish the village council, changes in the community, and the ups and downs of living in rural Alaska.
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Being raised by her grandmother, Jeany Healy
Spending summers at fish camp and at Healy Lake
Living in Healy Lake and Fairbanks, and establishing the village council office
Changes in the village, especially with housing
Epidemic in Healy Lake
Re-growth of the community and burials of tribal members
Ups and downs of living in a remote location
Working and coming together as a community
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DON CALLAWAY: My name’s Don Callaway. This is Healy Lake, August 17th, Thursday.
Today JoAnn Polston’s going to talk about her life.
JOANN POLSTON: Well, let's see, I was born in 1958.
And I was born in Tanana.
That’s where all the babies were born at that time.
That’s where they had the medical -- Native medical hospital was.
And when I came back, it wasn’t too much longer, just -- I was a few months old when my mom got sick and was diagnosed with TB.
And they sent her to Anchorage and she had to stay there for I think almost two years. I don’t remember.
I’m going back on stories now, obviously.
But at that time I stayed with my grandma at Little Gerstle and Grandma was the only one there.
It was just Grandma and I when I was a baby.
And then my grandma got sick and was diagnosed with TB about the same time my mom got out. And she got me and my grandma went to Anchorage for her stay.
And then I was raised -- we were all over.
We went to the East Coast with my mom’s second husband and I stayed there until I was, I think four or five years old.
And then we came back to Alaska and very soon after that my grandma (Jeany Healy) came to live with us and has pretty much lived with us all her life and in fact spent her last,
her last three years with me until she passed away in -- it was in 1986 she died.
My mom died in 1972.
And all my life as far as I can remember I think from the time I was eight years old --
No, when I was seven and eight years old, I went with my grandma to fish camp. She used to have a fish camp on the Chena River.
And where the Chena and Tanana come together and I went there to summer camp, with her fish camp when I was real little.
And then after that I turned eight or nine years old, I started coming here to Healy Lake and spending the summers with my Aunt Margaret and her family.
I would come right after school ended and stay until school started again.
And we did all kinds of subsistence things; here is where I learned to cut fish. It was part of my job to help take fish out of the net and cut it for drying and for eating and for the dogs.
They had a dog team at that time.
And hunting season I, generally I didn’t ever get that. I was back in school then so whatever I learned from there, I learned from my grandma and my mom.
And when my daughter (Jeanie named for grandmother Jeany Healy) was born in 1980, I moved back over here too, when she was just a baby.
She wasn’t a year old yet.
And my stepfather had begun a house here, a log cabin for my mother.
And when she passed away, he just quit constructing on it and so there was only a few logs up. That’s all it was.
The foundation was down and a few logs.
My husband and I at that time, we finished that house.
With the help of family and friends we got that house completed.
And we lived in the cache, a little tiny 10x10 cache all summer until it was finished.
And then we moved into the cabin and we spent a winter there.
And at that time Pat and Ben (Saylor, Jo Ann's brothers) came out to Healy Lake to live.
They were very young teenagers at that time. I think they were only fourteen and fifteen.
But, I gave that house to them and told them, you know, “go ahead”, that’s theirs anyway and I moved across the lake -- my family.
And we lived then in a wall tent until our house was finished over there. I lived in a wall tent all that summer until my house across the lake was finished.
And I stayed there until my daughter was four years old.
Most of the time, too I was over there by myself, just my daughter and I.
And when she turned four years old, I decided that the once-a-month correspondence program for school that she had been on since she was three wasn’t going to be enough.
She needed socialization, I thought, with other children.
So we moved to Fairbanks and, and I -- from there I went back to college.
I stayed out in the states for a couple of years, three years and then finished up here in Fairbanks, moved my kids back in 1990 and I finished here.
And then we moved, the kids and I -- by then I had Corey, too.
We moved back here in 1992 and I spent the winter here, helping this village get their office, their first office up and running
with the computer, the fax machine and xerox, all the things that never -- that we never had here.
There wasn’t anything here.
And at that time we didn’t even have telephones and electricity.
We had our own generator out there that ran the power just on a very minimal basis for this community hall and most everybody just had candles or kerosene lamps and there wasn’t electricity in the homes.
And no telephone here, we had a radio phone.
And that’s how I communicated with Fairbanks for our everyday business that winter, getting this office set up.
And in the springtime, events occurred that I needed to move back to Fairbanks and so we did.
And a year after that, my daughter decided that she, she had enough of public school
and that this is where she wanted to be so she moved back here with my brother in 1994.
And she’s been here ever since.
And I didn’t come back here to live -- I came back here in ’95 and helped the formation of the Council in 1995 and I lived between here and Fairbanks, back and forth for about four months until this council was up and running.
And then in ’97 we moved back here and I’ve lived here ever since and now I’m purchasing a home and there’s employment here with our development and I guess we’re here to stay.
I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon in the near future.
We’ve had -- I’ve seen a lot of change here.
When I first started coming over here when I was a kid, the only house here was my Aunt Margaret’s house.
That was it. And it was a little tiny cabin.
It was so small that her son didn’t even live in there.
He had his bedroom, it was a little cabin separate from there.
And then the, her two daughters and her niece shared the one other bedroom beside their own that was in that little tiny cabin.
And when I came to visit, I stayed in a -- in a tent, in a big, in a big army tent that was partially used for storage, too.
So there, it was a tiny little cabin.
And now, before she passed on, they were able to build a large, a large cabin for her and her children have homes here.
Her son, Fred, has a, most recently just a new HUD (US government Housing and Urban Development program) house, a four bedroom HUD house he just got in the last two years.
And now there’s several homes. There’s six new HUD houses, and there’s two -- three new community buildings, a new school.
And things have really changed from the time I was here as a child. We used to just play on this ground. There used to be nothing on it.
And at that time too, I remember the old village was still fairly intact, at least there was still roofs on the buildings.
Now you’ll see there’s just a few logs laying down here and there.
I was here when John Cook came over with his archaeological crew and began to dig in that village and they dug everything up.
The whole village was nothing but a series of square holes.
And I spent quite a bit of time over there out of general curiosity and, and watched them take out all kinds of things.
And it helped me later on when I heard more of the stories about how that village died.
I could really feel it when I was watching some of the things that they were unearthing.
And at that time something that really touched me was they had found -- they began digging in what was someone’s dog yard and had found that the dogs had died literally on their chains tied to their posts.
And that there was even a person that had been buried not too far from his home.
People died so quickly and so suddenly that they weren’t even able to properly bury their dead.
And in fact they laid with their dead relatives in the house with them before someone well enough could come and help them remove the people that had passed away.
It was a very terrible time and it was reflected in the way they left.
They -- the houses still had old -- you could see the dishes where someone had just had tea.
Their teacups and plates were still on the table. The -- the tea kettles and cooking pots were still on the rusted up stoves.
And it was just as if the people who’d lived there had just disappeared one day and pretty much that’s what happened.
And now when I go over there it’s getting to be pretty much as a grass mound with some logs showing where there might have been structures here and there.
In the last years, too this community has begun to function truly as a village again with all the people moving back, all our families as we’re growing, growing up have come back.
And we had, we had an open house when my aunt was alive to open up this community hall when it was finished and lots of people from the Upper Tanana came.
About sixty people came for that.
And then in 1997 or 1998, I’m sorry, my Aunt Daisy Northway (Ellen Demit's youngest daughter) had a memorial service here for her two small twin siblings that had passed away.
And that -- a lot of people came for that.
And then, what had happened was, my Grandma Ellen and her husband were so ill themselves at the time and so weak that when the twins died they weren’t able to put a full six feet of earth there.
And over time the earth had shifted and had receded and you could actually begin to see the corners of some of the boxes and so they had to be re-buried and the fence re-erected and our culture that required basically a new funeral service.
So we did that.
And then just some weeks ago we were notified that a member of our family that had passed away in 1953, was being removed from Sitka back to this community for burial.
His name was Charlie Healy and he was sent away to Mt. Edgecumbe to school as the last dying wish of his father.
His mother had passed away here in the village and his father had taken him and his sister, Minnie, the only survivors of their family out to Little Gerstle to join the rest of what was left of this band here.
That’s where they first went after everyone -- the survivors went to Little Gerstle and put up makeshift homes as best they could to winter out there.
The fear of disease was so great here, that they literally took nothing with them and they ended up out there with -- they had to re-do everything. They had to rebuild. They had to get skins. They had to start all over again. It was very hard.
And so the people that had fallen ill to TB and other things due to the hardship continued to die.
And so when they got to Little Gerstle, not too long after that Charlie Healy’s father, Paul -- Paul Healy, knew that he was dying and so he talked to my grandfather, John Healy about the future of the band and what was going to happen to the children.
And they decided at that time that the best thing to do was to send them out to the boarding schools with the missionaries and that would be the safest thing and that education would give them the best possible future that they could see.
And so Paul Healy died and he was the last one that was transported back to this village for burial.
After that nobody came back for many years.
And so Charlie and his sister, Minnie were sent to Mt. Edgecumbe.
And at that -- during that winter Charlie got sick with the flu and he was sent to a hospital there, a couple of different hospitals.
One in Juneau where he met up with Tim Luke who is -- was his cousin.
Tim Luke’s mother was Eva Luke which is my mother, Jeany, Jeany Healy’s sister.
And she was my -- my grandmother, Jeany Healy was married to John Healy.
Anyway, those boys got together and realized they were from the same place and that they were related somehow.
And people were asking them at that time where they were from and they would -- they didn’t know how to tell them other -- because they spoke very little English, too.
They told them they were from “ up river” and they were shown maps and they couldn’t even show them on the maps where they were from.
And the next thing Tim Luke knew, they told him that they had moved Charlie to a different hospital because he was more ill than they thought and Tim never saw him again.
And he heard that he had died and he had been buried in -- outside of Wrangell on the hill.
And nothing much was ever heard pretty much again until most recently it was discovered that Charlie Healy had been entombed with many other people that had died in that era of TB and other diseases that were just recently --
unearthed or I guess it’s in my opinion, “found to be inconveniently placed” at a site where the Department of Transportation wanted to extend an airport.
And in order to extend this runway this burial, this storage site for all these coffins had to be removed and so they were all removed back to their home villages. And so we were notified of this.
And Charlie came back here on the 5th of August and we put him in the cemetery as near to his parents as we could put him.
And from there we’ve just closed that cemetery. There won’t be any more people put there in the old place anymore.
And lots of people came -- we did things in the old way as much as we possibly could for him out of respect for the time and the events in which he died.
His nearest relatives were Minnie’s children. Minnie died some thirteen or fifteen years after Charlie and she left behind four children, three of whom survive today: Gary Healy, Ray Fifer, and Mike Fifer.
And all of us got together, their clan, and helped them bury their uncle in as old a traditional way as we could find out with grandma’s help and other people’s help.
And so that brings us to today. I don’t know what else.
Okay, we’ll talk about the upsides and the downsides of living in such a remote place.
Well, in the first place it’s kind of hard to explain where we are. A lot of people get us mixed up with Healy, Alaska which is down on the Parks Highway and very accessible to everything.
Our mail goes there, our most recently all of our building materials that were ordered to build the last two houses went to Healy and sat there for two weeks before someone realized that they were in the wrong community altogether.
And things like that get messed up all the time.
The upside of living here -- I’ll start with is the fact that it’s small. We’re, we’re a close knit family.
This is an excellent place for raising children in what I consider a very crazy and wild world anymore.
And that was the impetus behind my moving back here in 1997 when my son was graduating up to middle school.
And we toured his middle school and I was horrified with the conditions and safety precautions that we were hearing about and some of the difficulties with bussing the children.
Here we know where our kids are. We know who they’re with and we know what they’re doing every minute of every given day.
They’re not too far out of our sight and they’re very -- we’re very able to be influential.
Maybe in a world like -- from my own experience from Fairbanks, when I was working in Fairbanks there would be many hours that my son would be out of my direct influence and under the influence of just anyone.
But that doesn’t happen here. I know who is influencing him.
I know where he is and I have time to be with him and help him with his values and it’s given me a great sense of security.
It’s something my daughter recognized long before -- that she, she as well, she said, “No, I’m not going to public school. I’m not dealing with these people”.
And she’s been here all this time. She’s twenty years old now.
Getting ready to go out to college and just not as anxious about that as she was to go to public school.
But the sense of community, the slow pace here -- I believe has added years onto everybody’s life that’s moved here.
The stress levels just aren’t what they would be if we lived in the city and dealt with the traffic and the eight-to-five job and the child care issues. Here we take care of each other’s children.
Some people take their children to work.
They’ve developed schedules that they can share child care.
It’s just much easier here. Much slower paced.
On the flip side, the difficulties here are transportation -- in the summertime you can go out by boat and there’s only two true running boats here that people use to go out.
It can be expensive because you have to help them with their expenses should they throw out a lower unit or some other thing that requires them to replace major parts.
They have to be able to fix that. Then there’s the plane service which is an “iffy” thing at best because during bad weather conditions: rain, freeze-up break-up, cold weather, we won’t have mail or flight service here, sometime for weeks.
And it makes the medic -- providing emergency medical care quite crucial because a medivac can take up to four hours and has taken up to four hours to respond.
The least amount of time being three hours, in which you have to maintain someone until he’s able to go to the hospital.
That’s very difficult. It makes, for me, my job (as community health aide in Healy Lake) difficult. I have to be able to identify, “Is this a medivac or not?” within the first couple of minutes of actually seeing that person in order to get timely assistance.
Thankfully, I’ve had the support of Tanana Chiefs Conference and this Council, this village council that I’m able to get the training that I need and the support that I need to make that happen as best as possible.
The um, another downside is the fact that we’re all related. That’s, you know, it’s a plus and it’s a minus because you know, God forbid we should argue among each other. You know?
It can escalate pretty quickly and so we found early on that we have to talk about things right away. It’s really helped with our interpersonal skills, I’ll tell you.
To sit down and talk about something and to keep it open and try not to be judgmental to one another and be supportive instead and I think we’ve come a long way with that. I really do.
When things are -- it may look like things are rather haphazard around here but I’ll tell you if something happens, an emergency or even a political issue that might require the Council’s immediate attention,
within minutes you’ll find us all sitting down and ready to operate as a community, as a council and as a government.
It happens quite quickly. We all know where each other are pretty much at a given time.
And we’re all up-to-date on all the issues. We make that community-wide as much as we possibly can.
It’s a must in survival in a village as small as ours that we be politically strong.
And strong in one another, strong in the belief that we’re going to be here for one another and take care of each other when we need it.
And so we don’t have any body -- there’s nobody in this village that takes welfare or food stamps. There’s nobody in this village that’s on a general assistance program out of BIA.
Everybody that can work, is working and in most instances both parties in the household are working. And even the children as much as they, they can.
There’s a very strong work ethic here and we encourage that in the children.
It’s something that we, we feel strongly about and are very proud of.
We open our doors as much as we can to people and invite them to, you know, share our way of life; and most recently we had a couple move in from Florida that are Cherokee Indians.
And they're, they're working here and purchasing a home and melding into the community quite well. We’ve become quite diverse, I think, and getting even more so. I like to see that growth happen.