Wilson Justin was interviewed on October 20, 2014 by Karen Brewster and Barbara Cellarius at Elmer E. Rasmuson Library at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this first part of a two part interview, Wilson talks about growing up in Nabesna, Alaska, working as a hunting guide, and his family's history of traveling and trading in the Wrangell-St. Elias area. He also talks about Native history in the Nabesna and Chistochina area and their cultural traditions regarding clans, leadership, and potlatches.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Oct 20, 2014
Narrator(s): Wilson Justin
Interviewer(s): Karen Brewster, Barbara Cellarius
Transcriber: Sue Beck
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Personal background and growing up in Nabesna
Moving from Nabesna
Trying to enter the U.S. Army
Starting a guiding business
Hunting camps and types of animals hunted
End of the guiding business
Lena Charley and her guiding work
Making a living from guiding
Old Nikolai, land ownership, clans, and trail and trade routes
Trade network, population decline, and influence of missionaries and the military
Importance of places out on the land and land claims, and intellectual property rights
Requirements for becoming a leader
Memorial and funeral potlatches
Clan insignia and colors, and knowledge of songs and dances
Knowledge of trails and sharing of resources
Senior uncles and senior aunts
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After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. Today is October 20th, 2014, and this is Karen Brewster. And we’re here with Wilson Justin for the Wrangell–St. Elias Project Jukebox oral history interviews and joined by Barbara Cellarius with the Park Service. And here -- it means we are here in Fairbanks at Rasmuson Library.
So, Wilson, thank you very much for finding time in your busy campaign schedule to meet with us.
WILSON JUSTIN: You’re welcome.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: And I guess I will get started with asking when and where you were born.
WILSON JUSTIN: I was born in 1950 at the -- what we call Nabesna, but it’s actually Reeve’s Field, the new airport after World War II. Most of my family comes from about twelve miles downriver at the old village.
And the glacier itself, the Nabesna glacier’s about seven miles upriver from where I was born. So I could -- we could still see the glacier when I was growing up.
Most of the reference to Nabesna is actually the valley. The place of the valley. Because it really -- the original name is -- depends on whether if you’re from Canada, you would say river of plenty. If you’re from Copper River, you would say valley of plenty. But the original didn’t --
the notation for Nabesna, Nabah Nii' C'ohyaan, is a place where you get plenty to eat.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: And when you were a child is that where you mostly grew up?
WILSON JUSTIN: I spent nearly all of my growing-up years up until about -- well, I spent every summer there no matter what.
We moved out of Nabesna in 1957 to Chistochina. Lived in a tent in Chistochina for two winters, going back to Nabesna every summer. Then moved to Mentasta in 1959 and lived in a small, wooden -- plywood -- kind of like a shack.
But we still went back to -- well, in 1959, Nabesna. But in 1960, began staying in the summertime up there on Mile 29 Nabesna Road.
So we didn’t go all the way back to Nabesna after 1960. I went down there whenever I could, but the family stayed at 29 Mile. Nowadays, called 28 and a half.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: At Twin Lakes.
WILSON JUSTIN: Yep. Twin Lakes is a better bet, but there’s a lot of Twin Lakes in Alaska.
KAREN BREWSTER: So why did your family -- why did your family move from Nabesna?
WILSON JUSTIN: Mainly, because the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) put together a really aggressive campaign to move families from remote areas into service areas near schools.
Basically, they flew down Nabesna about 1955 or ‘56 and said if you don’t have your kids in school some -- near a school somewhere, we’ll take them away.
So that just stopped everything. There was -- houses were being built that stopped. And caches had been completed, loaded up. People left four caches down there full of guns and blankets and stuff.
So no matter what happens, there's -- there's no way that anybody can ever go back and replace those kind of years in the family, and particularly those families that had to be relocated a long ways from home.
My uncle, Johnny, is one of them. They went to Mentasta. And I didn’t have to go very far, but the rest of them did.
The older folks used to say the Commissioner did that, but it took a while for me to understand that they were really referring to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
And I found that out from the BIA themselves when I was in high school. Went down to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They were quite proud of the fact that they went out and gathered everybody up and herded them to the places that had schools. Basically, chased them out of their homeland.
If it was today, boy, I tell you! There would have been some feathers -- feathers flying around that building. I hope the BIA hears this.
KAREN BREWSTER: So you didn’t get to choose which community you went to?
WILSON JUSTIN: No, you went to wherever there was a school, otherwise you were sent -- according to the -- what the elders believed, you were going to be taken away.
Which a lot of that had already occurred by then, so it was a question of hanging on to the remaining kids.
Godfrey Nikolai and I were the last two youngsters out of Nabesna. I think that was in 1957. Could have been ’56. I was pretty young.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: So you went to school in Chistochina and then Mentasta?
WILSON JUSTIN: We started in Chistochina. Actually, we began in a garage. Bea Postee was the first teacher. I think there was six of us: Gil and Joe, myself, Lemmy, Lillian -- can’t remember who else.
We started in a little tiny garage on the side of a building there in Chistochina, right across from where Chistochina Lodge, the old lodge, is now.
And then, basically, my mom moved us up to Mentasta about 1959 for school up there. But every -- within a day or so of school shutting down, every spring we were back up Twin Lakes. Dogs. Everything. Didn’t come back 'til school started.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: And then where did you go to high school?
WILSON JUSTIN: I came up here in 1964 to Lathrop (high school). And then drifted off to Anchorage to finish up high school in Anchorage. I lived out on North Pole on Plack Road and down -- I think it’s called Beaver -- Beaver Road.
So ninth grade here in Fairbanks. That was a real experience. We’re talking about the change from village -- village kid to Fairbanks was a big place. To me.
I’m used to fifteen or twenty people. Maybe forty people is a really big crowd. But I remember Fairbanks as a real jolt. But West High was even worse. Much, much worse.
KAREN BREWSTER: Down in Anchorage?
WILSON JUSTIN: Right. Up here the students had a halfway -- halfway gotten used to village kids drifting in all the time. In Anchorage, we were completely and totally alien.
KAREN BREWSTER: So what year did you graduate from high school then? WILSON JUSTIN: 1968.
KAREN BREWSTER: And then what did you do?
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, two days after I graduated, I walked down to the Army recruitment station, walked in, and volunteered for the draft. They told me I was too young and I need to be eighteen.
So on August 2, 1968, I hitchhiked back into Anchorage and walked back down the same place and volunteered for the draft again. This time they said okay. We can handle you.
But I failed the physical in October 1969, right at the induction. I got my induction notice for the draft. I was set for Anchorage in October. I went in and took my final physical and failed the physical. I had tinnitus. I didn’t know that I had tinnitus 'til then.
So that was a big, big hit in the stomach to fail the physical. I was the only physically fit person in the entire building.
I could run ten, fifteen miles in those days up in the hills. So failed the physical and spent some time appealing the designation. I was classified as 1Y, which was -- you were only eligible for military service in times of national emergency.
But I appealed that to the draft board. What I wanted was to get a chance to see -- to retake the physical. But 1973 they sent me another letter saying your classification now is 4F. That ended that.
But during that 1969, ‘70, ‘71, ‘72, and ‘73 period of time while I was waiting to get a clear sense of whether or not I could be part of the military service, that’s the years that I helped put our guiding business together, while I was waiting for the military to give me an answer.
So in that five years of waiting, we put together a pretty decent guiding operation back in the home country. I’m not one to stand around and wait. I’m gonna be doing something.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: So when you talk about we, who is we? Who was involved in the guiding?
WILSON JUSTIN: Lee Hancock, my stepfather, he was getting ready to close down the business because the airplane operators had basically chased him out of all the hunting country that he’d been in.
And then all of the -- all of the guides, really experienced guide he depended on had drifted off and done other things. Lena Charley’s one of them. Lena started out as a wrangler and she was the person who did all of the work on the hides.
My uncle Johnny was another one. He went -- drifted off with work with Lou Anderton for survey work.
Nelson John worked, and he went off and started doing firefighting and stuff like that. Houston Sanford did a lot of guiding, but he ended up having -- I think he had a really bad knee. Couldn’t climb anymore.
Jack John, my older half-brother, who was camp cook spent ten, twelve years in those camps with Lee, delivered -- began to suffer from some serious liver ailments and was pretty much laid up for several years. Actually, the rest of his life after that.
So there was basically his entire crew of help had gone on to other things.
So he -- from about 1962 or ’63, he basically subcontracted to Glenn Brewster. Glenn Brewster worked for my stepfather with track vehicles. So he -- so Lee subcontracted the few hunters he was getting to Glenn Brewster and using Lee’s old camp.
I came along out of high school in 1968. There were all these horses hanging ‘round. There was all of this camp stuff sittin’ up in places like Nabesna and Twin Lakes. There was everything you needed.
And I had no idea how long I was going to wait, so I told Lee we can handle a few hunters while I’m hangin’ ‘round.
So from 1968, I think we had four that year. '69 we had six. By 1970, we were booking the entire season.
I had -- my brother, Calvin, and I started out, but we had a couple of friends come in that we could put license on.
By 1975, we had nine guides learning the business. Larry Sinyon, Daniel Nikolai, Calvin, myself, Johnny Hancock. We had more guides than we had hunters.
So by 1977, I decided there was enough guides, there was enough things, and I wasn’t going to make it into the Army. I wasn’t going to get a college degree, so I went off and I booked -- in 1976, I booked hunters through ’77, ‘78 and ’79. Three years all full.
Then I went to work at Ahtna, trainee as a land planner. So I left a big bunch of hunters and took off and started learning a trade.
But we ended up having more guides. We ended up being the largest number of guides in the business. And it really appealed to hunters.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: So were you mostly using horseback?
WILSON JUSTIN: Almost all horseback. We had three camps.
I set up camp at what we call Lost Lake, but is referred to Big Grayling Lake. And then we had a camp down there by Camp Creek on the other side of Nabesna. And we had a temporary camp up there above Reeve’s Field about five miles -- about two miles before you got to Bond Creek.
Those were the basic base camps, but we roamed all over the place.
When you had horses, there's nothing to stop you except swimming water in the rivers or ice on the passes. With the exception of that, you're free to go wherever you want.
KAREN BREWSTER: And what were you hunting for?
WILSON JUSTIN: Sheep, bear. Dall sheep and grizzly bear.
We rarely had anything to do with moose or caribou, ‘cause that’s -- that’s quite an operation to pull in a whole moose in the whole -- you know, back then we had what is referred to as the Chisana herd, these big mountain caribou running all over the place.
And you needed a couple of horses to handle those. So a big investment in time and place to go out and take down a moose or caribou, so we just stuck to sheep and bear.
KAREN BREWSTER: I don’t know, taking down a grizzly bear sounds like a lot of investment to me, too.
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, once -- once -- once you learn how, it becomes fairly routine. There’s no bear stories in my family. If you do your job, everything happens the way it’s supposed to, it becomes pretty routine.
I used to laugh at those guys in the bars where there’s all these horrific near misses, which -- I got into a fight down there in -- where was it? Outside of King Salmon down in Naknek, I believe, South Naknek.
With another guy. He was talking about his near-death experience with a bear. And being half shot drinking, I told him only stupid people got into problems with bears. So next thing you know, we’re outside fighting.
If it was today, I wouldn’t say stupid, I would just say inexperienced. Be more politically correct. But we’d still be out there probably rolling around.
But I never got into no -- I don’t have any bear stories. Accidentally, when we weren’t hunting them.
But, no, the guiding business was a good business and very successful, extremely successful, except for alcohol in the family brought it down.
I left the guiding business to the family. Let’s see, in 1985, I think. Yeah, ’85, left it to the family and took a slow deterioration. And it took about six or seven years before it finally just -- the heavy duty drinking by the family just completely let the business go run -- get run into the ground.
So by about ’92, I think it’s the last year that the business actually operated.
I actually guided again. 1988. That’s the year my stepfather, Lee -- his last year in the business. He had cancer that year. Eighty-four years of age and he -- it -- I think they call it fast-moving cancer. There’s a term for it, diagnosed like -- Like my uncle, Paul.
I didn’t mention Paul, but Paul Sinyon was another older guide that spent a lot of time with my stepfather.
Both Paul -- Paul passed away in 1982 and he had a fast-moving cancer. My stepfather in 1988 and that was fast-moving cancer. Spring, too, from like about May to about October.
But my stepfather was diagnosed sometime in the spring of 1988, and I came back up to Twin Lakes and spent that summer up there. Guided all that fall and went out with my stepbrother, Johnny, out to the Peninsula.
So, kind of the last -- last gesture for Lee to spend time out there.
KAREN BREWSTER: I would like to interrupt for a second. Is your coffee cup empty? WILSON JUSTIN: Mm-hm.
KAREN BREWSTER: Can I take it away from you? ‘Cause it’s making noise on the microphone.
WILSON JUSTIN: Oh, okay. Can we throw the microphone out the window? KAREN BREWSTER: There’s no windows. WILSON JUSTIN: Just throw it against the door.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Well, the problem then is we wouldn’t have the recording if we didn’t have the microphone.
KAREN BREWSTER: Thank you. BARBARA CELLARIUS: If you pass it over here, then it won’t be -- KAREN BREWSTER: It’s not a temptation. You can just leave it here. BARBARA CELLARIUS: Okay.
WILSON JUSTIN: You realize the old style of talking (hitting table with his hand). Making your points. KAREN BREWSTER: Yes.
WILSON JUSTIN: If they don’t like -- if they don’t like that, then be sure and tell them that they’re going to have to change their ways.
KAREN BREWSTER: You can use your hands as much as you want.
WILSON JUSTIN: (Hitting the table) This is what counts when I make points. KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Knocking it on the table.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: It will have a more authentic sound than a paper cup.
KAREN BREWSTER: That’s right. We’d rather you knock on the table than russle the paper cup. I wanted to ask, you mentioned Lena. Lena Charley? That was your aunt?
WILSON JUSTIN: She’s my aunt, yes.
KAREN BREWSTER: You know, and everybody else were men? In the guiding business? Can you talk about what she did and how she got involved?
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, she was taking care of Harry Boyden’s horses up on Nabesna Glacier. Harry Boyden was an old raconteur ne’er do well. Kind of a rogue runnin’ around the country, and he did a lot of horse packing.
But he wintered his horse up by the Nabesna Glacier, which required somebody to come up and check on them and feed them supplemental feed every now and then.
And Lena, because she was the only one left at Nabesna at that time, basically got hired to go up every week, feed the horses, five or six of them, and just check on them and make sure that they didn’t run off.
So she went up with dog team. And Harry Boyden would pay her with stuff from the store. He ran a little store up there.
So it was kind of an economic necessity for Lena to get some kind of -- it wasn’t a job. It was caretaking.
Anyway, she began to get very familiar with horses. How to take care of them, what have you.
So she did a little bit of wrangling for my stepfather, but she was also a master hunter by the time she got to be in her twenties. Which my stepfather recognized early on, that she was a very highly skilled hunter.
She only hunted with .22 back those days. Black bear, moose, caribou, sheep, everything.
So my stepfather never had to really wonder when the older guides started drifting off to better jobs, higher-paying jobs, he just started hiring Lena as a guide. And she spent, I think, fifteen years off and on for not only my stepfather, but other people.
She worked for Don DeHart. She worked for Bud Conkle, and -- here and there. I can’t remember the guy out of Glennallen.
So she got about five seasons in with Lee as a guide and about ten with other people, but she spent about seven or eight years basically taking care of horses.
She had a long career, and then she left the guiding business about 1970 -- probably ‘75 to go into -- she got into the union and spent the remainder of her time in the laborers union as a flagger on the roads. Road construction projects.
By that time, our business was full -- roaring full bore and we had plenty of guides, so worked well. But she kind of bridged the era between the old-time professional guides and the new -- like ourselves, we were contract guides.
The old-time professional guides made a living from it. Like my uncle, he guided quite a bit since he was about fourteen. Back then, they didn’t require Indian guides to have license.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: I was gonna to ask about that.
WILSON JUSTIN: You went out and did your work no matter how old you were or what you did, and they -- the guys who had the license got paid and they took the credit.
But a lot of the stuff that Harry Boyden did back then with Jack John and Johnny Nikolai, Charlie Toby, Toby Charley, Sr., and my uncle, Titus Joe, Titus John -- they were all instrumental in Harry Boyden’s business as the guides back then.
But they really didn’t get paid. They got -- I’d say they got goods more than they got pay. Groceries, basically, a lot of meat, what have you.
So it was barter. The money didn’t start getting into Native guides’ hands until the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. But guiding had been going on in the region since the ‘30s, so --
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I didn't know. It went back a long way.
WILSON JUSTIN: I’m second generation guide. My aunt -- all of my aunt, my uncles and everybody.
My father was a -- he guided and he did his own running his own horses. He owned two horses. But his primary way of making a living was predator control. Work for the feds. Taking down bears and wolves.
KAREN BREWSTER: And can I ask what his name was?
WILSON JUSTIN: You could. He was a medicine man out of Nabesna.
KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. All right. And your mother’s name?
WILSON JUSTIN: Original name was Laura Nikolai. Maiden name. And married my father, and then when -- my father died in 1952, then married Lee in 1964. I believe it was ‘64. Might’ve been ‘63.
There were four in that family. Johnny Nikolai, my uncle. He passed away two years ago. Ruby Sinyon, who you interviewed before. Then Lena Charley, and then my mom. My mom, Laura Hancock, was the youngest.
And on the -- father’s grandfather’s side -- there was Jack Nikolai and then a person we call Old Nikolai. He was also a medicine man, but he was widely referred to as Chief Nikolai.
And that was for the purpose of legitimizing the mark he made on the paper that transferred -- that the railroad folks used for Kennecott mine.
And that’s the thing about Katie John saying we want Kennecott mine back. She wasn’t talking about the copper or the railroad, she was saying that it was -- we got tricked into giving it up and it should have never happened.
She was saying we have to right that wrong. So go down there, tell the Park give us back Kennecott . And got it without any re-compensation.
KAREN BREWSTER: And Old Nikolai, Chief Nikolai, he was the leader at the time that happened?
WILSON JUSTIN: He was a medicine man. He was part of that medicine man band over there, the Naltsiin people who owned the -- I shouldn’t say owned.
For the purpose of trade, you could say they owned the trail. But actually what they -- what they did -- what happened was the Naltsiin clan, the medicine people clan, had control of the trade routes from about fifty miles up from Chitina into Canada.
And on the other side of the range, from Nabesna over, the ‘Alts’e’tnaey had the other piece of the trail. And then where the trail come together over at White River, the ‘Alts’e’tnaey and Naltsiin had joint control of the trail.
So Old Nikolai, as a prominent member of the medicine man clan, had access and use and direct -- was directly involved in the movement of copper nuggets from the Kennecott area to the coast.
So he kind of set the price, established the price. But there was quite a few other prominent medicine people, and trader, and tradesmen who utilized the trade -- and utilized the area.
We had stuff from Mexico. We had Chinese artifacts. I suspect we traded over about a thousand miles, all the way through British Columbia or Oregon.
Get those, I don't know what they call them, seashell necklaces around Nabesna. Those all came off the trade trail.
And trade trail, that particular trade trail was always a secret. They never referred to it anywhere. I knew about it because we lived right on it and my father ran it when he was pretty active.
I knew about it because the Naltsiin always referred to it as “our trail.” They never said where it was, but they always said “our trail.” Nobody ever said where it was.
I traced it out by putting together stories from Houston Sanford, Jack Justin, my older half-brother. So I knew -- always knew where the trail was and where it went to. But I never knew the reason why it wasn’t recognized or referred to.
But Old Nikolai had a prominent place in the use of that trail over there in McCarthy area. And I imagine what he thought he was selling was permission to use the trail. Put his mark on it, and the whole doggone mountain went south.
KAREN BREWSTER: What about connections with upper Tanana people?
WILSON JUSTIN: Well, there’s no such thing as connections. It’s kinda like same.
KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I was thinking of trails and trade between.
WILSON JUSTIN: It’s like saying what’s the connection between south UAF and north UAF. To me it what --
KAREN BREWSTER: I meant the trails and the trade and --
WILSON JUSTIN: They were all part and parcel the same thing. It just depends on which clan was located on what part.
You have to remember that when the Episcopalian church came in -- well, the military came in first. And it’s a pretty sad history there, because the military along with the churches and the traders and the trading posts, the economic forces so to speak, moved very swiftly to take the medicine people out of the trade. The routes.
That’s why in the area that I’m from, that got de-populated fairly fast because the traders and the churches wouldn’t deal with medicine people. Just wouldn’t deal with them.
Medicine like Chisana Joe, he worked his way all the way down the Tanana (River). He was around in this area back in the 1920s.
My dad went all the way down to Knik and to Valdez and Cordova. Went all the way into Canada. Couldn’t -- they had to trade past the local network because the military and the missionaries and what have you wouldn’t allow them to cash in on the trade. I didn’t know that until I was in my forties.
I just grew up assuming that they all were working the same. They were all on the same table, but it wasn’t like that.
So when you say how were they all connected, you have to take into -- there’s two very serious issues you have to deal with. Number one was the collapse of the Ahtna nation because of the epidemics.
That’s a separate issue on how the medicine man war played into that. That's anywhere from 1790 to 1830.
Separate from that, there was like a thirty to thirty-five year pause where nothing happened. Nobody was around. Very small population. No real re-bounding in terms of the epidemics.
So once the Ahtna nation crashed somewhere in the neighborhood of about 1790 to 1830, big long pause until first contact.
So it would be -- if a person didn’t know the history, they would assume there was things happening all the time everywhere. Went quiet, went silent, and stayed silent for about thirty years.
And nobody came in. Very few people came out. And that’s a really tough time to put into words for elders. They consider that time of being cursed.
When the missionaries came in they said, "Of course, you were cursed. You hang around with those medicine people." Same thing with the military.
So when the prospectors came in, there was hardly anybody left. I think Nabesna had twenty-seven people all totaled. Half of them from Chisana in the last -- or the first census.
And yet when Houston and Jack and Jim McKinley and all of those talk about the first Nabesna village, they said that the village down there across from Cooper Creek had anywhere from three to five hundred people.
And they all died at the same time, on the same conditions. From introduction of either smallpox, perhaps another fatal disease. But they all died at the same time.
So the background stories are full of people, full of villages, full of life. And you had a really long hundred-year blanket of silence where everybody just quit talking because of the belief that the curse of the medicine man was upon the land.
I told your predecessor at the national park. They asked me back in the ‘80s, “How come there’s nobody claiming the land from Twin Lakes to the border?” I said, “Isn’t it obvious? It’s medicine man country.” Nobody’s gonna go back in there.
And you don’t know where they’re buried. You don’t know what songs that you need to walk the trails. You have no idea what places that are set aside where --
Over on the other side of Cooper Creek Pass, I came through there with a horse in 1969. Lost a horse, went over the pass, went back and got him.
I found two triangle-shaped multicolored rocks about two hundred yards apart. Very easy to see on the side of the creek.
So I talked to my older half-brother, Jack. He said, “That that was your uncle, Chisana Joe. That’s where he make his medicine. You’re not supposed to know that place.”
Well, the creek came along and opened everything up. I went back about ‘73 and, of course, the creek had cut in about another twenty or thirty feet and it was all gone. But I still remember that.
There’s a place like that down below Caribou Creek where it comes into the Matanuska where my dad had his changeover place. Where he put his regalia on so people knew what he -- who he was and why he was down thataway.
So Chisana Joe when he comes over -- well, Titus Joe and all them -- that’s where they stopped and camped before they crossed the Nabesna and put on their things. Or sing or, you know, do what medicine people do when they come into different places.
So that country is full of that kind of stuff, and nobody’s going to wander around without the proper permission or consent.
Somehow that translated in the white man’s world as us abandoning the country. So by the time I was forty years old, I was thinking this world is really, really upside down. You do things right, and everybody thinks it’s some kind of a -- you’re dumb because you do things right.
That’s the world we inherited, us people my age. You do things wrong and everybody applauds.
Same thing with the academic world. The academic world has been intruding and basically robbing songs and stories for what? Forty years? Not once did anybody stop and say, “Wait a minute, maybe we’re committing some wrongs here?”
Not until about, oh, maybe ‘95 when I started telling researchers in academia, “You guys are intruders. Really, really screwing things up.”
In the beginning people got offended. Really got upset because somebody like me would say things like that. I would tell them, “It’s not your world. It’s not your life. You’re not the Indians here. I am.”
Nowadays the academic community is more politically correct. I don’t know if they’ve learned anything, but you go to any university and they want permission and consent first, not knowing that they can’t ask for it.
So you learn -- you learn to take baby steps, but you got like a mile or more to go yet.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: So you talked about Chief Nikolai. WILSON JUSTIN: Old Nikolai.
BARBARA CELLARIUS: Old Nikolai and some people calling him Chief Nikolai. I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about how one becomes a leader.
WILSON JUSTIN: If you -- if you looked at the -- the -- the way our clans were put together, there’s four Ahtna clans opposite -- opposing each other basically. Not opposing, but different from each other.
And three associated clans around Salcha, down towards Cordova, and over towards Kluane Lake. The geographical boundaries are way, way outside of any individual clan’s reach.
So one of the attributes of being a leader is knowledge of those places beyond your borders. And part of the -- I mean, we could spend a whole day just talking on how we deal with leadership and what.
We never call them chiefs, but that’s what was imposed upon us.
But in the original structure of the clans, the men married into the clans. Like an ‘Alts’e’tnaey female, her partner would come from a distance from a different clan.
A chief or a leader or Kwska or Kaskae would be able to trace the incoming marriage partner’s ancestry for several generations.
And it’s very important because marriages were arranged for the purpose of sharing resources. Fish streams, hunting valleys, sheep mountain licks. And no leader in the Ahtna realm could be a leader without understanding and knowing what it means to have an incoming marriage partner.
You’re supposed to be able to say: "I knew your grandfather. He came from Eagle. I met him in 1922. I knew your grandfather’s brother. I knew your uncle. He lived over in Chitina. Or came over to Chitina in 1916. Came through and worked."
So an Ahtna leader, a proper Ahtna leader, trained, will always talk about the grandfather in order to establish the external boundaries of the Ahtna nation. So nobody can be an Ahtna chief unless they can say I knew your grandfather and I knew your grandfather’s land. I knew where your grandfather’s boundaries were in relation to the Ahtna boundaries. That’s just one.
Not only do you have to know how the marriages were arranged, who arranged the marriages, but you have to know the brother-in-law.
Brother-in-law are the foundational part of our leadership issues. It’s the brother-in-law. It’s your wife’s oldest brother who represents that family in all disputes, all protocol, all knowledge of your codes, and all of the clan issues.
So the brother-in-law is the supreme legal counsel for that family. And when you deal with the brother-in-law, the brother-in-law is elevated to the status of the lifelong partner.
And no Ahtna chief can call themselves Ahtna chief unless they know the brother-in-law of all the marriages for a clan. Because that’s how they trace the ancestry -- that’s how they trace the -- what you would call the tribal justice issues that happen among families and clans.
And settlements are non -- or settlements of disputes and battles and fights in terms of factions and clans are agreed to in the memorial potlatch.
And the brother-in-laws are the ones who make the announcements of how things are settled and what are done and who accepts whether a settlement was good enough for that family and that clan.
And the chief has to speak about -- the brother-in-law will say, “It’s good for us, We’re happy.” The chief will say, “Your grandparents would be happy with you. You did right. I knew your grandfather. I knew your great grand-uncle. They would all be happy with what you did here.”
That’s how our memorial potlatches serve as the tribal court in terms of making things legal and right again. Vastly different from a funeral potlatch.
Nowadays, you kind of have funeral potlatch stuff in memorial potlatches. You have memorial potlatches and funeral potlatch. They cross over and they kind of blended together.
But memorial potlatches were all about observing the putting back together of violations of protocol and clan laws. That’s what originally they were all about.
And at the same time, you could go back and have a memorial potlatch for a funeral of a deceased person up to -- could be thirty years late.
So you could have a -- you have a funeral potlatch in the immediate sense, which you observe or you tip your hat so to speak to all the friends of the deceased in the family. You make sure the family is elevated for a while and that the kids are recognized, so everybody know who -- where the loss -- where the losses occurred in terms of the age groups of the family.
So the funeral potlatch in the old days was a looking glass into that family and their friends, and you’re supposed to remember for the rest of the family life who the friends were.
The memorial potlatch that occurred from a funeral potlatch was to fix all of the protocols that will occur, and violations from that day on to the future.
So a memorial potlatch is a time and a place where violations of law, traditions, wrongful acts, things that are done to the family and by the family to their friends or kids that came out of that loss.
So, you have a loss, the funeral potlatch is directly related to the loss. The memorial potlatch is directly related to the question of further infractions after the losses.
So if a child was disowned by that family or members of that family, the memorial potlatch whenever it occurred would either put it back together or the clan would ensure that that lost child would go to the right family in the right way.
So it all makes sense on a long-term basis. Nowadays, you just have lots of dancing and singing and a few speeches.
But nobody says, “This is my great grand-niece. Her aunt is from this country.” Nobody sits down and does the potlatch like it’s supposed to.
But that’s one of the attributes of being a leader is you have to know that. You can’t go in there and say I’m a leader because I read encyclopedias and I can talk English.
You better be able to --That’s just one. There’s other questions in terms of leadership about the issue of dealing with what I would refer to as the colors, the flags of each clan.
Every clan has a color and type of necklace or insignia that they use on their vestments. And they all mean the same thing, that you are authorized to represent that clan or that -- leadership of that clan in distant places.
And you really have to know, because you got eight clans and three -- three separate associated clans. That’s eleven different kinds of insignia and gear that you have to know and track and remember.
And if you run into a fellow speaker in Tlingit country, you have to acknowledge it. Tell the Tlingits that I know this man. I know his grandfather. I know his great uncle. They came out of Knik in 1842. You have to do that.
Well, nowadays, they go into someplace else and they say, “Hm, I think I heard of you. I’m not -- but I think I’ve heard of you.” In the old days, you do that -- two leaders do that to each other, it’s a mortal offense.
That means, they got -- after that you have a situation of where there might actually be a war if a so-called Ahtna chief, without any real intention to do so, disparage another chief by not recognizing or putting them in the proper frame for wherever you’re at.
That’s just another example of what needed to be known before you can actually achieve leadership.
And there’s other things, like all leaders are basically trained from childhood. Trained by senior uncles.
You have to know the value of stories. You have to know songs, because we use songs to give ourselves permission to talk and do things.
You have to know which ones are permission songs, which are consent songs, which ones are dance songs, which ones are talk songs, which ones are good songs, and which songs are off limit.
And that’s the kind of actual information that a Ahtna leader has to have at their disposal in order to be recognized as a leader.
You also have to know things like where the trails go and who’s -- own the trail. You might have three hundred miles of trail, and you might have eight families share the trail.
Where the families overlap, crossover places, it’s very important to know that. Because the brother-in-law’s of each families -- there might be eight brother-in-law entangled in that three hundred miles that are going to be representing their family interests in terms -- in times of shortage or in times where the caribou don’t come through or the fish don’t come up or the moose don’t show up.
There has to be some way to balance the resource sharing in that stretch of trail among the families who have legitimate right to it. It be like a bank failure. Everybody gets something, but you might only get ten cents on the dollar. But nobody’s gonna go without.
The only ones who goes without are the ones who are -- who would be referred to as having lost their leaders, their senior uncles and all their spokesperson.
Or maybe they’ve crossed the line and married wrong. You marry wrong and you’re not gonna be included in the everybody routine.
So you could go on all day on the requirements of being a chief. Not very many people are gonna go out there, say I want to be a chief.
Any sane person is not gonna go out there and ask to be one. You’re forced to be one and it’s a lifelong appointment.
But anyways, I’ve written off and on in places here and there about the requirements, and those are just some of the things that you have to think about in both the modern-day sense and the traditional sense.
And maybe the last thing to say about Ahtna chiefs is that they were versed in a language that is often referred to as the chief’s language, which to the untrained ear it sounds a little bit like the usual clan language, but the chief’s language is almost uniformly free of accusative, personal, animostic use of terms.
The chief’s language is about negotiation, settlement, blessings and grace. That’s why it was so easily co-opted by the missionaries. So the chief -- so pieces of the chief’s language lives in our regular language.
But back -- Jack John, my older half-brother, said the last time -- He was trained as a medicine man. He wasn't trained as a chief.
But he said the last time they had any real attempts to continue with schooling for future chiefs was about 1920 or ’21, right after -- right about the time of the great die-off from the influenza.
That’s about 1918 or ’19 until about the time of when Lieutenant Allen came in. And that short period of time was about the last time that they were trying to revive the chief’s language, but by then there’d been so much dying and so much indiscriminate death that --
So that you can probably say that the chief’s language went underground, into the closet, and resurfaced as kind of a missionary language in the ‘40s after about twenty-five year of being floated around being referred to as strange, new, chief, or whatever.
That’s the closest that I could come to when it was last actually -- there was an effort to actually revive that teaching and that use of the language in the school setting.
I think Jack said -- He didn’t know. He thought he was about seventeen years of age. We think he was born in 1906. He thinks he was born in 1911. And others have said he was born in 1903, so -- What are you gonna do?
BARBARA CELLARIUS: When you talk about uncles, senior uncles, were they from a particular side of the family?
WILSON JUSTIN: Senior uncles, yes. They were actually -- senior uncles were what we used to call the smart ones, the wise ones, the learned ones, the anchor of the families.
So let’s say -- let's say we had fourteen kids in a family. The firstborn is the senior uncle or the senior aunt.
He's treated by great -- basically adopted by the whole doggone tribe. So everybody in the tribe considers him or her as the kids -- they're taught -- they're taught by the whole tribe.
The second, third, fourth, all the way down to the end are taught by uncles and aunts. The firstborn is taught by the tribe.
So the firstborn gets the most information and the most attention and has the highest expectation of being a reservoir of information and facts. In turn, they're almost taken care of their entire life.
A firstborn actually doesn’t have to work. Just sit around, listen to stories, and wherever you go you’re supposed to be handed things.
That gave firstborn kind of a funny outlook on life in recent decades, because they kind of act -- they kind of act like they’re chiefs or something, you know, more than what they actually are.
I’m not surprised it happens. A lot of firstborns are, in my estimation, they never were told why they were selected like that. But under no condit -- no -- no conditions are firstborns allowed to be chiefs. That’s further down in the family.
The younger you get, the further back down into the lower end of the family tree, that’s where you start looking at people becoming chiefs.
So firstborns are relegated to the senior uncles or senior aunt status. They’re the ones that sit down and actually negotiate settlements among families, their wife’s family’s versus, you know, the other clans.
They not only negotiate the value of the settlement, but they speak to the settlement at potlatches. In our traditional potlatches, senior uncles have -- enjoy great stature.
They’re the ones that generally start out the potlatch. They talk about why the potlatch is put the way it is.
They speak to the question of who’s actually authorized to be at the potlatch, and they talk about all the people that were invited. The Kwska, the potlatch boss, is a senior uncle.
And then the chiefs from other places, they get to speak the second or third or last night. And the end of the potlatch is always done with a song, brother-in-law song, which recognize senior uncles as something special.
So, whole code for these things. But everything is written down, codified, really regulated. You couldn’t break these things, and if you did, really, really black mark.
Nowadays, these codes and these things are thrown around all the time, so everybody -- everybody has a different idea what a potlatch is.
But to be recognized as an Ahtna chief, you have to have potlatch blood in your blood. Otherwise, you’re just another -- another talkative guy.