Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program
Madeline Bifelt

My conversation with Madeline Bifelt took place in the comfortable and airy back room of Cue and Madeline's old, but relatively spacious house in Huslia, Alaska where Madeline has been doing a lot of her sewing. It was early afternoon on July 21, 1992. At the time of the interview, her husband, Cue, was away working on a barge. Although I have never interviewed Madeline before, we have known each other casually for some time. It was a relaxed and friendly interview that I thoroughly enjoyed. I took some photographs of Madeline's smoke house, dog yard, fish racks, and beadwork. Madeline had been busy during the summer with traditional activities: cutting and smoking salmon, tanning a moose hide, and sewing slippers and mitts, knitting socks, and doing beadwork. Much of this activity was in preparation for a big potlatch to be held in Huslia in September l992. One of the people to be memorialized at the potlatch was her son, Ralph.

Madeline began her tape by talking about her family, where they lived, and how they traveled. They had a cabin twelve miles below Allakaket at the mouth of the Kanuti River and a spring camp at Tsaalatna. This camp was not far from the ones used by Billy Bergman's family and Julia Simon's family. In early summer, they camped at the mouth of Old Man Creek or the Kanuti River. She talked about her father working for Wilfred Evans on his boat hauling goods from Koyukuk for his store in Allakaket and at Evan's sawmill, and about other members of the Evans family. She also talked about her father working for Sam Dubin who had a store in Alatna and a store and sawmill in Bettles, working with Steven Bergman and the incident in which Steven struck a match to light a gas lamp without closing the fuel container and the resulting fire destroying the Bettles store and killing Steven, though Sam Dubin got out alive. After that, her father did not work in Bettles again. She talked some about how her father had also worked for Les James, the storekeeper in Hughes.

We talked quite a bit about the seasonal round of activities, including how people would "spring out", traveling down the Kanuti River together. She talked about how people really enjoyed this trip, stopping to hunt and fish as they needed to and appreciating the beauty of the river, especially the canyon area with its late spring flowers. Because her family spent a lot of time living out on the land, Madeline only finished the fourth grade at school. As she talked about how her family made a living when she was growing up, she mentioned many people prominent in the recent history of the Allakaket area.

Like most older people, disease and death have also been important elements in Madeline's life. She talked about how, when she was 14, her sister Isabel died of influenza. She also recalled how devastating tuberculosis had been while she was growing up. Her mother died when she was eighteen, her first husband Harding Sam, died of tuberculosis while she was carrying their daughter, Isabel, and she also lost sisters to tuberculosis. At one point her present husband, Cue, spent 14 months away in Seattle and Anchorage undergoing treatment for tuberculosis.

Madeline also talked about sewing in the early days, and how hard it was to get materials. She described how she tans moose hides, and also talked about how sewing has changed over time. She concluded with some comments about how technology has changed over the past several decades, and the impact those changes have had on Native people's lives.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 93-15-49

Project: Gates of the Arctic National Park
Date of Interview: Jul 21, 1992
Narrator(s): Madeline Bifelt
Interviewer(s): Wendy Arundale
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.

After clicking play, click on a section to navigate the audio or video clip.


1) Her background and the subsistence cycle in times past

2) Winter survival skills and occasional access to school

3) Hunting for muskrats and other subsistence activities at spring camp

4) summer camp at Old Man Creek

5) Sickness and the death of her sister

6) Working on the boats in summer

7) Her father working up around Bettles

8) Growing up and the devastation of tuberculosis along the River

9) Learning crafts such as sewing, beadwork, tanning

10) Changes in technology and lifeway

Click play, then use Sections or Transcript to navigate the interview.

After clicking play, click a section of the transcript to navigate the audio or video clip.


Section 1: born -- Allakaket, August 27, 1926\ father -- trapping, hunting, fishing\ school -- little time for; 4th grade\ snaring -- rabbits, ptarmigan\ wood cutting\ hauling -- ice\ family -- six girls, four boys\ mother -- died at forty\ summer -- fish camp\ Allakaket\ Old Man Creek -- whitefish\ grandfather -- Bergman, Billy\ fish traps\ moose -- lack of\ skins\ fall -- moving\ Twelve Mile\ winter -- trapping, hunting, visiting town for Christmas\ game -- marten, lynx, wolf, mink, fox\ fur -- scarcity|

Section 2: snaring -- fence for rabbits\ rabbits\ spring poles\ winter -- move out thirty miles toward Tanana\ dogteam -- seven dogs\ snowshoes\ beaver -- 'till March\ Old Man Creek -- beginning of April\ town -- school\ teacher\ Kay, Miss Bessie\ Hill, Miss|

Section 3: spring camp\ Tsaalaatna\ dog sled -- hauled boat over\ Yukon Sled\ hunting -- by canoe\ muskrat -- walking, with dogs\ animals -- changed, used to stay away from villages\ trapping -- open top of house, cover with moss\ spring -- leave May 25th\ Old Man Creek -- beautiful river, fun going down river|

Section 4: boat -- sixteen foot wooden\ whipsawing lumber\ boat -- caulking\ hauling -- dogs, dried meat, family, tent, Yukon stove\ camps -- other families\ Tsaalaa Kkaakk'at -- translation "mouth"\ mouth -- tsaalaa kkaakk'at\ Tsaalaatna\ Bergman, Billy and Ceza -- grandparents\ David, Eva\ mother -- David David's\ Koyukuk, Annie and Jimmy\ Koyukuk, Grafton and Agnes\ Chief Henry and Grandma Bessie\ Moses -- Henry and Lucy\ parents -- Tony Moses\ Tsaalaatna|

Section 5: flu -- age fourteen\ Isabel -- sister\ Todaalltonh Dinh\ infection -- ear\ meningitis -- sister died, eleven years old\ William, Uncle Joe\ funeral -- preparation; coffin, clothes|

Section 6: Evans, Wilfred -- dad worked for\ sawmill\ Koyukuk River\ Allakaket\ Evans, Wilfred -- married Clara Tobuk\ Tobuk, Clara\ children -- still live upriver\ Evans, Nelson\ Stevens, Jeannie\ Evans, Wilfred Jr.\ Evans, Gerald -- Fairbanks\ Mary -- Kenai\ Josephine -- California\ boat -- IMP|

Section 7: Bettles -- store\ Dubin, Sam\ Allakaket\ Alatna\ store -- burned\ Bergman, Uncle Steven\ fire -- uncle dies, Sam Dubin badly injured\ fall -- woodcutting near Bettles\ James, Les -- Hughes\ Koyukuk -- hauling freight\ sawmill\ construction\ father -- he stayed in Hughes every summer, we stayed in camp|

Section 8: mother -- died when Madeline was eighteen\ Sam, Harding -- husband\ husband -- died of TB while she was carrying daughter Isabel\ Cue -- Madeline's husband, met him\ tuberculosis -- people didn't know what it was\ sisters -- died of tuberculosis\ Hill, Miss -- good nurse\ Tanana\ treatment -- scarce until 1950's\ tuberculosis -- Cue had it, spent 14 months outside\ Seattle\ Anchorage\ children -- seven\ Williams, Susie -- adopted one of her children\ welfare -- $210 per month\ Mark, Laura\ Bifelt, Cue -- husband\ treatment -- many went outside for\ John, Grandma Molly -- Sitka\ Angeline -- Sitka\ Vent, Mary -- Tanana|

Section 9: sewing\ beadwork -- mustn't waste\ Henry, Alda -- beadwork; changed name to Alda Frank\ Twelve Mile -- camp below\ thread -- unraveling towels for\ mother -- skin sewing; moose and caribou\ hides\ tanning -- process of, taking up to one month|

Section 10: clothing -- today traditional little used, mostly sold\ trapper's hats\ change -- most apparent since 1960's\ sewing machines\ sinew -- replaced\ twine\ dental floss\ Yukon stove -- replaced\ propane stove\ hot plates\ microwaves\ children -- today bored, life is too easy\ advice -- lots of work to do if you want to|