Project Jukebox

Digital Branch of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oral History Program

About Holy Cross

About Holy Cross    

Aerial6DT.gifHoly Cross, located among small rolling hills, adjacent to the Yukon River, in Western Alaska, is home to Athabascan Indians and Yupik Eskimos. Once established as a Catholic mission in the 1880's children from all areas of Alaska were provided for by the sisters, priests, and brothers of the mission. Besides devotion to the Catholic religion, children were also given instruction in math, reading, and writing. In addition, children were taught wood working, sewing, beading, cooking, and gardening. Values of hard work was passed on to the children. The daily task of providing for heat, food, and water required that all children be involved in daily chores.

Village residents also worked hard to provide for their families. Most men spent their winters on the traplines trapping for marten, mink, fox, beaver, wolverine, lynx, wolf or otter. Fur sales were often relied on to purchase groceries for their large families. Some of the fur was used for warm winter hats and mittens. Another way of making money back then was by selling cords of wood to the mission or to the steamboats that delivered freight all summer long. Families worked together very hard all summer to store salmon for later use.

Today Holy Cross is home to 227 people (2000 U.S. Census). Although people must now rely on the monetary system to be able to provide for their families basic needs they still live close to the land.

Seasons pass with each one bringing an opportunity for food gathering. Summers bring the rich king salmon and chum salmon that provide essential food for the winter months ahead. Summer fish camps provide families with a special opportunity for closeness. During summer camp families share hard work, laughter, and lots of love. Summer and early Fall is spent leisurely picking favorite berries; salmon, blue, raspberries, cranberries, red and black. The berries are used for jellies, hot cakes and desserts.

Fall brings the busy season of moose hunting to the village. Some families go on hunts together -- camping out in the clean, crisp air. Rivers and creeks are covered with yellow and orange leaves. Trees display the colors abundantly. The breathtaking beauty is reflected in the water. At night the darkness fills the land but the sky glitters with thousands of stars. The moon is often a brilliant orange and during the fall it seems to become larger and more colorful than during any other season. Moose appear in the early dawn of the morning to drink from the rivers. Cool fog from the night before still lingers over the rivers and creeks. For families fortunate to harvest a bull moose it is carefully butchered and gratefully put away for the winter months ahead.

Following the silver salmon run in August, white fish and grayling fish are also enjoyed late in September. Later, in the month of November, men often go out to catch eels under the ice as they migrate up river. Once winter sets in, a few men can still be found on their trap lines -- trapping for marten, mink, fox, wolverine, lynx, wolf or otter. Others spend their time in the comfort of their home, eating delicious meals from their supply of food that they harvested all summer and fall.

Spring is a sign that life returns to the once frozen land. Sunny days warm up the earth. Many people enjoy the taste of beaver during this time. The birds -- ducks, geese, crane, and swans -- return to the land.

Living off of the land is a part of each person's being. It is a part of their human spirit. Traditional values have been passed on through the generations by engaging in these subsistence activities. Within this simple act of survival the culture of the people exists.

Besides the traditional gathering and hunting, jobs are now necessary for income. Sources of steady employment include the local school, the United States Postal Service, the village corporation, the City of Holy Cross, the local stores, the tribal office, and the village clinic. Seasonal work of fire fighting and, for a few, cannery work take people out of the village for short periods of time during the summer. Today, people need cash for major purchases such as boats, outboard motors, trucks, all-terrain vehicles, and snow machines.

Although subsistence is primarily undertaken to provide food for families. another important reason for the activity is evident. Engaging in subsistence gathering is a cultural tradition. Values of hard work, responsibility, spirituality, cooperation, and love for children are included in the activities. The experience of working together as a family to harvest the food offers a special time that is treasured and the food provided has more value than if it was just purchased from a grocery store.

The demands of competing in a western lifestyle and the cash economy require youth today to achieve academically so that they can compete successfully for jobs. Some high-school students leave the village during school months to attend boarding schools that offer them more opportunities for their education. Students attend Galena Charter School, Mt. Edgecumbe, or Nenana City School District. Holy Cross serves the remaining students ranging from pre-school to high school seniors.

As years pass and changes occur, the people continue to adapt to the world around them. As their ancestors before them survived the elements of their environment and learned new ways, the people today learn new ways at an astonishing speed. Western ways thrust themselves at the small village. People now have television, satellite dish service, telephones, and in the year 2003 internet access was made available to individual homes.

Despite technological advances, living with the land remains in the heart of the people of Holy Cross. Treasuring each season and the abundance of gifts it brings. We continue to pass this sacred way of living on to our children. Through this, the spirit of the people will live on and engaging in subsistence activities will continue to prevail.