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Jerry Isaac, Part 1

Jerry Isaac was interviewed on January 14, 2014 by Leslie McCartney and Karen Brewster at the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks, Alaska.  In the first part of this two part interview, Jerry talks about growing up in Tanacross, the changes in weather and animal populations over time, and his reasons for becoming a community leader.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-14-06_PT.1

Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Jan 14, 2014
Narrator(s): Jerry Isaac
Interviewer(s): Leslie McCartney, Karen Brewster
Videographer: Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Joan O'Leary
Location of Interview:
Location of Topic:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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


Growing up in Tanacross

Changes in animal populations

Using fish traps

Impact of the park designation on the people of Tanacross

Gardens in Tanacross

Moving Tanacross Village

Fighting forest fires

Changes in trapping over time

Impact of snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles

Changes in the seasons

Changes in Tanacross

Reason for becoming a leader

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.


LESLIE McCARTNEY: 2014 and we're with Jerry Isaac and Karen Brewster and myself, I'm Leslie McCartney and we are at the Tanana Chiefs Conference in Fairbanks and we're going to talk about Tanacross and your history with it and maybe with the people of -- ties to Wrangell-St. Elias Park.

JERRY ISAAC: Uh-huh. LESLIE McCARTNEY: So maybe we can start off with you telling us about your family and your -- and your heritage.

JERRY ISAAC: Well, I did -- I do come from the village of Tanacross. My mom and my dad Oscar and Martha ISAAC, they’re both dead. They come from Mansfield. And my grandparents are kind of like different.

My grandmother on my mom’s side comes from Mansfield. My -- her father -- my grand -- my mom’s father comes from Salcha. And then my dad’s father comes from Mansfield, but his mom comes from Kechumstuk.

So I’m a little spread in terms of territory here. I grew up in Tanacross and upper Tanana and moved only when I went to school in Chemawa, Oregon, an Indian school called Chemawa Indian School.

It's within the city of Salem. And I went there for a year and a half. Then after that I spent a year in college here at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks and after that I mostly just moved back to the -- to the village and stayed there up until I became President of TCC when I moved. So I've been here for almost eight years.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Years, right. JERRY ISAAC: In March it'll be eight years.

KAREN BREWSTER: You became president in 2006? JERRY ISAAC: Six, yeah.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So you'll be going back to Tanacross when you're all done?

JERRY ISAAC: I am not sure. I have a lady friend from another village so she works here and that might dictate what happens, you know. She's from Kaltag.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Oh. Now what did your parents and your grandparents do when you were growing up?

JERRY ISAAC: Mostly use subsistence lifestyle. They both my father and grandfather were subsistence trappers, hunters and fishers and my grandmother, my mother they’re -- they’re the ones charged with the duty to cure the fish and the game that is brought home.

And my dad worked for the BIA, but as a janitor and however he also maintained his subsistence lifestyle cause with his employment he was able to buy, you know, boats, motors.

So we were able to mobilize here and there for hunting and fishing and them days when I was growing up it was not everybody owned boats and just a lot of times those who owned the boats had to communally share.

You know, because not everybody had boats and so hunting was more of a communal affair rather than the way it is today where it's an individual effort. In the past it just been one guy’s pickup truck is used to go out and haul wood and, you know, they’d buy him gas or something and bring it in for them, you know.

And there was a lot of communal activities like that when I was growing up.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So if you had boats and everything your -- your area that you must have used for subsistence must have been fairly large?

JERRY ISAAC: Well, you know, historically our, the up Tanana people were connected to the Ahtna region. Historically. Socioeconomically, culturally we are tied to the Ahtna people and there's inner marriages with Ahtna people so, you know, it always has been that if the Forty Mile caribou herd was hard to come by then we have the Ahtna region caribou to hunt too.

And when they punched in the roads, that made it even more accessible so that people would, you know, share vehicles and drive down that way cause they cross the roads down that way and, you know, at that time the caribou was abundant.

So each hunter was allocated three caribou each to harvest. You will not see them days any more.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Just because of the herd numbers are lower?

JERRY ISAAC: It’s because the herd was big enough to sustain that kind of harvest. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

KAREN BREWSTER: And that was three caribou per --

JERRY ISAAC: Per hunter. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Per hunter. KAREN BREWSTER: Per day or per --

JERRY ISAAC: Per hunter. KAREN BREWSTER: Per hunter for a year? JERRY ISAAC: Yeah.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Wow. And now the caribou herd numbers just aren’t that large or -- JERRY ISAAC: No. LESLIE McCARTNEY: No.

JERRY ISAAC: No. In -- in the 70’s, they crashed and nobody knows why and I don’t know, the Alaska Fish and Game Department they contend that they have the expertise, but a lot of times I kind of seriously doubt it because if they were optimally managing the herds, you know, we’d get back to the three per hunter per year kinds of quota.

And -- and to me that would be a -- a healthy herd size.

But then nowadays they, you know, they -- they -- a lot of it they do by permits and by number of heads they can allow and in the meantime there's no -- I don’t see any effort in size increase activities.

It's just bare maintenance of what’s there. So I just have the opinion like TCC has always been interested in contracting. Fish and Game management so that we can get into as a contractor manage Fish and Game resources and I’m -- I'm convinced we can do a better job.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So what about like moose population? Is this across the board for all animal populations or are you finding it's just --

JERRY ISAAC: The moose population? LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.

JERRY ISAAC: Has, in my opinion, it’s fluctuated from low medium, low. I have never seen a -- a high concentration of moose population within a given square mile. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Okay.

JERRY ISAAC: I come from the upper Tanana and oftentimes, you know, people went without harvest. There's no game regulations that allowed culturally oriented harvests. It's always been that fall time you got 10 days to hunt.

And -- and the moose population I don’t think is big enough. It's not commensurate with the size of the upper Tanana. The moose population and even though we have the -- we have the capacity -- the capability to enhance moose management practices for some reason we don’t and the state’s position is that they -- they would rather manage -- retain the authority of hunt -- managing fish and game when, in my opinion, they haven’t been successful.

At all. And, you know, like even down in the Copper River area I don’t see the number of moose that -- that would lead you to consider it an optimally managed game source. I don’t know the -- the -- the regime that manages it down that way, but the thing is you have to be very active with what you do.

And, you know, just like the salmon stock in the Yukon River area. For years and years we kept saying we're gonna see crashes if we don’t start doing anything.

And then now that it has happened first of all everybody wanted to know why and everybody was surprised. Well, I wasn’t surprised. We saw it coming and it did come.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right. JERRY ISAAC: So. LESLIE McCARTNEY: And what about pike too?

JERRY ISAAC: Pike -- I never really have gone out to harvest pike to really give you a -- a fair opinion of it. But in my experience pikes were plentiful and -- but they’re a predator animal -- I mean fish too.

So, you know, a lot of times management-wise you have to keep them at a low rate so that the other fish species that you go after are plentiful, you know.

KAREN BREWSTER: Were whitefish an important species when you were growing up?

JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. It accounted for a great deal of our food source -- fish and -- fish, moose, and caribou.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So you'd have fish camps most of the summer then? JERRY ISAAC: Yeah.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah. And berry -- JERRY ISAAC: And then -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: And then berry picking too?

JERRY ISAAC: Yeah and then we had -- we had a strange fall time fish run in Mansfield and it was in October. So that allowed us to fish for sal -- fish for whitefish.

Just throw it onto the ground there and it'll freeze. So it'll keep, you know. But --

KAREN BREWSTER: Were you fishing under the ice or the water was still --

JERRY ISAAC: No, just the water was open. KAREN BREWSTER: It was still open water.

JERRY ISAAC: Yeah and then that was just before the creek froze. So we used dipnet to bring them out. We don’t have that fishtrap any more there.

And there again that’s one of those Native rights issues. I'd like to launch our natural -- our historical way of harvesting fish is channeling traps which means --

LESLIE McCARTNEY: But not not fishwheels? JERRY ISAAC: you have to build -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Not fishwheels? JERRY ISAAC: No.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Oh, I didn’t realize that. JERRY ISAAC: Fishwheel -- fishwheel is an adopted practice. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Oh.

JERRY ISAAC: It was adopted mainly from the Copper River and Yukon River. Our fish -- fishwheels are mostly designed to catch whitefish.


JERRY ISAAC: And it's not prevalent -- it's not prevalent the use of it.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Can you tell me more about then the traps and where you used to go?

JERRY ISAAC: There's a channeling trap that are built where, you know, they find a decent location it build a, you know, a drift like this. And they put spruce -- spruce boughs to keep the fish from swimming through and then they'd build a platform here and then they’d have another section in between and this channeling would have an opening for a dipnet.

And they used a dipnet for the fish to swim into and then they'll wheel them out. Preferably that would be the better way to catch fish rather than gillnet.

Because in gillnet they fight and, you know, they're in the water so they live, you know, but if you use dipnet, you yanked them out of the water, you know, you removed them from their environment so they don’t damage their -- their flesh -- their meat.

You know the fish flesh doesn’t bleed. If you use fishnet. But then nowadays we're relegated to using gillnets and, you know, there -- therefore you have to get used to eating damaged, you know, bruised fish.

KAREN BREWSTER: So is that trap left in that creek all year long? It was a permanent -- JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. Yes. KAREN BREWSTER: Thing?

JERRY ISAAC: Up until the last 20, 25 years it was removed. And my father and his age group have always been law abiding. So when the law told them they have to remove it, they removed it.

They didn’t pay attention to their cultural rights to it. So what I wanted to do is I wanted to, you know, try to, you know, under the auspices of a dialogue because of the cultural historical significance of that harvest method restore that and also restore sheep harvest in the mountains south of the -- my village.

That one too we gave it up because the Fish and Game says that the population was low and that they had to set up a special use zone, but then later on we found out that it was for trophy hunting.

You know and so, you know, those things need to be revisited to where --

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And has there been any dialogue on that then, Jerry? JERRY ISAAC: No.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: No. That's just something that you would like to see?

JERRY ISAAC: It's always been, you know, there's always been this -- the prevalence of attitude where well, it didn’t bother you that you have never done that since the 60’s, you know. Like I say, we’re law abiding.

And when the government says that there is a reason for not using specific locations and/or harvest methods then we complied. You know, like my father he was, you know, had third grade education, you know.

He didn’t have much to argue about, you know. Couldn’t even speak good enough to argue. So.

KAREN BREWSTER: Was that sheep hunting area is that in what's now part of Wrangell National Park?

JERRY ISAAC: No, it's the sheep area that I was talking about is 22 miles northwest of Tok on the Alcan Highway.


JERRY ISAAC: You know, as you go down Tanacross, you know, the Cathedral Bluffs in the mountains? LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yes.

JERRY ISAAC: In that area it is a controlled use area.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So when the park was designated as a park, did that have much impact on the people of Tanacross at all?

JERRY ISAAC: You know, at first -- at first because the state’s policy of not being very friendly to Native -- Native people we thought that it would be better off if the federal government agency would, you know, would be better.

In terms of protecting the Native harvest rights as well as doing a better job at managing the fish and game. And when the Wrangell-St. Elias became a park under the D2 lands issues way back in the late 70’s, you know, just around the late 70’s was when the caribou crashed down that way.

And we were hopeful that under a different regime the caribou would be restored and it never has been. You know, they have caribou down that way, but you cannot harvest three caribou per hunter ever again.

It just -- you don’t have the size of the herd to sustain that. So historically the upper Tanana groups have always hunted the caribou in the Nelchina Herd.

And this has been long before my time and when I was growing up, I went down there to hunt caribou it was alongside the road, you know. We never really went off -- off the road because there really is no need for it because the caribou was plentiful.

Right now, you know, people use four-wheelers and snowmachines to go miles away from the highway so then the numbers of the Nelchina is so low that by the time they get to the highway area it's closed.

A lot of auto -- traffic issues, you know. But legally hunting them for harvest. You’ll never see it go back to the way it was in the early 60’s.

I remember those hunts cause I went on them and I think the last time we had a successful Nelchina Herd caribou hunt was 1971 -- November -- last time. When caribou was right in Chistochina.

And we hunted right across the village there and right in the woods north of the village there. And there was no houses back there at that time so it was a big hunting country and there was some caribou back there, we shot some.

And, you know, like even salmon fisheries -- Copper River salmon it was bartered for and, you know, people would go down there in the spring and relatives down there would be loading them up with fish.

And nowadays you got cooler boxes and all this stuff so, you know, the fish kept for a bit until you got home in Tanacross to process them, you know.


JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. You know, the historical connection for hunting with Ahtna country has always been there. It just didn’t happen just in my lifetime it was long before me. Yeah.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: When we were talking about -- just before the interview started in 1970’s you were involved in the -- help me out here Karen -- involved in the whole making sure that your -- your communities were recognized by the Wrangell-St. Elias Park.

So can you tell us a little bit about what meetings you had and discussions that were held and the arguments that you make for that --

JERRY ISAAC: Well, you know -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Well, you are sort of saying that right now.

JERRY ISAAC: Regulations were being developed for the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and locals found that hunting, fishing access was going to be restricted to, you know, the -- the -- the areas immediately within the park.

There was no sensitivity towards users that lived outside that were culturally connected.


JERRY ISAAC: And, you know, it’s like if I was from Fairbanks area then I would have a hard time culturally, historically connecting, you know, the uses per historical significance wise.

So we launched a campaign against those regulations, but I think if I can remember right the regulations prohibiting other outside uses were restricted.

So we kept at it until the park service removed that. Right now they -- they designated our villages as a customary user or something like that.

KAREN BREWSTER: A resident zone. LESLIE McCARTNEY: A resident zone. JERRY ISAAC: Huh? LESLIE McCARTNEY: A resident zone. JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah. Yeah.

JERRY ISAAC: Just before I left Tanacross in ’06 was when we were working on that resident zone and I testified to the -- to the affect that historically we were connected to the Ahtna Region and, you know, and people from Tanacross were intermarried with people from Copper area.

So not only was there a cultural, you know, relationship there's also family.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right. JERRY ISAAC: Lineal kind of relationship going there, so. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

KAREN BREWSTER: What about in your grandparents’ time, did they come and use the Wrangell Park area on the Tanacross side -- not going over to the Ahtna side?

JERRY ISAAC: No. They -- not only did they use the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park on the Tanacross side or either the north side of the park there, but down alongside the Copper River, you know, where like Gulkana, Gakona, those places.

Copper Center cause people were culturally connected so there was a lot of sharing. There's no salmon in the upper Tanana.

So, you know, that’s historically the upper Tanana people ate salmon because it was bartered for either from the Copper River or either Nenana or Tanana or either Eagle. So that was long before my times as well.


KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I didn’t know if you had heard stories from your grandparents or people setting trap lines up that direction?

JERRY ISAAC: Up which -- KAREN BREWSTER: From Tanacross did your grandparents have a -- grandfather and father they ran a trapline, right? JERRY ISAAC: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: Where did that trapline go?

JERRY ISAAC: Usually people, you know, because traplines are many miles usually families would set up trapline camps. It'd be away from the village and some of them would be right alongside the border with the -- with the Ahtna people.

The Ahtna people starts with the Tate'ahwt'aene (CHECK THIS) people which is Manzanita Nabesna area. That area.

They're -- they're the borderline between the Ahtna region and the upper Tanana is the Nabesna, Manzanita people and there is a relationship -- lineal when family relationships there was, you know, through intermarriage. Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: To set up your trapline you have to be in your own territory don’t you?

JERRY ISAAC: Kind of, yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: You can’t put a trapline -- JERRY ISAAC: No. KAREN BREWSTER: Over on Ahtna’s territory?

JERRY ISAAC: No, you can’t really set up unless you got permission. By -- and then usually in that region somebody owns that area. Didn’t really own it that exclusive use -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

JERRY ISAAC: Access to it because of historical use. The same with us in the upper Tanana is that certain families had certain areas that they trapped in. And, you know, the people in my village just kind of concentrated in the Tanacross area.

And, you know, they sometimes you’d -- you'd hear that pockets that were unoccupied were moved into by one groups of people, you know, like a lot of the Tanacross people trapped down towards Mentasta, right into Ahtna country.

Nabesna village people they trapped, you know, kind of close to one another, but there was rules. If you saw or know of trapline in certain area, you don’t go near it or cross it.

You respect it -- the trapper’s right to have exclusivity over there. So.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: When we were interviewing Alfred and Mildred, they were talking about they remembered that in Tanacross in the summertime there used to be huge gardens.

JERRY ISAAC: Uh-huh. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Do you remember the gardens at all?

JERRY ISAAC: Oh, yeah. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Do you? Can you talk about them at all -- explain them?

JERRY ISAAC: It’s -- it’s -- it's a huge family event in the springtime to till the soil and get it prepared for planting and then it's a family affair to weed it and to take care of it cause, you know, that's going to provide you your vegetables for the winter.

And we had root cellars. We -- there's a lot of stuff we don’t do any more. Root cellars were normally underneath the floor of the house.

Yeah, and it was big enough to -- to support the storage of like, I don’t know, 500 pounds of potatoes, really.


JERRY ISAAC: It's not uncommon to have 100 pound sacks in one area and then little, you know, carrots and turnips, you know, this kind of stuff.


JERRY ISAAC: And it didn’t freeze because, you know, it's underneath -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah. JERRY ISAAC: The house floor.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Now is this mostly in the old village of Tanacross? JERRY ISAAC: Yeah, in the old village. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah. JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Okay.

JERRY ISAAC: We never did that on this side. Some people they got into gardening and stuff, but not to the extent that we did in the old village there. It was all communal affair -- everybody was gardening. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.

JERRY ISAAC: And harvest -- harvest time people would pull the vegetables and dig up the potatoes and just let it lay out there. So that it -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Dry.

JERRY ISAAC: It'll dry up. And when it's dry up, you kind of cut the stems and, you know, put it into gunnysacks. And you’d store that. And we’d, you know, we’d have enough for seed potatoes next year.


JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. It was a hardy way to save money, but when we started to get acculturated to some extent, you know. Like eating store bought foods more and more people started to go to Tok to harvest or to shop, you know.

And then, you know, we got into more convenience of buying carrots at the store rather than --


JERRY ISAAC: Yeah, it was easier to buy it.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, you said that it was -- the garden was in the old village and then the new village --

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Was there space in the new village? KAREN BREWSTER: My question was when was the -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Oh.

KAREN BREWSTER: When did you transition from the old village to the new village -- what time period did that switch?


LESLIE McCARTNEY: And that was because the old village was flooding quite a bit -- was that the reason or --

JERRY ISAAC: Well, not that we were threatened with floods. We never really flooded. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Okay.

JERRY ISAAC: Not only that there was unsanitary too cause we didn’t have running water and sewer. So we used outhouses and there's concentration of the -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

JERRY ISAAC: Village so contamination has always been a threat and -- and going to school was a challenge because of the freeze up breakup periods.

So when they planned on moving the village it was mainly for safety and health and -- and, you know, we -- the new village -- the present day Tanacross was -- was first the buildings, the water systems, infrastructure was being constructed in 1970, ’71, ’72 and the houses were finally built and finished in ’74, so we moved in ’74.

There was a lot of social changes after we moved. We were regulated on hunting more intense -- more intensively. We quit, you know, all forms of harvesting game and --

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Fishing -- fishing?

JERRY ISAAC: Well, because nobody wants to get in trouble. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

JERRY ISAAC: And, you know, a lot of times when we lived across the river we harvested game per need -- when the need for it arose we harvested them.

Moose, caribou. After we moved, you know, more and more because their fear of getting arrested they were buying foreign food like cattle meat, you know.

Like steaks and hamburgers and you know until this day there's a lot of people do, you know, eat -- they, you know, they domestically raise cattle, you know, rather than harvesting fish and -- or moose and caribou. And there was massive changes after we moved.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So why could you go out and harvest when you needed to on one side of the river, but when you moved over to the other side you couldn’t -- just a different mindset -- just a --

JERRY ISAAC: Well, a number of issues. One is that the soil -- on this -- on the other side of the river there was much better than the present day location. There's a lot of gravel.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Okay. So gardening wouldn’t be as much of an option there?

JERRY ISAAC: No. And the soil texture -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.

JERRY ISAAC: Is -- is such that hard for plants to grow through them. Cause it's so -- muddy, you know, so -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.

JERRY ISAAC: So sticky and the other thing is we were made more accessible to go to the store in Tok so I think convenience was a factor.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Who decided on where to put the new town? Who -- who made those decisions?

JERRY ISAAC: It depended on the land scheme. Who owned what, where, you know, and this stuff and it had to be sited in available area -- unencumbered lands area.

So when they started to look at the different options of -- in terms of location the one that was best accessible was the present day Tanacross in that area.


JERRY ISAAC: It was -- there was no encumbrances on it or anything.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So it wasn’t picked because it was good aggregable land or anything like that it was just --

JERRY ISAAC: No, no. In fact, we now face threats of not only erosion, but flooding.


JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. Even though on the north side -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.

JERRY ISAAC: We flooded - threatened with flood a number of times it, you know, on the south side the banks are higher, but this -- on a number of occasions I see that the water was so high that it almost crested over, you know.

I think there was like six inches more before it start to -- some low areas you can see river --


KAREN BREWSTER: That river changes too. That may be part of it too.

JERRY ISAAC: Well, you know, the bank on the north side of the village there is such that there's erosion and a lot of times we’d kind of take it to mean that well, you know, naturally the river -- the Riverine System is only channel changes, but, you know, definitely some element out there attributed to the constance of it, you know.

You know, and surprisingly the element that -- that -- that is most credited for the massive changes is climate change. You know, there's no way you can argue that there's no climate change today.

There's no way you can argue that that's not true, you know.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: You see more permafrost slippage in --

JERRY ISAAC: Yes, lakes -- lakes drying up, lakes creating streambeds that once was dormant years ago is now you know, fully -- fully rerouted. And being a main vein in the waterway system.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And what about the incident of fire? Has that been going up over the --

JERRY ISAAC: Massive -- we have seen fire in 2004 that we never seen before and the bottom line is there was some really deep burning that caused erosions in the hills.

Fires used to have been fairly easy to knock out because the terrain here was wet. So they didn’t burn deep, but in 2004 it was not uncommon to find what we called hot spots that were like three feet deep.

And when -- when it's deep like that, it's dangerous to you too. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

JERRY ISAAC: Cause you can fall in and burn your legs.


JERRY ISAAC: And when we were firefighting, we’d tie the pant legs to our boots and oftentimes it gets trapped down there so you’ll boil.

So when you cut through them, make sure you’re not, you know, close by. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

JERRY ISAAC: Otherwise that stuff will -- the pressure of it will shoot and spray you into the face and it can burn, you know.

So there's a lot of intense deep burning of duff and material out there which was never, you know, there was never -- only a few sporadic times would you see a fire like that.

One of it was in 1990 during the Tok River fire. Was -- I think that was the start of the, you know, overall climate change as we now see it.

Cause I seen very intense burning at that time that made me wonder what’s going on? You know, so.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So you fought fires? You were a fire -- JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Oh.

JERRY ISAAC: Yep. I -- I was an emergency firefighter at one time. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

JERRY ISAAC: I was always a trapper. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Huh.

JERRY ISAAC: I was a oil derrick worker. General laborer, everything, yeah.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: When you were trapping, just comparing it to your father and your grandfather, did you see a large change in the animal population or the environment during those times?

JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Can you talk about -- JERRY ISAAC: Quality of the furs. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Really.

JERRY ISAAC: Animals would singe more so than before because of the, you know, the rain and, you know, when they lay down to sleep, you know, their furs they stick to the frozen ground and then when they get up they pull -- so there's a lot of singeing.

And the abundance of game too is not there -- just the other day we're driving to Chistochina and I don’t see abundance of rabbits.

I don’t see -- I hardly see tracks of wolves -- not as abundant as it once been, you know. You’d see fox tracks anywhere always very seldom do you see fox tracks.

I haven’t seen marten tracks at all along the river or along the road. Maybe I’m going too fast I fail to see them, but.

KAREN BREWSTER: When you were growing up, did you still use a dog team or you were already using snowmachines?

JERRY ISAAC: No, I was -- I was growing up just when the transition was happening from the use of sleds to snowmachines.

I did use dog team for a little while and I knew -- I mean there was this couple of winters that we used dog team to haul wood cause our truck broke down and mainly for recreational purposes they weren’t used for trapping any more, yeah, so.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Has the -- sorry, Karen. KAREN BREWSTER: I was just going to ask --

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Probably the same question.

KAREN BREWSTER: Oh, no. Well, we didn’t ask at the beginning is when you were born --

JERRY ISAAC: I was born -- KAREN BREWSTER: So we know what time in your --

JERRY ISAAC: In 1953. I think the transition started in the 30’s.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Getting away from the dog teams? JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.

JERRY ISAAC: Well, no, they were still using dog team up until the late 50’s. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Okay.

JERRY ISAAC: But the transition -- the lifestyle changes started in I think even my dad said that in the 30’s -- was when they started to rely more on store bought goods.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Uh-huh. Were kids being shipped out to schools more too? JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. LESLIE McCARTNEY: So --

JERRY ISAAC: You have to live -- you have to live year round in the community cause there was a school attendance law.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right. JERRY ISAAC: The churches and --

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So that changed hunting and trapping -- JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. LESLIE McCARTNEY: And subsistence practices? JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

JERRY ISAAC: So now families were split. Mother and kids have to stay in the village while dad goes -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

JERRY ISAAC: Back out to the traplines and this stuff so. In my lifestyle I seen that even my father he there's times when he would be gone up to the Wolf Lake cabin -- my grandfather and him and we’d be home by ourselves for, you know, up to a week at a time, you know. Yeah.

But then as -- as time evolved, you know, like I don’t trap any more right now because there's not enough out there.

And there's too many people trapping and a lot of doing it as a recreation rather than need.


JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. I've always -- I was a trapper. I needed -- there was no work. I used it as means of income. To pay for my food and stuff, you know. Yeah.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: We have one interesting observation we wonder if you could make. Has the snowmobiles and the use of the ATV terrain vehicles is that damaging the land at all do you think or changing the way that people are accessing the land?

JERRY ISAAC: Well, you know, the thing is ATV’s are extensively used out there. And I really cannot criticize it because it -- it makes it easier for us to hunt and get from place to place in the wild country.

The question of whether it has user impact on the environment mostly likely yes. You know, cause it leaves -- you travel a route a number of times you leave imprints, you know.


JERRY ISAAC: So it's the same with snowmachine. You know, they -- I really can’t say that it was a negative impact because it brought relief to a lot of the hard ways of living, you know. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Uh-huh. Yes.

JERRY ISAAC: But if you ask the question of was there any damage on the quality of the environment by snowmachines I would say yes, there -- there is. It leaves a footprint. You know.

KAREN BREWSTER: Is there ATV use from people outside of the upper Tanana region who are coming in for recreational or sport hunting?

JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. KAREN BREWSTER: And guided hunts?

JERRY ISAAC: Yep. You know, the upper Tanana being accessible by roads anybody can load up their four-wheelers and, you know, ride on up there and set out wherever.

I mean a lot of them they tend to be mindful of the Native lands, but, you know, like in the Forty Mile country there's a lot of state, federal lands up that way.

They’d go up there and, you know, kind ride around out there in the brush cause there's a lot of four-wheeler trails. Yeah. So.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Just getting back to the environment, Jerry, we were talking about, you know, land change, what about the seasons? Have the seasons really changed over the years from when you were here?

JERRY ISAAC: The only one that I can see was significant changes to is the wintertime.


JERRY ISAAC: Rain, you know. When -- when winter was a real winter as opposed to the way it is today, you know. And then the volatility of the weather pattern, you know.

One day it's fifty below and tomorrow it is 10 degrees and snowing, you know, this kind of stuff. And, you know, that volatility that -- there's no pattern.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: There used to be more of a pattern.

JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. There's times when the cold snap would be for days and days and then it would warm up to the point where it'll snow a little bit and then it will be like this, you know. Nowadays it's one extreme to the next.

Then, you know, Alaskans they’re hardy folks. I mean like here in Fairbanks it rained a couple of times over the last month and, you know, everybody adjusted their way of driving and they're more aware of the do’s and don’ts than they have been.

The first time I notice rain if I can remember correctly was I think in the year 2000. When I went to Copper Center for a funeral in January it started to rain and boy, it was like awful.


JERRY ISAAC: Slick and just icy. We made it home, but it took us a long day.

Usually take us like two hours, two and a half hours from Copper Center to Tok and it took us like four hours. Cause we had to slow down quite a bit. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.


JERRY ISAAC: So those changes we did see and it's, you know, there's times when we had early winter and some times we had late winters. This -- this year was a late winter.

Cause summertime, fall time until end of October and within in one week we had two feet of snow.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: That’s right.

JERRY ISAAC: So, you know, that’s extremism, you know, really extreme. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.

JERRY ISAAC: Circumstances. It's amazing how things changed. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah. JERRY ISAAC: Yeah.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And you had mentioned about you've seen so much change in Tanacross -- not just moving from the old village but to the new, so and you lived most of your life there so what were some of the really significant changes that you have seen since when you were a child in the community?

JERRY ISAAC: Well, there's been positive changes. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yes.

JERRY ISAAC: Like for example communications systems was positive in the way it was changed. Back when I was growing up in the village there was only three phones in the village.

The missionary had a phone, the BIA school had a phone and my dad had a phone. And nobody had electricity. Today we're connected to all of that.

However, there are negative changes as well, you know, is the abundance of game is not there. Accessibility to wild country has improved by four-wheelers and snowmachines, you know.

So, and then socially -- socioeconomically our kids are more -- more of the hamburger eating kind of kids, you know. They’re -- not all of them, but, you know, mostly they’re, you know, as we -- as I grew up being, you know, being that -- having rabbit snare trails were common.

It's not common today. Yeah and some of the kids they eat game meat and stuff, but, you know, the stuff that I used to do -- we used to do in my age group is not something that today’s kids prevalently do. It's just, you know, it's rare and in between.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Alfred mentioned that there had been a cultural camp that they were trying to get --

JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Were you involved in that at all?

JERRY ISAAC: No, my uncle Kenny was. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Oh.

JERRY ISAAC: He died a year ago. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Oh.

JERRY ISAAC: And he was always wanting to have a teaching environment where they taught cultural -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.

JERRY ISAAC: Activities, you know. And kids enjoy it. It’s -- it’s a -- it's something that those kids at home look forward to in the springtime.


JERRY ISAAC: Summertime and they can be able to spend three days in our traditional village of Mansfield and, you know, do stuff that, you can, camp wise, you know. Catch fish and see that they -- they get cut right, you know, this stuff.


LESLIE McCARTNEY: Well, the school in Tanacross is quite nice. We -- or I don’t know how the schools are in other community over next to the school. JERRY ISAAC: Yeah.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: But so do kids mostly leaving now to be educated or are they staying mostly in the villages after they finish school or --

JERRY ISAAC: Most of -- in my -- in my community in -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.

JERRY ISAAC: Upper Tanana, most of the kids are just staying home. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Are they?

JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. I would really like to see them make an effort towards educational career cause -- because of the fact that in this day and age, you know, lifestyles and life ways have significantly become sophisticated.

You know more so than ever before and, you know, a lot of us we say that you cannot graduate from high school and hope to make a decent living because more trained, skilled people are out there.

And, you know, but I don’t know it's a very difficult task to get the youth motivated in education.

It's region wide we have more kids going to college and stuff, but not at that level where, you know, you're turning out you know batch and batch of them, you know. So.

KAREN BREWSTER: You grew up in a traditional -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Yeah.

KAREN BREWSTER: Way, how did you make that transition from the traditional small community to where you --

JERRY ISAAC: Well, the lifestyle -- the lifestyle was such that it was way different from the lifestyle of my father. My father was pretty much born and raised in that subsistence only kind of lifestyle.

Myself -- I was born into that era where if you didn’t have year round employment, you at least went to work in the summertime and then, you know, most of the winter you’re either trapping or whatnot.

And, you know, like nowadays in my opinion it is bias, you know. Because I haven’t been out in the country for years.

I don’t think the fur prices today brings in enough to offset meeting your needs. So you either have to supplement your fur with food stamps or whatnot if there's no employment out there.

So I've been, you know, I've seen changes -- changes that were significant. They’re noticeable.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And how did you find the transition I mean --

JERRY ISAAC: The transition that I experienced is mainly because of the choices I made in terms of what I wanted to do. And one of it was leadership and, you know, paying attention to leadership responsibilities kept me more and more sedentary in terms of you know, living.

I had to have an office. And, you know, that kind of limited what I do out in the country so I personally made the transition fairly successfully, you know.

But, you know, it's just the moods and attitudes that come along with it and, you know, I’ve lived and worked as TCC President for the last eight years so that really took a lot of concentration in urban dwelling, you know.


LESLIE McCARTNEY: Can I ask what motivated you to want to be a leader? JERRY ISAAC: Um.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Was there an experience that made you want to do this?

JERRY ISAAC: Well, I was just being concerned about the fairness and the equality in terms of treatment. And that kind of motivated me to step forward and get into the arena of leadership.

Even though leadership required skills and styles that I didn’t have. I had to acquire that and one of it was -- I was a very shy person.

I was not very adept at speaking in the, you know, in public. I had to learn how to do all of that just to survive.


JERRY ISAAC: Yeah and, you know, I believe in, you know, everybody having the right to free speech and free choices and there's a responsibilities if you want that freedom and, you know, this stuff.

So I think just the job itself causes you to have to adjust to your new environment.

KAREN BREWSTER: Did you have role models for choosing to be a leader? Like your dad --

JERRY ISAAC: Yeah. Lots. KAREN BREWSTER: Or uncles or something?

JERRY ISAAC: You know, like culturally, traditionally it was my father, my uncle Andrew ISAAC, my uncle Kenny Thomas, but also other people like the late Richard Frank and, you know, the -- the early pioneers of the Alaska Claims Act -- Settlement Act people.

There was, you know, like -- like John Sackett and John is a retired legislator. He's from Huslia and we have a school in Tanacross called the John Sackett Elementary that was named in his honor, yeah.

And they were the people that I wanted to become like. People like the late Wally Peter from Fort Yukon. You know like the old Andrew Demoski from Nulato -- those guys.

The early pioneers in Native leadership. You know, they -- Al Ketzler and, you know, those older guys like John Starr and Jonathon Solomon.

There's a whole number of them that I wanted to be like and then there's this guy Peter Demoski from Nulato. He was the -- the manager of TCC’s culture -- what do you call it? It's a survival school.

When I first heard Peter speak, I wanted to speak like that. When I first heard Richard Frank speak, I wanted to speak like that. So they were my -- kind of like my mentors, you know.

They're the guys who were the measuring tool to which I compared myself, you know. And as I attended the meetings, I -- I tried to adjust my aptitude towards their vast capability and I thanked them for that too.