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Wayne Eben
Wayne Eben was interviewed on November 10, 1992 by James Nageak at the University of Alaska Fairbanks for the Alaska Native Studies Department's Elders in Residence course. In this interview, Wayne talks about life at the roadhouse, helping dog team mail carriers, caring for travelers and their dog teams at the roadhouse, seeing his first airplane, hauling freight by dog team, and fishing to feed their dog team. He also mentions how during the 1918 flu epidemic, outside dog teams would be prevented from entering a village as a way to protect against the spread of illness. This recording has been edited from the original.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 90-06-326

Project: Dog Mushing in Alaska
Date of Interview: Nov 10, 1992
Narrator(s): Wayne Eben
Interviewer(s): James Nageak
Transcriber: Carol McCue
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska State Library, Institute of Museum and Library Services
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.


Going to school and learning English

The dog team trail to Nome

First airplane in the Unalakleet area

Personal experience with first airplane at Kaltag and his dog team's reaction to the noise

Dog team mail carriers on west coast of Alaska

Keeping visiting dog teams out of villages during the 1918 flu epidemic

Carrying the diptheria serum to Nome in 1925

Life at a roadhouse and how dog teams were cared for there

How his father got involved with running a roadhouse

Fishing at the roadhouse in the summer to have people and dog food for the winter

Native versus non-Native methods of fishing

Meeting his wife, Sarah

Buying supplies for the road house and hauling them by dog team

Cost for travelers to eat and sleep at the roadhouse

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


JAMES NAGEAK: When were you born and where were you born and what did you do when you were small?

WAYNE EBEN: Oh. JAMES NAGEAK: Let's start from there.

WAYNE EBEN: All right. Yeah, I was born December 24th, 1910, and I didn't know what I do for a few years.

JAMES NAGEAK: When did you first remember what you were doing?

WAYNE EBEN: To tell the truth, I remember what I was doing since when I was about five years old. That's -- that's when we used to go to school. And -- and not talk Eskimo in school.

JAMES NAGEAK: Five years old?

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. It started about -- about that year. Because I never go to school until later, I think,

but it started that year, you're not supposed to talk it if you're going to school. If you do, you -- if you do -- if you do, you chew -- you have to chew a soap of some kind.

JAMES NAGEAK: So that's when it started, huh?

WAYNE EBEN: So I -- I went to school when that one was still effective. And I didn't have too much trouble -- trouble on that because my dad owned the roadhouse, and I've listened to White people -- White people travelling in the roadhouse and I've listened to them, and I think on my age group, I was outstanding on talking English.

So went to school, and I -- I didn't really graduate in school, but my teacher, when we were away -- we were about 12 miles away from school, my -- my teacher would bring me a lesson every Saturday. Or Monday.

And when the week is over, he reviewed me and worked me all day. Right after breakfast he would start working on -- working on me and worked me all day until suppertime.

JAMES NAGEAK: What do you mean, work on you?

WAYNE EBEN: On my lessons. JAMES NAGEAK: On your lessons?

WAYNE EBEN: Uh hum. He give me the lessons for one week, and then I have to do all these lessons in that week, and then he'd come on Saturday, look them over. And if he can't make it himself, my cousin, Henry Ivanoff, used to come down, come down and work me over.

JAMES NAGEAK: So how old were you?

WAYNE EBEN: Well, I was about -- I think I was about seven, seven or eight, eight years old.

JAMES NAGEAK: At your dad's roadhouse? WAYNE EBEN: Uh hum.

JAMES NAGEAK: What's a roadhouse?

WAYNE EBEN: Roadhouse, a roadhouse is a place to stop on the dog trail.

JAMES NAGEAK: A place to stop on the dog trail. What kind of dog trails did you have?

WAYNE EBEN: They got good dog trails, better than they have now because they use them all the time. It takes -- it takes one month to get to Nome from here.

JAMES NAGEAK: From Fairbanks?

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. One month to get to Nome by dog team. And there would be -- there would be lots of travelers -- travelers. They usually traveled together, and break trail for each other.

JAMES NAGEAK: For what purpose?

WAYNE EBEN: Huh? For what purpose you got in Nome. Nome country was the gold country, you know. And the White -- White people -- White people traveled to that place there.

JAMES NAGEAK: By dog team?

WAYNE EBEN: By dog team. No airplane until 19 -- first airplane fly over from Unalakleet to Nome, I think it was 1920. 1919 or 1920.

JAMES NAGEAK: First airplane?

WAYNE EBEN: First airplane.

JAMES NAGEAK: From -- from Unalakleet. Did it land in Unalakleet?

WAYNE EBEN: It land here, too, and Unalakleet, first trip to Nome.

And people -- people out hunting, we have all kinds of stories about that first airplane. There was some sick people in some villages that would come up from the bed to go see.

Finally everybody -- everybody started hollering, "Flying machine!"

JAMES NAGEAK: In Eskimo? In Inupiaq or in English?

WAYNE EBEN: English. That's the way they heard 'em first. Flying machine.

JAMES NAGEAK: Flying machine?

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. JAMES NAGEAK: Not airplane?

WAYNE EBEN: No airplane. No. Flying machine. And that -- that thing got noise. So -- when -- in the villages when they holler "flying machine," even them sick people go out from the house, go watch it. Some of them go back to bed, some of them don't. They got well.


WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. And there was a man hunting fox out in the flats, someplace between -- someplace between the foothills and Koyuk, he was out hunting, hunting fox, I guess, walking on snowshoes. He hears some noise, when he hear unusual noise.

He looked -- he looked, here comes something through the air. So he watched. He watched. It fly right over. He have no time to turn -- turn around and look, he fall backwards. ]He fall backwards.

When that first airplane land -- landed at Kaltag, I was down there getting some groceries from foothills.

And that night they had wire -- wire telephone to these places, St. Michaels and Kaltag, up Yukon. I don't know how far they go up Yukon, but they have wire -- wire.


WAYNE EBEN: Telephone. JAMES NAGEAK: Telephone?

WAYNE EBEN: No radio. Right.

So we -- we heard that first airplane is at Kaltag, Yukon River. And I was supposed to go back tomorrow. Tomorrow he'll come. So I -- I loaded my dad's groceries, I waited -- waited, I wanted to see air -- the flying machine.

JAMES NAGEAK: You were nine years old? WAYNE EBEN: I -- huh?

JAMES NAGEAK: You were nine years old?

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. I start tra -- tra -- carrying mail when I was 12 years old. I was helping the mail carriers when I was 12 years old.

So I waited, waited, waited and pretty soon 12 o'clock come, he didn't come. I got to be back -- I had to travel 25 miles to my home, roadhouse, so I decided to go. So I went.

I got about 6 miles away from Unalakleet, I hear the noise. There he was circling Unalakleet down there, so I stopped my dogs and stay there. My dogs anxious to travel, and I tried to keep them there. I didn't stay very long, maybe 20 minutes, 20 minutes or so.

He took off, here he come. I gonna watch it. He's gonna fly right over dog trail.

That plane got close enough, my dogs wouldn't go for that noise, they -- they go and come home afraid no more. The only time I see is when -- front to -- when he go over the mountains to (indiscernible).

JAMES NAGEAK: So your dogs started running home, huh?

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. They scared of that noise. They never hear that noise before. They got scared of that noise, and they couldn't keep still, they got to go.

JAMES NAGEAK: The roadhouse was at Unalakleet?

WAYNE EBEN: The roadhouse was in the foothills, 25 miles away from Unalakleet, north.

JAMES NAGEAK: Oh, north?

WAYNE EBEN: Uh hum. So when -- when I first see -- see it taking off, taking off from Unalakleet, I must have said "flying machine" to my dogs. I was all alone, and them dogs heard it, "flying machine," and they -- they want to go.

And after that when I travel out in the road, when I'm in a hurry, hurry, when I say "flying machine," they take off.

JAMES NAGEAK: So if you want to go fast, you say it.

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. You got a problem with that flying machine making noise, they didn't know flying machine, just when I say "flying machine," they take off.


WAYNE EBEN: Mail -- mail carriers, there was a -- six mail carriers between -- between Nome and Unalakleet, and four between Kotzebue and Unalakleet, and two -- two teams between Unalakleet and Kaltag, ]and two teams between St. Michael's and Unalakleet.

JAMES NAGEAK: So -- and each one of those teams would --

WAYNE EBEN: Travel that way because -- and when they had war out there. When they had war out there, we didn't read the newspaper until next year. Takes that long to get to Alaska. One year to get to Alaska that warning.

JAMES NAGEAK: This -- when the snow melts and --

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. So that's a -- I -- that's -- that's about as fast as the mail can travel from Outside. I know where the dog team starts from this end -- this end -- but go to Fairbanks.

JAMES NAGEAK: So that's why they call that the Iditarod?


WAYNE EBEN: Way before Iditarod, it's a baby language. JAMES NAGEAK: It's a baby language?

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. Iditarod comes way late.

JAMES NAGEAK: So when was that epidemic in Nome that they --

WAYNE EBEN: I think it was around '18; '18 or '19.

JAMES NAGEAK: 1918 or 1919?

WAYNE EBEN: Uh hum. That was --

JAMES NAGEAK: Somebody must know the dates for the epidemic, like --

WAYNE EBEN: I don't think anybody here knows who --

JAMES NAGEAK: Somebody must know. Who's a history major?

WAYNE EBEN: I don't think now anybody knows.

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: 1925 is when they brought the serum in.

JAMES NAGEAK: 1925 is when they brought the serum over?

UNIDENTIFIED SPEAKER: Yeah, the diphtheria serum.

WAYNE EBEN: That's what they call -- that's after that big sickness that went through in 19 -- 1918 or 1919, it come -- it comes all of a sudden to people up North in St. Michaels.

It didn't struck Unalakleet, Shaktoolik, Koyuk, Elim. That sickness, it didn't touch them people. And villag -- villages, when they hear that -- when they hear that sickness, they get ready here. They got -- they protect outside the village on each side.

When a dog team come, they keep them away. They keep -- they tried to keep them away. They all had shotguns. No pistol, shotgun. If somebody tried to go through the village, they were supposed to shoot them. They were sick.

That kind -- that sickness was -- you'd be all right, you'd be all right, but if you got the germs of it, just as soon as you go out, you drop dead. That's the kind of sickness it was, that sickness. And that's that other one that they carried that what you call it to Nome, it came quite late.

JAMES NAGEAK: She said 1925, so --

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. It must be 1925. So that -- that can travel night and day. Start from Fairbanks, somebody go to another place, somebody take them out. And I was -- I was too -- I was too young to carry, so I didn't take part on that one.

You got to be -- you got to be old -- old enough, old enough to carry that thing to the next place. And they keep it in sleeping bag.

And it got to Nome before they unpack, I think, from here. That's the way I heard. My dad -- my dad took it to -- from foothills to Bonanza, my dad took it.

JAMES NAGEAK: Because he was on that leg, he was on that --

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. He carried it from foothills to Bonanza, which is 25 miles away. And it happened that a fellow by the name of Pete Kern, old man Pete Kern, not this young Pete Kern.

Old man Pete Kern was a mail carrier, he was stopping there at Ungalik -- Bonanza, they call Ungalik now. So he had -- and he had to get ready that night, that night when that thing come, took him right from mail carrier, take -- took it to Isaac's Point.

From there I don't know who took it, somebody, another team take it. They take that thing to travel from -- from Unalakleet to Nome three days. Night and day.

JAMES NAGEAK: About how many miles is that? Do you know?

WAYNE EBEN: From Unalakleet to Nome? Well, it's 25 miles from -- from Unalakleet to foothills, from foothills is another 25 to Ungalik, and 30 miles from Ungalik to Isaac's Point, and from Isaac's Point to Elim 25, and I think from Elim to Golovin 28, and it must be 50 or 60 miles from there to Nome.

JAMES NAGEAK: So 183 miles. Is that right?


JAMES NAGEAK: That's 200 miles, 180 from here.

WAYNE EBEN: Yep. That's about all I know about that traveller business. All kinds -- all kinds of White people travel -- very seldom we see a colored man travel with the White people, in roadhouse.

JAMES NAGEAK: That was 25 miles away, and it was on the trail to Nome, then right?

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. Well, I raised -- I raised in roadhouse. I was driving dogs -- dogs maybe when I was 10 years old because my parka would wear out right there from the handlebars.

And I still carry mail -- carry mail helping the mailman. When they have bad time with their load. They carry -- they carry a thousand pounds on sled some of them sometimes. Thousand pounds of mail.

JAMES NAGEAK: So how many of you were there at the roadhouse?

WAYNE EBEN: My dad, and my mother, and my two brothers -- two brothers and myself, and my sister. Yeah. He told me, in those days when my dad had roadhouse, he don't required to have business license. No taxes.

JAMES NAGEAK: So what kind of services did your father provide for the people?

WAYNE EBEN: Well, he had to have dog barns and beds. And sometimes we'd get -- we'd get so crowded, some -- some -- some people sleep with their dogs in the dog barn, when they're so thick -- when the roadhouse is full.

We have no other neighbor nowhere, just the roadhouse itself and dog barns. JAMES NAGEAK: So dog barn and where you guys live, huh?

WAYNE EBEN: Uh hum. We live in the same place, too, roadhouse.

JAMES NAGEAK: And how many people comes through, like?

WAYNE EBEN: It's hard to number. It's just -- that thing is plumb full sometimes. Floor -- floor would be full of people sleeping on the floor.

JAMES NAGEAK: How many dog teams? WAYNE EBEN: Huh?

JAMES NAGEAK: How many dog teams? WAYNE EBEN: Well, they usually carry -- two guys used to travel with a dog team.

See, they hire somebody to -- these White guys, they hire somebody maybe from here or some other place, it's $10 a day and board.


WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. And it takes them -- it takes them about 30 days to get there.

JAMES NAGEAK: And each -- each dog team carry one person or --

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah, one person with his junk, you know. Sled don't hold very much. It's not like a train.

JAMES NAGEAK: And your house would be full of people? WAYNE EBEN: Yeah.

JAMES NAGEAK: So you're talking, gee, how many dog teams? How many in the barn? WAYNE EBEN: Huh?

JAMES NAGEAK: How many dogs would there be in the barn?

WAYNE EBEN: They'd usually have from 19 to 20 dogs.


WAYNE EBEN: A sled. And I mean the real dogs, not -- not the play dogs today we have.

JAMES NAGEAK: And would your father feed those dogs, too?

WAYNE EBEN: We sell, like we have hung three caches full of dry fish. We sell those fish.

JAMES NAGEAK: To the -- WAYNE EBEN: Travelers. JAMES NAGEAK: To the travelers.

WAYNE EBEN: Fish and blubber, we have to have blubber and fish, and lots of water for the travelers.

JAMES NAGEAK: So what year did he start that? Before you were born or --

WAYNE EBEN: See, the first -- first roadhouse man, fellow by the name of -- what's his name now. Anyway, White -- White man. White man owned that first roadhouse there. And he had -- he had sailboat.

Summertime he -- we used to go take -- we used to go -- he used to hire my dad to take care of the dogs in summertime, every time he would go out hauling freight with the sailboat.

So we have to go there to take care of them, stay -- stay there all summer until he comes back. And one time he did that, he didn't come home. He had shipwrecked and drowned.

JAMES NAGEAK: What -- what was he carrying from where? Freight?

WAYNE EBEN: Freight. Freight from Nome. Nome. Freight like from little stores, little stores that had groceries for these miners, like Dry Creek, Koyuk, different places.

JAMES NAGEAK: So that's what that man did in the summertime. And what did you guys do in the summertime when you were taking care of the roadhouse?

WAYNE EBEN: Oh, we fished right there. AMES NAGEAK: You fished right there?

WAYNE EBEN: We fished right there, yeah. No fish limit those days. And they -- they use more fish than today.

One -- one White man -- one White man I talked to,he said he's feel these people got to have game wardens in all of the villages. "For what?" "They kill too many fish." I told him, "Too many fish, my foot."

You ought to see people -- people use fish, when every family have to have bunch of dogs, no cars. That's when there are too many fish must be going.

They make dry fish for all winter supply for their dogs, their own dogs and for -- and to sell, in those days.

Those days, they take -- they catch fish, they catch fish, and tried and tried to tell the world that they get too many fish. They don't get too many fish. Eskimo laws from long time back, don't bother a animal if you don't need it. Get them where you need it, all you can.

Nature -- nature -- they believe in nature taking care of the animals. So they always have plenty of fish and all these -- all those in western part of Alaska, the rivers just full. They get them.

They would be -- there would be lots of people fishing with a seine, and every day, few groups here and there all the way up to 30 miles up Unalakleet River, in Shaktoolik, they spread all over, make dry fish.

Dry fish for themselves and for -- and to sell. And they get only 12 cents a pound dry fish those days. When they --

JAMES NAGEAK: 12 cents a pound?

WAYNE EBEN: Uh hum. And they sell them to the people at stores.

JAMES NAGEAK: It's $12 a pound now.

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. Yeah. That's the only -- that's the only way they -- the Eskimos, Eskimos earn their living those days.

JAMES NAGEAK: Was that -- that roadhouse was on the river or lake or --

WAYNE EBEN: No, it was on the hillside. JAMES NAGEAK: On the hillside?

WAYNE EBEN: Under the hill.

JAMES NAGEAK: Under the hill? And where did you go fishing then?

WAYNE EBEN: We fished right in the bay there, right in the ocean.

JAMES NAGEAK: Right in the ocean?

WAYNE EBEN: And no -- nobody fish out in the sea, those days. They get lots of fish by gill nets. They know how. Eskimos know how to haul the -- get the animals because that's their own grub.

When I was working down -- when I was working for FAA in certain place, we used to go fishing, we used to go fishing, I used to go fishing with the White people that I worked with. Every Saturday or Sunday.

And those -- and those other guys have the rods, fishing rods. All I have is a hook in my hand with a bunch of rope on it. So we -- one time we went to the certain river and the game warden was there. So just as soon as we stopped, he come and check -- check if we have any fishing license.

Well, he get the white people first. I was on the end. He come to me, he stood and looked at me for a while, I didn't have no fishing rod. Finally he asked me, "Are you fishing too?" "Yeah, I'm fishing too." "Where's your rod?" "My rod is standing all over the country."

If I needed -- if I needed one, I'd get one long stick, that's it. I've got hook right here. Then he asked for fishing license. I did have a fishing license because I have to have. So I told him, "Eskimos do any -- anything to fill the food in their stomach." "Like what?"

"If I have to -- if I have to have that fish down there, if I can't catch him with my hook, I dive in into it and catch 'em."

JAMES NAGEAK: Have you ever? WAYNE EBEN: Huh? I shoot them lots of times. Yeah. I shoot them lots of times.

JAMES NAGEAK: You don't really shoot them, but you shoot close to them so they -- yeah, that's.

WAYNE EBEN: Sometimes you hit them.

JAMES NAGEAK: So here we are 1910, and you were born, and it was 1915 when you started remembering what was happening.

You were born at Unalakleet?

WAYNE EBEN: I was born -- yeah, I born at Unalakleet. Yeah, I born there and I go to school.

JAMES NAGEAK: And when did you meet?

WAYNE EBEN: When I meet my wife? 57 years ago.

JAMES NAGEAK: 57 years ago. Oh, wow.

WAYNE EBEN: We're still in love.

JAMES NAGEAK: 57 years ago. So you're from Unalakleet, too? SARAH EBEN: Shaktoolik. WAYNE EBEN: Shaktoolik.

JAMES NAGEAK: Shaktoolik?

WAYNE EBEN: I've known her since she was a little girl. JAMES NAGEAK: Oh.

WAYNE EBEN: Well, I -- I drive dog team all my lifetime. Try to -- try to earn money besides the roadhouse money. When we get a bunch of money, I have to haul them down to trader in Unalakleet. And that trader, that trader got used to us, and every fall he fill his schooner with groceries that we might need during the winter.

He come without my dad ordering it, see, he float that boat up right to foothills and unload it there.

JAMES NAGEAK: In the summertime?

WAYNE EBEN: Summertime. [JAMES NAGEAK: With the boat?

WAYNE EBEN: Uh hum. That there -- that's the way he -- he don't have to order, but that trader like the money, he have to bring the groceries to roadhouse.

JAMES NAGEAK: By boat. Boatload? How many boatloads?

WAYNE EBEN: One boat. One schooner. One schooner of --

JAMES NAGEAK: So how much was that?

WAYNE EBEN: You can buy case of milk that time $4.50.

JAMES NAGEAK: For a case of milk?

WAYNE EBEN: Case of milk. 50 pound flour, $3, three and a half those days. A pocket knife, dollar and a half. Gloves, 25 -- if it's 20 cents. If it's not 20 cents, if it's high, 25 cents.

JAMES NAGEAK: So -- so your father would buy this --

WAYNE EBEN: Yeah. He paid for it during the winter.

JAMES NAGEAK: Or he would charge and pay during the wintertime? WAYNE EBEN: Uh hum.

JAMES NAGEAK: What would he use to pay for it?

WAYNE EBEN: Money. JAMES NAGEAK: How did he get the money?

WAYNE EBEN: Well, from travelers.


WAYNE EBEN: So yeah. That's where he get the money from, travelers. And now --

JAMES NAGEAK: And they pay how much a night?

WAYNE EBEN: $4 a night.

JAMES NAGEAK: $4 a night to sleep and buy the food?

WAYNE EBEN: Eat. Eat. The roadhouse -- all the roadhouse, they don't ask customers what they want to eat. They cook -- they -- they cook what they can cook and feed the travelers what they cook.

The travelers don't have no choice of any kind of food. They have something to fill their stomach those days, that's all. So if you're an Eskimo traveler, you're a lucky man because they got lots of it.

JAMES NAGEAK: A lot of Eskimo food, huh?