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Wilson Justin, Interview 1, Part 2

This is a continuation of the interview with Wilson Justin 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 second part of a two part interview, Wilson talks about hunting and fishing in the Nabesna and Chistochina area, the community relationship with the National Park Service and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, management of wildlife populations, and hunting regulations. He also talks about the history of Native use of the area and their expectations and hopes when the park was established, and how the communities and area have changed.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2013-14-14_PT.2

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
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
National Park Service
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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Feelings about Wrangell-St. Elias National Park

Chisana caribou herd

The park as a storage place for history and records

Protection of wildlife resources

Difficulty of living within the park and dealing with regulations

Traditional Native trails

Traditional Native land use of park area

Importance of Nabesna as a place and changes that have occurred

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BARBARA CELLARIUS: So you talked earlier when we got started about what happened when you were young and ended up moving to Chistochina and Mentasta and leaving Twin Lakes and Nabesna.

And I wanted to ask about your family’s connections to Wrangell–St. Elias Park, what’s now Wrangell–St. Elias National Park, and the impact that the park might’ve had.

WILSON JUSTIN: Well, economically speaking it helped the family because it kept the game, the fish and the moose and the caribou,

from disappearing. Which was by the mid-‘80s, I mean, we were seeing complete destruction of the local game. So it kept that from happening.

There never was any real what you would call friendship with the national park. We supported the park, because we wanted the park to protect the game and the habitat and the rivers and the waters. Realizing early on, from so many decades of guiding, that the game resources were being punished by the influx of many hunters.

But we never were what you would call friends with the park. In our traditions, the park would be a uninvited guest.

So we -- what we tried to do as -- my family and the rest of the people who are still -- like my Aunt Lena, who are still a part of the old thinking.

What we tried to do was prepare a talking place for the park, which the old chiefs, they used to say, “We have to talk right. We have to do things right. I’ll get a place ready for us to talk.”

That’s what my family tried to do with the national park. And, of course, the park only wants to talk about what the park needs to do.

So the inability of the park to sit down and -- like Katie would say, we want Kennecott back. The park could have, would have, should have sat down and say let’s examine that statement, and put that statement in context for all of the future managers. That’s what Katie would’ve wanted, was to put a monument up of words that is really accurate for the record.

So when we attempted to put a talking place, not a meeting place, but a talking place, together for the park, it was all about historical records.

One of my -- one of the mistakes I made was when I brought up the issue of the Chisana caribou in 1993. Knowing what I know now, I would’ve just left it alone. Because, oh, man!

Huge international fuss over something that belonged to my dad’s people. Nobody had any business ever thinking about the Chisana herd as being anything but the medicine-people caribou, gifted to them to end a war.

Now we have all of these meetings and everybody in the state has an interest in the Chisana herd. I wouldn’t have done what I did if I’d known that was what was gonna happen. But I was trying to make sure that the park understood.

But the Chisana -- we call them the Mentasta caribou. My uncle and Jack and the rest of them call them glacier caribou, ice caribou, or mountain caribou.

But it was very clear that only medicine people could hunt them and take them. The regular Nelchina herd, that was everybody’s caribou. The mountain caribou was medicine-people caribou.

So I was trying to meet the park halfway when I brought up the Mentasta caribou. And they were well known to the big game airplane guides. But kind of a -- left kind of a sour taste in my mouth about how everybody claimed it was a new species and that it belonged to international treaty status, things like that.

But anyways, the whole idea of the interaction with my family and national park was really all about trying to find a neutral ground to have these discussions and these talks about what constitutes the two sides of the question.

We never got that, of course. Did a little bit with the community history. But that was only an outline. We never really -- we never really sat down and did what we were supposed to do, which is part of the reason why I agreed to do this.

Just -- point -- point out not only some of the expectations, but some of the failures of the system that should’ve occurred.

And in many ways, the attempt or the issue of what the park constitutes in terms of my family still hasn’t been approached. Myself, I wanted to see the park be a storage place for our history and our records. But I didn’t want to just give it to the park to use for tourist attraction and wave it around, say see what we did.

I wanted the park to accept it under what we would refer to as the gifting process. You recognize what it’s for and how it’s to be used.

We see the same thing with songs now. Somebody from Yakutat might give us a song to keep for them. Three hundred years might go by before they come back for it. We’ll give it back to them. Somebody might have an Ahtna song in Kinnick two hundred years. And we’ll finally ask for it back and we’ll get it back.

That’s how that kind of stuff is done with what the park represented. That’s what we were trying to get to, but of course, it's just really, really difficult to work with agency-driven initiatives on the short term -- whose short-term fiscal year stuff constantly gets in the way.

So I kind of stopped dealing with the park for quite a few years, because I didn’t see the national park system growing up, so to speak, to look at indigenous -- indigenous philosophies in the way that would allow for these things to happen. We still never got a proper meeting place to talk about these things.

And in case of University of Alaska, the academic cycles, we never will. Ever. The University is just too -- too much of a taker, a gobbler of stuff without -- very thoughtless, like a nine-year-old kid eating cake.

But the park has some -- has some promise, because the language written into ANILCA and other places has a tendency to keep the park from going off the deep end. So. Anyways, there you got it.

KAREN BREWSTER: You said you had hoped that the park when it was formed would protect the animals and the land and the habitat, and you had hopes for the park. Have you felt that that has happened? Are there other things you would like the park to do to help your people?

WILSON JUSTIN: Well, to be fair, we have more moose around now than we did back then. I don’t know about the sheep population. But we have quite a bit of -- quite a bit of moose around. Of course, lots more bear.

So it’s like anything else, a double-edged sword. Part of the original reason for supporting the park was because we considered the game resources as being under siege by everybody in -- basically the world. Because the guides were bringing in -- airplane guides were bringing people from all over.

Urban centers were supplying all kinds of hunters on all kinds of four-wheelers, ATVs, and boats. So we just considered the remaining resources as being under siege and very prone to being chased out or killed off.

So a national park to us was a last-ditch stand. It was the most produc -- the most promising of all evils. So we were very supportive of the national park, hoping that the language would come in that would allow us to function, live within the park.

It’s difficult to live in the park. It gets more and more difficult as time goes by, because you have this uniform development of regulations.

I live completely different from my neighbor. But both me and my neighbor have the same regulatory structure. That’s the kind of stuff that kind of ruins the whole thing in the long run.

Because the park that we envisioned would say, Wilson not even -- don’t even burn the kind of fuels this -- his neighbor burns. So the kind of regulatory structure for Wilson for firewood gathering isn’t going to apply to the guy that burns oil or whatever. But it doesn’t happen like that.

Yeah, I’ll give you an example. We have all of these creeks that four-wheelers run up and down constantly. And there used to be always little pockets, little sheen of rainbow-colored stuff in creeks about -- from four-wheelers down Nabesna trail in the fall time.

There’d be these big huge holes where the four-wheelers would run through and dig it out. There’d be this sheen from the tires and the stuff.

Nobody said anything about it. The national park never came along and said we must have regulations for this because this is damaging to the habitat. But some years later there's a proposed regulation not to cut wood in creeks. Why? Because it put sawdust in the current.

So you sit there and you think, "Wait a minute. It’s okay to run four-wheelers all summer long, all fall long, up and down this creek. But it’s not okay for Wilson Justin to go up, cut ten trees down. Certain part of the sawdust will go into the creek. That’s not okay."

That’s the kind of backward stuff that really harms the park’s place in everyday community living. You have to have some kind of sense of balance in terms of the everyday life.

We’ve been cutting trees and wood in those creeks ever since the creeks were there, because it’s the only place you can go where the dead trees are. The action of the creek kills the tree, and then when the tree gets dry, you go up and you harvest it.

All of a sudden you have somebody come along and say, “Nope! Sawdust chokes fish.” Well, okay. That sounds like -- that sounds like a reasonable assumption, but I think oil and gas kills fish. So --

BARBARA CELLARIUS: Well, we don’t need to get into explanations, but -- KAREN BREWSTER: No, no, no.

WILSON JUSTIN: But in -- in many ways the idea of a person living within the park has to be taken into account on the basis of the way that person lives. I live so different from my neighbors.

KAREN BREWSTER: And you and your family have used those lands for a long time?

WILSON JUSTIN: All of us have used it. I mean, we -- we still -- we still use trails that never been identified and never told to anybody. Because we quit giving up trails way back when. Because the first thing that happens is the sign goes up. "This is a public trail."

And we come out of a three or four thousand year old history, where trails were actually named and kept within the families for a specific purpose. Be like a photograph. You know, you keep yourself a photograph of your children. That’s what our trails were.

So nowadays nobody gives up trails anywhere. There’s no elder in the Ahtna region who’s gonna ever give up another trail to outsiders.

KAREN BREWSTER: When you were growing up in Nabesna, you hunted and fished out on the land. You learned all that from your uncles?

WILSON JUSTIN: I did, yeah. All the trail ways, the spots, the overnight -- what we called dhał k’ee, the stopovers. Places like that. Which creeks, and which lakes were used by who.

KAREN BREWSTER: And now all that land is inside the park?

WILSON JUSTIN: Basically, about two thirds of it. There’s some up towards -- like you go down on the Tetlin reservation across the range. And then you go down to the western part over below Paxson, that area?

But for the most part about two thirds, three quarters of all of our knowledge is within the park.

Everything kind of -- most of the Ahtna activities was east of the river. Next to the mountains. And you would cross over very sparsely populated hunting and fishing areas 'til you got to western Ahtna country.

And you start getting into the stable population areas again, where people actually lived.

And that’s the same thing when you go into the White River country, which borders the Kluane Lake folks and what have you. Very intensive trade activities over there, so it was kind of like -- a little bit like no man’s land.

The Canadian Indians would overlap and claim a considerable amount of our territory. We would claim a considerable amount of their territory, and there’s always back and forth push and shove about whose land it actually is.

But there never was any stationary boundary. Just kind of moved back and forth by the generations.

So when you have that kind of a situation, you might have two hundred fifty years of Naltsiin activity. Then you might have three hundred years of another clan from over there.

It doesn’t occur on a five to ten to fifteen year basis. It’s hundreds of years. So the Naltsiin been over there for several hundred years, but before that I suspect you’ll find out that the Naltsiin themselves were from -- coming up from another portion.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I can tell that Nabesna and your growing up there was very important to you, from what you said today as well as that article you wrote in the Alaska Park Service science magazine. Whatever that was.

BARBARA CELLARIUS: Alaska Park Science. KAREN BREWSTER: Alaska Park Science.

WILSON JUSTIN: Is that what it is? I never knew what it was.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Well, I can tell it was very important to you. Your connections to that place.

WILSON JUSTIN: I was given the role of being the historian, so -- My last mentor was Houston Sanford. He passed away in 1996, I believe it is.

After that, no more stories, and he was the last one to go down Nabesna in the -- kind of like he was closing the door. And he talked about it a bit. I wrote a little bit about it.

But kind of like saying, you know, there's no reason to try to bring this back. Medicine-people country and all of that, so --

But, yeah, it really, really important to me. It was something that was very vital. But unfortunately, traditions being traditions, we -- it was very likely that the best thing for it to happen was to be in the park.

That’d be probably the best way to look at is to say, it couldn’t be anywhere else. It had to be in --within the park boundaries. So, to me it's good that it’s like that.

I’d have preferred that the Ahtna land selections and the village selections would have extend over towards the east, but they had very valid reasons not to go poking around over there.

And now that the park came in, it kind of put a stillness into the place most of the time. Good enough for me.

KAREN BREWSTER: And you said you go back down to 29-Mile. Do you go back to Nabesna itself?

WILSON JUSTIN: I go -- I’ve been up to the creeks. I haven’t been down to Nabesna since 19 -- no, 2000 -- I think 2004 was the last time we were down there.

It was changing too much too rapidly. The river was coming over and I just couldn’t -- couldn’t go back and see what had been done.

But I might do that this year. Just take another trip down there. I hadn’t said my goodbyes. I just never went back.

But as far as I know, the river came all the way over to the -- where our corral used to be.

BARBARA CELLARIUS: I think there’s been a lot of erosion. Reeve’s Field is pretty much gone.

WILSON JUSTIN: I know the airport’s gone. I know all the barrels are gone. I know all the play places are gone. So --

KAREN BREWSTER: And the glacier is changed also?

WILSON JUSTIN: Glacier’s gone. There’s ice up there when you go look around, but the actual glacier itself, the big blue -- blue-white sparkling diamond, that went by about, I’d say, 1965.

It sure went quick, that’s all I can say. Once it started melting.

KAREN BREWSTER: The way you wrote about it in that article, it sounds like it was a beautiful place.

WILSON JUSTIN: It was. For me and everybody that stayed there, it was something special. You know, Jack, my older half-brother would never leave.

And my uncle, no matter what, he was going back down there 'til he was -- I think he -- about two years before he passed away, he was still walking down there.

And my Aunt Lena always talks about going back. My Aunt Ruby they -- well, everybody wants to go back to Nabesna. Of course, we never could. But I had family reunions and stuff like that.

But the problem with that kind of -- it’s all weather dependent. Got in there while the weather was good, but you had to leave when it looks like it’s going to turn sour. So --

I think I’ll go back again one more time to see if -- I have to say goodbye sometime, someplace, somewhere. And since never did, I’m gonna have to figure out a way to do it.

KAREN BREWSTER: Thank you very much for sharing so much with us today. We really appreciate it BARBARA CELLARIUS: Thank you very much.

KAREN BREWSTER: We know how busy you are.

WILSON JUSTIN: Ah, you bet. Well, it’s a good time and place to talk about it given the fact that it needs to be said.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. Thank you.