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Ruby Sinyon

Ruby Sinyon was interviewed by Bill Schneider, Dave Krupa and Ruth Ann Warden on February 2, 2001 at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park Interpretation Center in Copper Center, Alaska. Ruby is from Chistochina and she came to the National Park Service offices with other members of the community who were attending a meeting. In this interview, Ruby talks about the hard times growing up in the area. Her story also extends into Nabesna and her husband's seasonal work at the mine there. Anne Worthington of the National Park Service was also present during this interview.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2001-02-03

Project: Wrangell-St.Elias National Park
Date of Interview: Feb 2, 2001
Narrator(s): Ruby Sinyon
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, David Krupa, Ruth Ann Warden
Transcriber: Sue Beck
People Present: Anne Worthington
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.

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Moving around the Copper River area as a child with her mother and siblings

Seasonal travel

Her mother's death, getting married, and moving to Chistochina

Mother raising children on her own and providing food and hand-made clothing

Her stepfather trapping,

Work at Chistochina school, and raising her children

Growing up without schools and learning from the old people

Her mother taking care of her and all of the siblings after her father's death

Moving away with her husband after her mother's death

Life after her husband's death

Working at the school in Chistochina, selling hand-made items, and life being good

The hard life that her mother and Katie John led

Her grandparent's family

What she wants her grandchildren to remember

Teaching children the old ways

Her fondest memories

The hard times of winter

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BILL SCHNEIDER: Today is February 2, 2001, and I have the pleasure today of doing an interview with Ruby Sinyon. I’m Bill Schneider. Ann Worthington is with us. Dave Krupa’s gonna do the video.

And thank you for coming in from Chistochina and doing this with us, Ruby.

How long have you lived in Chistochina?

RUBY SINYON: I say we livin’ -- when we were little we livin’ there. When my daddy die. 1934. And we left -- my mother left back to Tanada Lake and we stay there for fishin’ and trap.

Then we moved -- after when we get a little big we start to walk long ways. We move into -- by the road near Chalk Creek. We livin’ there for a little while, then my mother to get right back to the other guys, so we move up Nabesna for a while.

Of course, we got no place to stay and we just get going with Mama where he goin’.

Then after my mother die, we came back Chistochina. We all live in Chistochina. 1947 -- oh, 1957, we moved back. We stay there every chance.

And today we still live there at Chistochina. We born there, but we moved away and we came back.

See, my -- Agnes and Johnny Nicolai, Agnes Nicolai they born -- Lena -- they born at Chistochina, all. My oldest brother.

We are seven. We lost four. No, three. Two boys and one girl we lost.

So when my mother die, we came back and we lived there all the time. We were making home back.

When we little, my mother move everywhere, of course, wherever. Sometimes we had a lot of wood he find, we move there.

I born at Tanada Lake. My mother and my dad had split up for a while, and so he went back to his mother and his daddy. That’s why I born Tanada Lake.

And right across when we were back the road, that’s where we lived for a while. And my grandma die there and my grandpa die at Sislutee (Suslota) -- old village, old town.

Then we move everywhere for fish, you know. Come back down to Old Benzeniti (Batzulnetas) for fish. We’re livin’ there all summer fishin’ and we go back up to Chalk Creek -- house and cache we had, so we had go back there until my mother, he got right back 1942.

That’s when we movin’ across the river up Nabesna area. And we start trappin’ all down the river, all over down the river. Down someplace, I don’t know what they call it. Pickerel Lake and Sheep Creek, over King City, across to Chisana.

We always trappin’ down that way 'til wintertime. Then we came back Nabesna and we start movin’ around for fish. Come back, old Benzeniti -- fish ‘em and go back up. In the wintertime, start trappin’.

And my mother really sick. We don’t know what to do. We use plane to send ‘em out. No car go down to Old Village. No nothing. Wintertime we use sled.

Then when my mother leave us, he went to hospital, no place to go, we come back Chistochina. We find man to live with ‘im.

My man named Paul Sinyona. Find him to stay with him. And we livin’ at Chistochina. We got -- he build our own house and we stay there.

We got Larry Sinyona, the first one we got. That’s all the boy we had until about nine years old we adopt -- eight years old we adopt little girl. And we growed that one and I got two with that.

So we start sittin’ around, go trap. Him and I go up ‘cross the river. We go way up beaver. He set snare for beaver. We don’t work.

My husband don’t work. Trappin’. He trap. We go back up Nabesna and trappin’. Come back down and we stay Chistochina.

In wintertime, he trap every place he go. Got lot of skin. We make about seven hundred, eight hundred. All winter.

Then we go trap muskrat. We kill lot of rats. We ship ‘em, we get about three- or four-hundred-dollar check and we spend it for all our clothes, our groceries.

And first time when I were born Tanada Lake, I born 1928. In December 19, I were born.

My mother just work for us all the time. She has Johnny Nicolai, Agnes Nicolai and me. Ruben Nicolai, Lena Nicolai, Laura Nicolai used to been. Now we all got married. We got different name.

My mother raised us all five of us with the -- she just doing anything. Turn skin. He turned any kind of skin, like fox, make our coat -- his mother used to do that. I see the picture, all the fur stuff.

That’s way we used to dress. We don’t buy anything.

She turned moose skin and make all our moccasin, mitten. Wintertime come and we use that.

Then summertime she fishin’. She make dry fish. A lot of stuff she work -- moose hide and caribou hide. Like everything we gonna use for wintertime, she work all that into summer.

So we stay one place sometime in summertime. Then when she get through fishin’ we go back up Nabesna and we’re -- her husband’s house.

We stay there trappin’ all winter long, get enough money, and we’ll come back out and we stay at Twin Lakes.

When first time I got married we came back Twin Lake 1957. 1956 we lost my mom, sick for three years.

And my sister got married too, Lena. She moved back Chistochina. I moved back first. And I stay there and she came, moved back down and so.

My sister Laura Hancock, she find man like Lee Hancock. He workin’ for horses, guidin’. She find that one and she married that one and he livin’ in Anchorage with him.

And Johnny Nicolai, he got married up Chisana long, long time ago. He was forty-two, I think, she got married.

Ever since then they got about twelve kids, and she lost about three, I think.

Jack John Justin, that’s the one my mother married. He were young yet and, you know, he drive a team. It go everywhere. Sometimes he give us his dog with him.

Me and Lena go someplace trappin’. We come back about month later. We always do that until we got married, then we goin’ away all.

That village, nothing left over across the village -- across the river. Old Village. On this side where Nabesna village we call ‘em, there’s nothing left now. Nobody. We all come back Chistochina.

My stepdaddy, Jack John Justin, he came back. He came back Chistochina and he lived with us and he die.

I weren’t growin’ up with my daddy. I don’t know much my daddy.

You know, Benzeniti, old village, where Katie (John) come from, my mother come from. We came back there for start -- just short time ago we started to have a old culture camp, summer camp.

We go down there every summer, cut fish, do something, teaching each other fur sewin’, anything. Kids, our kids. We do that this way now.

I’ve been working for twenty years at Chistochina School and I got my retirement now. So I go everywhere.

I never work. Used to have been long time, we used to just trappin’ and make money. Sometimes we get eight hundred dollar check. Ay, that’s lots to me. That lotsa money.

I was married for twenty-four years. My husband die. He die from cancer.

Me and my boy been livin’ together. We adopt little girl. Three, we livin’ together all the time. Not a -- my son find some old woman and he stay with that one. She come from Outside someplace.

And my daughter used to try. He lost first man six month -- I mean, six years they been runnin’ together. They had no children.

Then she got another one and they got one little girl from it and that boy left her. So she just swingin’ around by herself. Her little girl with ‘im now.

I was that way for, I think, about twenty years now we livin’ -- I worked that long.

We never used to work before, and I don’t how to work much with everything -- computer and playin’ with the machine. I go to school for it, little while at Glennallen. That’s how I went to work.

We don’t have no school. We just raised by Indian. Talk to us the right things. When we wrong, they talk so we be careful growin’ up. We use our own language to grow up. We never had no pencil or paper, anything. My mother don’t go school, so he don’t know that.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Let me interrupt you a second.

Okay, you’re doing well. You’re good at this interviewing stuff.

RUBY SINYON: Yeah. That’s all I know. We don’t get teach by old age.

How we grown up and how we put ourself good way, that’s all I know.

We never go to school. Lot of -- lot of un-Native people visit us, don’t talk with us, you know. Some we don’t understand sometimes, but we answer, talk with them.

That's nice store where we live some white people come around, drink cup of tea with us, and talk with us. We go around with them in a creek where we fish ‘em. Pretty good.

That’s how we learn. That’s how we go talk with everybody.

Since we were small we see lots of un-Native people and we go talk with them. We don’t speak right, but they -- they understand us.

That’s -- lots of thing different is good, you know, where you go someplace, make cup tea and look around for game and look anything. Lot of -- you see a lot of thing, come home, and tell story with my mom.

We don’t know how to hunt them days. We learn after that when we got old, when we got man. We walk around with our man. That’s when we learn more.

They do trappin’, huntin’, fishin’, and cut lot of wood through the -- fall time, and all winter we had enough wood in our camp, our house.

What they do, they cut down long log. They make pile log and they build house.

We got -- Twin Lakes, we got our own old house, build it by log. Chistochina we got our own old house just about broken down. We still keep it. Try keep it in good shape. That’s where we stay all the time.

Now we have new house. Good. We use electric, use our own light plant. Now we use that.

Hardly we do anything much. We go in the day, I told you we travel, me and my daughter

BILL SCHNEIDER: Let me ask you about your mom. When your dad died? RUBY SINYON: 1934.

BILL SCHNEIDER: How did she make out with all you kids?

RUBY SINYON: Well, he -- that’s what I said. She fishin’. He make enough dry fish for the winter, and when his brother or somebody kill moose for her, she dry it up. She got lots of meat all winter. And she pickin’ berries. Make lots of berries and all kinds of berries she pick.

And we used tent mostly. She buy tent and store them over old stove. Yukon stove, they call ‘em. BILL SCHNEIDER: Yukon stove? RUBY SINYON: Hm-mm. There’s little one. We used that all winter.

But my older sister, enough old and Johnny Nicolai, two of them cut wood all the time. My mother help them. He cut wood for them that they haul it in with two dogs sometime.

We livin’ in tent ever since my daddy die. Sometimes we stay with his mother in a log house.

Then my mother have to go someplace to live with us where we can trap. He trappin’ all over the place, her and her sister, Susie.

Susie Jackson, she died, too. She used to stay with my mom all the time, take care us when my mother go trap, cut wood.

It’s -- it’s not have a hard time. He do lots of workin’ and then, you know, fishin’, dry fish, dry meat.

And that’s when my daddy, he used to work up Nabesna mine, I think. I don’t know much.

Then she get money from Dad is how we get grocery all the time. We got -- Sometimes we had a lot of flour, sugar, rice, tea. Everything she need. Lard.

She get it all in the fall time in October month. That last us until sometimes we run out in about April someplace.

That’s about -- you know, them days, really, about three hundred pounds rice, it last all -- some half the summer.

We live ourself, so we don’t use much grocery.

BILL SCHNEIDER: And how about when your mom died?

RUBY SINYON: We got married and moved way out in Nabesna, come back Chistochina.

And we work. My husband and I work for wood and grocery stuff. She trappin.’ We got lots of things.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Was it hard on the other kids that weren’t married??

RUBY SINYON: No. You know, we livin’ in good cabin, and he go to work. He bring a lot of grocery. He put enough grocery with us when he goin’ away.

Just me and my little boy, we used to live up Twin Lakes. That’s where we livin’. We got good house. He build good house.

So he go away from us, go trappin’. Month later, he come back. He bring lot of skin and he ship ‘em, and about sometimes in March we got check. He get about eight hundred.

He used to just go everywhere for work, try to find job, try to find game.

Sometimes springtime in February he go trappin’ beaver. He bring about six, seven beaver. He ship ‘em out and we get enough money.

He hardly find a job that time. Nobody got job much. But we doin’ pretty good before he go and --

When he died, we had little bit hard time, me and my daughter and my boy. I workin’.

We do have a hard time, but look pretty good. It’s hard to get anything long ways.

We goin’ -- when we livin’ up Twin Lake we go down with dog team down to Slana. We go get grocery. Take one night, we stay there and next day we go home.

We use two sled. I use my own and he use his own team. Big sled. He load ‘em up with the grocery. Me, I carry around my little boy and me behind. Little stuff.

We came back and we stay home, trappin’ again. Cut lots of wood, we haul it in before snow and cold comin’.

We stay home by ourself all alone. About a month, he come back. We still stay put because we got lots of wood, lots of grocery, lots of meat, lots of dog feed.

He catch caribou, you know, it got lots of caribou meat. We boil ‘em for dog feed. Can’t get no dog food much. Hard to get it.

We had about fifteen dog, too. I have to use my own. He use his own.

And after, when he got sick, I just put everything away, give it away all the dog. We don’t want dog much ‘cause I’m -- I can’t handle anything.

I used -- I go to work at school. When? I worked there for twenty years. After he died I got my retirement.

He die about nineteen years ago. Before I get my retirement. Five, six years ago, I think. Then I do lots better. I get my check every month.

My daughter’s workin’. He was about fourteen years old when he try lookin’ around for job. He did pretty good.

Then Larry don’t work. He just go guiding. Make enough money, go eat someplace, never come home. He didn’t help much us, but he sent us lots of money sometimes.

He didn’t help me nothing much. He do his own. And I had only Elaine Sinyon. He’s with me all the time and so I don’t have a hard time.

They go high school. Her, he did pretty good and Larry did pretty good, ‘cause they go to school. They can get any job. Me, I can’t, ‘cause I never learned much.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What was your job in the school?

RUBY SINYON: Janitor and teach kids out of my language. I work for Ahtna -- I mean, CIRI Native (Corporation). I working for kids in school.

All through the winter I do that, and summertime got nothing to do. I don’t know. I’m working for moose skin, I’m working for fish, I working for moose meat to dry it up.

And wintertime that’s all I got, job. In summertime, I don’t have it. So I do lots of sewin’ and I put up my sewin’ stuff and I sell it. And make little money, more than wintertime.

Only get my payment in one month, every one month. I do a lot of job in between that, with calls or job. I get paid. I make -- I do a little bit at home.

So we go through a hard time life when my daddy leave us. After my mother got married, we doin’ lots better.

Of course, Jack John Justin, he used to work lots. He go back Chisana, he workin’. He come back with a little money and then he’d go -- go to work summertime for States and come back full time.

He take care of my mom all the time. And they got lots of grandchild, too, like Rosie, Sarah, Lemi(?), and Gillam(?), when his mother and his dad all die.

They got four kids. Me and Lena and Johnny, we just going away for work someplace. Like try find job. We never work but, you know, work for little things. Helping somebody. We get pay.

And 1957, that’s when we all leave out of village. We all got married and go away.

We living up there, but now I don’t know how long, and come back Chistochina. Now we live in Chistochina for good.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, you’ve seen a lot of changes, haven’t you?

RUBY SINYON: Hm-mm. Yes.

BILL SCHNEIDER: How -- how has the park influenced your life?

RUBY SINYON: Pretty good. We doing -- The first time we doing lots of hard work. We had hard thing to do it. Work too hard.

After that, when we come back Chistochina, we go to work for school. Cleaning school. I like it. We doin’ fine. Every month we get check that’s real. And we never do that way before, and we like it.

And my husband workin’. We both work and all the kids go to school and they go -- Larry go to high school and the other one low grade. He’s pretty good. We doing all pretty good and we like that life we doing.

Before we had life pretty good, too, just my mother used to work all the time for us trappin’ and do fishin’.

And she helps us with sew. When he turned skin, he cut everything. Our own moccasins, he make us sew. He just work with us all the time.

My mother and Katie (John), they are really hard work woman. They go through a real hard life for work. When they go someplace, somebody kill moose, they used to haul it in sled.

My mother lose her husband and Katie got married when he were a little young. It’s pretty good. They livin’ up Mentasta.

My mother livin’ up Chalk Creek. And us, when we get together, lots of little kids we are. Family.

I don’t know what year my grandma died. Probably ‘37 or ‘36, someplace. We don’t know much that time.

I see only paper is how I know my daddy die 1934. Some boys write it down. He were young still, a young man he die.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Tell us your grandparents’ names. I don’t think we’ve gotten those down.

RUBY SINYON: Let’s see. My grandpa name Charlie Sanford. And my grandma name, I don’t know, but I -- anyway I -- Sarah Sanford is what they call ‘em.

Then all the uncle I had, like Frank Sanford, Eustace Sanford, and Susie Sanford. They’re all died. No one live.

Katie -- my mother name, Daisy Sanford first one. After he got married, Daisy Nikolai. We all had Sanford name.

My mother was married, we were usin’ Jack. My daddy named Jack Nikolai.

I don’t know much the -- I know grandpa named Eddie Sanford and Teddy Sanford, Charlie Sanford. There’s three brother. They all my grandpa, I don’t know. I don’t know them, but I know Adam. He livin’ with us for long time.

And I don’t know nothing about my grandpa and grandma’s family, ‘cause we wasn’t born. We don’t know them. They all died before we born.

All I know is Charlie Sanford and Eva Sanford. This is grandparents we had.

BILL SCHNEIDER: When you look into the future, what do you want your grandchildren to remember?

RUBY SINYON: Like how we’ve -- when -- how we've been raised, how we’ve been goin’. That’s what I want they learn.

Learn, like, you know, our language, who calls the language, that’s what we want they learn. We talk with them all the time.

BILL SCNEIDER: Why is that important?

RUBY SINYON: What is important -- like fishing, dry fish, and kill moose and dry meat, and picking berries, all kinds of berries. And that’s what we use to grow with.

So these kids, they need that. All the little kids we had. See, we drive a team, and we haul in meat when we get moose way out.

And we -- summertime comin' and we fishin’ and dry fish. We workin’ for moose hide and we turn skin and we sew beads and stuff like that.

That’s what they really need. That’s what our grandchild need. They don’t know. They know -- they know how to be in the school, that’s all.

My brother have about nine kids now. Johnny Nikolai. He’s old man. He’s older than us. His kids all go to work and go to school and go someplace. Livin’ at Mentasta. They all livin’ at Mentasta.

Us, we -- see, Laura Hancock and Lena Charley and me, us three, we always stay close. We talk to each other all the time.

When -- long time ago what people used to talk story, we talk story in front our kids. And we talk story about how we raise them. We talk with them. They know lots.

My mother is the hard work woman. And we take his place. We hard work for our kids to eat something good.

We go a long ways to pick -- pickin’ berries, too. We do walkin’. We don’t have a car. We pick berries. We make enough berries for wintertime.

We still do that right now. We goin’ out with a car though. We pickin’ with a car.

Kids -- we take kids, little ones all. What we -- talkin' all the time for our -- our grandchilds should learn more what we had. And what we talkin’ about.

We take them out for pickin’. We take them out for packin’ moose meat. We fishin’. We teach them for cuttin’ fish, dry fish for the wintertime.

They don’t do like us though. We just try and get them workin’ and understand with us. They can’t do it, but we still got a be with them.

Maybe one of ‘em start takin’ our way and takin’ our place. We tooken my mother’s place but what did she do.

How many kids we’re gonna have and then how many grandchild gonna have and we have to -- maybe one come back to our way. What we doin’ now. I quit now.

You know, I used to cut wood. I used to pack wood. Saw them out there with a big saw.

That kids never see us though. They born too late. And we had -- I had one little grandchild. He go to kindergarten school and he come home.

He seen me what I do. He take his little sled. He load up food, and he pull ‘em. He bring it me.

He’s only four years old. We start that way when we were five years old.

And we quit long time for steam bath, but we had to use it for culture for kids. I pulled down wood in sled, little sled.

I make steam bath, all the time she watched me. “I’ll help you, Grandma!” He went back home, he pull sled down -- four, five stick of wood.

So I think Elaine never do all these when he used to work with me lots though. But this one, he look like he kind of interest all in what we doin’. He’s only five, but --

BILL SCHNEIDER: A lot of interest, though.

RUBY SINYON: Yeah. I never seen much my kids do that. Larry used to do a lot of thing, but he never do that.

Right now he start come back to what he used to do when he was little boy. Now he’s come back and he start doing lots of work outdoors.

He go to work someplace, never come back for two month or three month sometimes.

I think he -- he think about it. He do lots of thing. Cut wood, haul wood. He never quit that. He still doin’ it.

He come back from work someplace, he come home, and muck around. He had no kids though, him. He had one, but I think he lost.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Let me ask you, what’s your fondest memory? What was the best time in your life?

RUBY SINYON: When we remember back. Oh, best time for me, I think about all the time what we used to do, you know.

We put up tent, AND trappin’ gopher someplace on the hillside. And we catch gopher and we come and we cook ‘em. All us young girls used to go out do that.

As for me, I still like them. I still like ‘em. Like we haul moose and cut ‘em up, dry ‘em up, nice smokin’. I still like them job. I do that all the time.

It’s really interest for me them all old-day’s work. And we gonna lose them all now. We can’t send them back.

I still like it. We all got good home now, can’t do anything much.

BILL SCHNEIDER: What was the saddest time in your life?

RUBY SINYON: Summertime, fall time. Us young girls used to come together, you know, what we’re gonna do.

We talk about something, all the girls. “I like to go trappin’ gopher,” we say all the time. We like go our camp someplace in the woods.

We go camp. We put up tree house. You know, them branch. We just makin’ house, always try get something -- rabbit or gopher, makin’ good cook around fire.

We used to like that. All us girls, we used to go have fun for that and go campin’ around.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Okay. So you were telling me about the happiest time in your life. What was the most unhappy time in your life?

RUBY SINYON: Unhappy time, the wintertime when bad weather comin’. Big wind. No time to go out. No way to do. We stuck in the house. That’s not really happy.

Worry about things. Worry about our trappin’.

Hard to get wood and the wind blow. Hard time to get anything. That’s -- some wintertime we really had that sad life.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Well, thank you for taking this time to share with us and talking about the early days and how hard you've worked. It sounds like you’ve lived a hard life.

RUBY SINYON: Hm-mm. Yes.

BILL SCHNEIDER: Thank you very much.