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Johnson Moses

Johnson Moses 2003

Johnson Moses was a Koyukon Athabascan elder from Allakaket, Alaska. He was born in 1924 to Billy and Ceza Bergman. When Johnson was about a year old, two of his older brothers died, only a day apart. In keeping with tradition, Johnson's mother gave him away, in hopes that subsequent children, including Johnson, might live. Until he was thirteen, Johnson was raised by Lucy and Henry Moses; then he went to live with Lucy's father, Big William, and William William, another youngster whom Big William was raising. Because Big William was not a young man, as a teenager Johnson went hunting with several different families thereby learning a variety of hunting skills and different areas of the country around Allakaket. As an older teenager, Johnson became closer to his birth parents. He developed a special bond with his younger brother, Lindberg Bergman. Johnson didn't have much chance for formal schooling, but he nevertheless learned a lot from the older people around him. He especially recalls how Big William would tell him all kinds of stories so he would not make mistakes. Big William knew he was getting old, and he really wanted to pass on his knowledge to Johnson. Because of this background, Johnson had an extensive knowledge of local geography, Native history, and Native place names on the Koyukuk River.

In 1938, when Johnson was about 14, he was sick all winter. He also got hurt driving dogs and got an infection. He grew very weak, and in April, Big William sent him by airplane to Tanana Hospital where he remained until August. A couple of other patients played the violin, and Johnson wanted to learn, so he started to play a little. It took him over a month to get home by steam boat, but when he went back up to South Fork from Allakaket with Big William, he continued to practice because William William had a violin. He recalls that his Grandpa Big William made him go outside to practice even though it was cold because he squeaked so much. However, by Thanksgiving he could play one song well enough that when they came back to Allakaket, he played for a party the missionaries put on for the school kids. Throughout his life, Johnson continued to play the fiddle for dances and other events, including as a regular at the Athabascan Fiddle Festival held in Fairbanks every November.

Johnson married for the first time when he was 19. As with many people of his generation, the marriage was arranged. His first wife died from TB when he was 23. Within about a year, Johnson married Bertha Nictune, an Iñupiaq woman from Alatna, the Iñupiaq community across the river from Allakaket. Her parents were Oscar Nictune and Cora Tobuk. During the early years of their marriage, Bertha and Johnson lived a subsistence-based lifestyle where they spent a lot of time at seasonal camps, but as their family grew it became increasingly difficult to move the entire family to winter camp for long periods, and Johnson became concerned about leaving Bertha alone in camp with several small children while he was out trapping and hunting. By the time their fourth child was born, Bertha and the children were spending winters in a cabin Johnson built in town, while Johnson and a couple of his brothers-in-law made trips to their trapping cabins up the Alatna River. Over the years, Johnson and Bertha raised eleven children. Subsistence activities were an important part of Johnson's life, and he remained an active subsistence hunter until he moved to Fairbanks in 1983.

His knowledge of the animals and their habits, and particularly of the landscape around Allakaket was extensive. He worked closely with Eliza Jones of the Alaska Native Language Center to document Allakaket area Native place names. Like most Allakaket men of his generation, Johnson worked at various short-term or seasonal wage jobs to supplement his income from trapping. During the late 1940s and 1950s, he worked briefly at the gold mine near Hughes, made some money one summer by cutting logs, and worked for Les James, the store keeper in Hughes, as a carpenter and general helper. Like several other Koyukuk River area men he worked at the Hog River Gold Mine in the 1960s where he progressed from ditch-walker, to deck hand, oiler, and finally winchman on the dredge. There he also learned to drive a Cat and a pickup and operate other machinery. During the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, he worked on various fire-fighting crews, on the Trans-Alaska Oil Pipeline, and as a carpenter for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Yukon Koyukuk School District, and a contractor for Tanana Chiefs Conference. The Hog River job in particular was difficult because some of his older children were then going away to high school. Often he left home before they returned for the summer, and they left again before he returned. He finally quit so he could spend some time with them.

After moving to Fairbanks in 1983, Johnson worked as a seasonal information technician for the US. Fish and Wildlife Service at Kanuti National Wildlife Refuge where he provided valuable local knowledge and expertise on place names, geography, and fish and wildlife. After he retired, he received a special achievement award from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and an administrative cabin at Kanuti Lake was named in his honor. Johnson Moses passed away on February 7, 2020 at the age of 95.

Date of Birth:
Jul 5, 1924
Date of Death:
Feb 7, 2020
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