Orville Huntington, Jr. was interviewed on February 28, 2003 by Bill Schneider and Sidney Stephens at their home in Fairbanks, Alaska. In this interview, Orville talks about his observations of environmental change in his home area of Huslia and along the Koyukuk River. He talks about changes to the river, melting permafrost, differences in snow and seasonal conditions, shifting vegetation, and changes in bird, fish and wildlife populations. He also discusses the importance of listening to elders and combining traditional knowledge with scienctific measurement.
Digital Asset Information
Project: Climate Change Project Jukebox
Date of Interview: Feb 28, 2003
Narrator(s): Orville Huntington, Jr.
Interviewer(s): Bill Schneider, Sidney Stephens
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Observations on climatic and environmental changes in the Koyukuk Region.
Environmental changes and listening to the Elders.
Permafrost melting out and water flushing.
Monitoring the environmental changes.
Elders and change.
Learning from the Elders.
Changes in different species.
Listening to the Elders is the responsibility of the younger generation.
Understanding science's strengths and limitations
Science activities and seasonal change.
Seasonal round markers.
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Bill: Ok, today is, February 28th, 2003. I'm Bill Schneider, Sid (Sidney) Stephens is here, and, we have the pleasure today of doing an interview with Orville Huntington. And, Orville and I have been wanting to do this interview for a long time, over a year, so I really appreciate you taking the time to do this. I appreciate Fish and Wildlife Service permitting you to have the time to do this, and so we'll, we'll get off and running. I want to start today having you talk a little bit about what people are telling you, what they're telling you and what they're observing in your region, in the, Koyukuk River region, about weather and environmental and climatic type changes that they're observing. Orville: Well, the, one of the stories I know that I recorded with Kathy Turco was, we brought, one of our elders from Huslia, out to this lake where we used to hunt geese and one of the first things he told us when we stopped and we started recording was, you know, when they used to hunt geese there in the spring, the water used to be right up, the whole lake was just like a ocean, and it would be right up against where we were standing which was up on high ground now. But back then that was actually, that, you know, the water level was right in front of us. And he said that the whole place was just covered with geese and ducks. And then we're looking out there that day and it was just a big meadow, and there was just a small pond way out there with some, a few ducks in it. So, you know, the, the changes he seen in his lifetime were, were you know, it just blew me away, just to hear that the way he told the story. That, you know that, that environmental changes were, were happening so suddenly to him that he, he could still remember the time when, you know, he'd have to paddle his canoe to where we were. And we were just standing there and it was dry ground, and we drove all the way down there and, you know, it was like a mid-summer day and there was, we didn't even hear one goose. Whereas he said, you know, you couldn't sleep, the geese were so loud, you know, you could just hear it night and day in the spring time.
Sidney: Well, my question is, so you said, so you said that he saw these changes happening fast then? Orville: Well, he said more recently that the changes were faster. Earlier he said, you know, well, for the longest time when he was younger, there were no changes, you know, there, but then as things happened and more and more recently, even Uncle Sidney used to tell me that things are happening faster and faster now. And so you know just, just to observe it you have to watch every day when you're out there, you know, because the changes will be there and you'll notice them. Like, one of the elders from Koyukuk was telling the story at one of our meetings, and what he said was the river, used to, you know, it wasn't as big as it is now. Like, you know, you read the paper nowadays and they're talking about this big Yukon River that goes from, you know, one bend to the next - he said that the river was about a quarter mile wide. That was the width of the river back then. He said now the river was big and wide because there was so much flushing activity that it's, you know, eroding, um you know, it's making the channel wider, it's causing the channel to change. Click here for image of erosion on the Koyukuk River. And those kind of things have an effect on our fish - you know, the health of our fish. Because what you have is a big body of water that stays warmer, and it's dirty water, you know, and, and what they're saying is, uh, that's where that Ichthyophonus is coming from, where the fungus is starting to grow on our fish because they're hitting it and the water is warming up, as, you know, as, whereas they used to hit cold water going up the tributary so they're hitting warm water now. And so they get these diseases that build up in them. Like the, bacteria they're seeing, what they call the "glowing fish? " You've heard that story? Where, where the, they hang their fish in the smokehouse now and it's starting to glow - it's that bacteria that's glowing in there. And that, you know, that, this, if you look back at the history, that wasn't there because the water was colder. And, I'd say that now your, your teleconferences last summer and I'd hear them talking about this stuff. And when I fished in Galena, which was about ten years before, I noticed the things they were telling me, you know on, on the conference. That the fish were not healthy, you know, that there was fungus going all the way through them and stuff that we could see. And then when I went up the Koyukuk River, which is a colder river, which is where I was born, up on the Koyukuk River, you know, it's, we have all that flushing of cold water from the Brooks Range all summer. Click here for image of looking down the Koyukuk River from Huslia. So, our fish that we were catching were healthy, you know, they were nice, healthy, firm fish. And, sitting on the teleconference I'd just say, well, you know, this changes, we're gonna have to start monitoring the temperature in different places because we're still seeing good fish, you know, but right down the river in Koyukuk, they're seeing fish that are sick. And, uh, those are just some of the changes that I've noticed. A lot of what the elders tell me I kinda keep in the back of my mind and I relate it to a story that, that I know from the village, like you know, like when I'm sitting around. And uh, when you're around a campfire, talking to people you remember things and if you relate it to something like, like math - when I was a little boy my grandpa Matthew Henry taught me math when I was really young, you know, before I even understood the concept of math. And he was telling me about when you hunt, you know, you don't use a numbers and stuff you just use like your hand, and he'd say "one hand." And I didn't, you know, I, I couldn't figure out what he was tryin' to tell me then. But then after he - after he made think about it in a riddle like, I never forgot it, you know. That little math concept he was teaching me as a little boy, before I was learning in school. And then, that kind of traditional knowledge and wisdom, it's passed on and if, if you remember it the way they teach you, then you learn to teach it that way. You learn to teach it in those riddles because that goes into your long-term memory and it's not that short term memory stuff you learn in school, you know, where you just learn something and just spit it back out. It's long-term memory that goes in there, it stays in there and you remember it for a reason. You know, that's the way I was taught. And, even as, you know, when I was younger and I'd go out huntin' with Dad and stuff, I, I can remember those things that my elders were tellin' me today. Like those changes in the environment - I never really thought about it but when he was tellin' me about the water levels and stuff, when I was a really little boy, I could remember some of those things. I could remember being out in a blind in the spring and it would be like being in the ocean. And then now I looked at it and I could remember places up there where we hunted when I was a boy - it's nothin' like it used to be. You know, the beaver used to be everywhere! And now it's like they're just in little pockets here and there and they've even moved more toward the rivers. You see 'em all along Hogatza River now. Whereas in the past they used to be all in the lakes, you know, where, where they could keep the water level up. But, whether it's I don't know this for sure, but it seems like, with the climate change we've lost a lot of our permafrost that used to be everywhere. And what happens in the spring it just, the water just flushes through it, doesn't stay up there anymore. And when you have all that water move out, it waters, it creates a balance of energy, where it stays warmer longer or it stays colder longer, you know, it kinda keeps things in a natural thing and when its' flushes through, you know, it makes like a drought and everything dries up, it warms up even more. So, I can remember those things like where our beaver used to be, they're not there any more. And traveling around with my job with Fish and Wildlife, like going over to the coast, they're seein' our animals over there. You know, they're seein' our beavers over there - they don't know what to do with them. And the tree line's moving, you know, our science tells us that the tree line is moving north, so it makes sense that the beaver would follow. And the moose are over there. And one of the things as a biologist that I - the elders were telling' me, you know, in the past the moose always crash, you know, they just go away. And what it was, you know, I couldn't figure it out for the longest time, as a biologist workin' at Galena, why, with all the heavy hunting pressure we were gettin' from the urban centers, and what we were taking, and the predators were taking, why are these moose still there? And I couldn't, as a biologist, it shouldn't have been that way, but what it was is if you look at the past 20 years, the environmental change, it was staying warm, so warm that all these moose were makin' it through the winter, that would die in winter, you know, the die-off. And so, we were seein' moose, you know, that were still movin' north, because it's so warm and not only that, the elders were tellin' me, you know, the moose are fatter and, when you get 'em them in the winter. You know, when we have our winter hunt, subsistence hunt? These moose have fat on them still yet. And that's something we never used to see. I remember when I was a little boy, when I first went out with dad when I was 11 years old and we got a moose, there was no fat on that moose. It was just, you know, just meat, and that was what we needed. But now you're gettin' these spring moose, and they're, they have fat on them. You know that fat just stays with them in through winter because it's warmer and they don't use it up. So, that's something that the elders pointed out right off, you know, they said, well there's little things they notice too, like the snow started tasting different. You know I think it was back in the 40s or something Dad told me, he said that it used to be pure snow, you could drink and he said after a while you could taste that, contaminates in the water. And so they stopped, did, we didn't use snow so much any more. We started cuttin' a hole in the ice and takin' it out of the river 'cause it was better water. You know it tasted like coffee, when you drink coffee instead of drinking chemicals with snow. Yeah. But there's a lot of things, though, those are just a few of the things I've, you know, I've talked to and listened to people about, but, there's a lot more out there. And the reason I don't say names is I don't wanna change somebody's story. Bill: Sure. Orville: Ye you know, those things I know for sure, now I could put a name with it but, for me, to tell somebody elses' story, that's not my place. That's up to them to tell their story, 'cause they know that story better, they know where that story came from. Like, each one of the lakes at home, there, they has a name for a reason because there is a story behind that area. You know, whether it was who hunted with who back then or who had a trap line back there in that area. There's stories, but they don't, all those names have a reason, you know? In a place like what they call Dulbi now that was Dulbatna, that was the place where the little geese were born. And there's still some little geese there, but there's just not as many.
Sidney: Could you, I have a million questions - Could you, could you explain more what you mean about permafrost and water flushing through? Orville: Well, in the past, when the permafrost was thick in everywhere, you didn't have that flushing. The beavers could dam it up real easy and that water would stay there all spring. And, you know, the water, what it caused was the water would get higher in the spring because you'd have thicker ice on the river which would jam it up. And when that happened it would flush through and it would just, you know, wipe out all the vegetation along the river which would bring in you know the moose and everything would come back. But now you don't get that. You don't get that big thick, thick ice any more. You don't get, you know, you don't get the jams. Because it's just all mush that would go through in the spring, and it all flushes through. And so not only do you have the uplands that don't doesn't hold the water any more because it flushes through in the spring, but you don't have the water in the, in the river, to raise the water level up high enough and to get any ice, you know, movin' around, causin' damage, you know, rejuvenating the vegetation of the other ungulates, like moose. Sidney: So the water levels in the river are lower now than, it, Orville: Well, you know, it just, the whole pattern is, is different. When we used to get jams, even when I was livin' in Galena I noticed we use to get jams, and it used to come up over the bank. Now it just flushes through and our high water happens after breakup now, which never used to happen before, it used to always happen when the, you know, when the ice would jam up. So, that's out of whack, and then we'd have like floods up and out of Allakaket you know, where, fall, in the fall time, which is when we'd have our floods were in the springtime, that was when all, all the ice jams would happen. Now we have these heavy rains in the fall, you know, and all this flushing action that's happened, it causes it to flush really easy, so when you get really heavy rains, it doesn't sit in there, it just flushes through and then you getting a big flood event, like what happened at Allakaket and Hughes. In the fall time, you know, when we're not used to seein' it; well, in fact, we never see it in the fall time. And then we get this, weird double breakup event that used to be a really rare occurrence. And it used to be just like, every 100 years or somethin'; now it's startin' to happen more and more. It just gets cold, seems like winter's comin' on and everybody's startin' to move around and all the sudden the ice will go out, you know, which makes it hard on us because, you know, some of our young guys, they go out every day. You know, their lives are in danger now, because we don't know if the ice is gonna stay there or if it's gonna move you know, so…? It's it makes it hard, hard to adjust. And then we get this - when the ice goes out like that in the fall time, you know, it, it freezes and we think it's winter comin' and all the sudden it'll warm up too warm and the ice will start movin' and it causes shelf ice where, where there's no, ice under it. It's just a ice, you know, build-up and if you go over it, then, you know, you'll fall through and there's a, some water under there and that creates a hazard for us too. But, I'm not sure what the question was (laughs), I forgot now (laughs). Sidney: Well no it was about the flushing, understanding the flushing. And are you seeing, like when you say the permafrost is melting out then are you observing a lot of its mud, like on river banks and things. What do you see so that you know that the permafrost is leaving, is melting? Orville: Well you notice it because there is no high humps where the frost used to be. Like When I was a little boy we used to paddle around what we used to call Little Lake and Big Lake. Click here for image of Big Lake. There's places in the tundra where we'd walk and then all of the sudden there was just like a big tunnel under there where this permafrost was holding up but you could see the water flushing underneath it. And now you know the tundra is just down, you know, and the water, there is no water. There's no water flushing underneath it or even over it. It's just dried up and, you know, its not a high hump anymore its just all flat. You used to see a lot of those thermokarsts, they used to be all over the place. Now you don't hardly see that any more. And even up on the hill you know. There was times I remember when I was a little boy, I hate to talk about it this way but when we burry somebody we used to dig through permafrost all the way down, and now you hit just little bits and pieces of it and your right down there, and its just thawed out you know and there might be three or four inches of permafrost, you know, just one little layer through all that, and it's usually right on top. Whereas before we used to dig down, we used to hit, we may hit one little warm zone in that whole six feet. And I probably shouldn't talk about that but, that's just one of the things I noticed.
Orville: Ok, you were asking something about changes in monitoring? Sidney: Well, I was just saying that, you talked about different water temperatures in different rivers and you talked about quality of snow, and I'm just saying those things would be so easy for kids to monitor and keep records of. Orville: Yeah, true. Not only that, snow depth and deposition, because snow… as a scientist you have to realize that albeido has a huge effect on environment. Like one of the things Terry Chapin and I were talking about was with the shrubs getting higher now, it creates so much warmth, you know, because of that, not just the snow, but the lack of it, in certain places is causing more and more heat to build up. Like there are days in the Koyukuk River valley when that sun comes up when I was a little boy, you know, it used to warm up, maybe ten degrees. Now I'm noticing a twenty degree temperature change in the day, just like that, as soon as that sun comes up and hits that vegetation. We're one of the only villages that even has snow. And when you go down toward Galena, I couldn't believe it. There places where I got in the Dolby that were just, it looked like springtime. It was just ice, you know, bare ice everywhere. You know where that, what had happened was it got so warm that all that water, it sat on top the ice and it just looked like a… it looked like springtime. There was just, all ice out there, no vegetation showing through. It was strange. And driving across it I was thinking boy this place must have been terrible to cross a couple weeks before when all that water was sitting in there. But you know it had gotten colder, luckily, so it was rough, and there was a little bit of snow. Well anyway, getting back to monitoring, one would be snow, snow deposition, snow depth they could measure. Another would be wildlife use, which would be browse. Where and how much they're using… willow, you know the change in willow height. Another would be... I think one that would be really easy to monitor and look at, if you wanted to look at change, is where all the old beaver houses are. Look at where those are compared to now, you know you see all… look at where the old beaver houses are, document that, go back and look at where all the beaver are now, which is all along the river. We used to see a few along the river, now we see them all along the river. That's just a few on wildlife. Ice thickness, you know, measure ice thickness, because that's an indicator of how fast your going to get your warm up. Whereas in the past we'd cut through three, four feet of ice to get beaver out in the springtime, so three feet of ice was pretty common. Now it's, you know, you make your set through a little bit of ice and it gets so warm that you have to remove your sets because the beaver won't, you know, they just come right back out, it doesn't freeze over, so you know, there's no way to keep them, and you don't want them running around with their snares on their neck under the ice somewhere. So, it changes our use patterns, all this warm weather. So ice thickness is important. Snow depth, time of break up, time of freeze up, those things are all important to document. I think, getting the kids more involved in the harvest patterns, understanding them, getting them to look at… to actually do the work, to go out and do the harvest monitoring for us at Fish and Wildlife. If we could get the kids to do it and see why it's important, because those elders are going to tell them stories when they're getting their information. You know, that will go into their long term memory, better than I can tell them in a classroom. So you know, they're going to get stuff out of that from their elders that they're never going to forget. I know there's facts like when… I keep hating to measure, talk about people, but when Kathy Turco and I were doing those recordings up there on the Hogatsa River, we were recording fall moose hunting with my older son. I could tell stuff he was learning at that time it was going into his long term memory. Especially when I told him stories about when we were up looking for this bear den where my dad and I used to hunt, up on the hill. You know I remember just everything, every little way to get to that den. But because of environmental change, and everything looking different, we had a big storm blow through that blew a bunch of trees over, you know, we never used to get those strong winds like that all the time, in the fall time. And when I went in there I couldn't find that den. That was the only time that I can ever remember, that I went in there, that I couldn't find it. And we walked up and down that hill for at least two hours. I thought boy just everything looks so different, you know, I can never remember it like that. But you know when it came time to find the old village I knew right where to look, and fortunately for me it didn't take too long. You know we don't tell anyone where the old village is but we know where it is. And so when I told him that I knew he'd remember, and I said the only thing that looked the same out of the whole thing I could remember was that lake. That was the only thing that I could remember how to find the village. Everything else had changed. There was big huge trees in there. And if you had gone up river just a few bends to where the Fish and Wildlife has their monitoring, where they're monitoring fire, you know, the changes in fire. Those changes they're monitoring are recent changes. You know, we have a hotter fire, that burns really hot because they have suppressed fire for so long that we have a big buildup of trees now. And all those trees create heat energy, so what we have is a big forest where there used to be smaller forests, and drier, better conditions for trees to grow. I guess they say they're stressed from drought though, which is true, I could see that too. I thing a lot of times as agency people, they get tricked into thinking they are seeing long term changes, but actually what they're monitoring is recent changes. Recent changes that an elder could tell them this is what happened, what we've seen. And they say well it's anecdotal, but really its something they have seen in their lifetime. That change, it goes beyond the traditional knowledge and wisdom, which is something that they have learned, that's passed down. Those things they sort of… that's why they know that its changes, they can see those changes, they're different. And those things are hard… they're not documented unless you're at a meeting or something, and somebody says something. And they say oh no that's just a story because they just said it at a meeting, and there's no scientific basis behind it. But actually there is a lot of wisdom behind what they say. Some, some elders, not all elders, some elders have it. Some are just elders.
Bill: Orville, that's something I wanted to pick up on in the way of a question. When we look at what people are calling change, some elders are able to talk about changes that occurred in the past. Are you hearing any examples of that from the elders in your region? Orville: There wasn't too much change in the past. You know those changes that are happening, people don't like, elders don't like, things they don't know, you know like, why things happen that they don't understand. So, you know, a lot of things like that are happening now. So all the changes that are happening, are happening recently otherwise they wouldn't say it. In the past those changes were not really big swings back and forth, they were just like once in a while you'd see something different, you'd have a warm winter, but not every year. I mean, one of the elders in our village, she told me that she can never remember in the stories or her growing up where it was 40 below only twice during the winter. And that was everything that she knew living on the Koyukuk River and everything that was told and taught. And this just happened a couple years ago. We had 40 below two times and it didn't even stay cold that long, it was just like hit, gone. When I was a little boy there were times when it was 60 below and we'd play out, a month at a time. That was normal for us, we just got used to it. But now you don't even see that anymore. People see 50 below or something for a couple days they go 'oh boy it was cold last winter'. I just look and I said boy that's not cold weather. I mean it's been like spring almost all winter and they saw two days of 50 below and they're saying 'Yep, we had a cold winter.' Sidney: Well that's interesting because, I've been doing, have you done reading of any of that Igor Krupnik, "The Earth is Faster Now"? Orville: I've had that book, yeah. Sidney: If I'm not mistaken, one that he makes is that, he talks about how in the St. Lawrence Island area some people will talk about, say, the sea ice condition as being really unusual, but that there are at least a few elders that can say 'No I saw that before', 'I've seen it twice before', whatever. But it sounds like you're saying people are definitely seeing long term trends, I mean they can name exceptions, a warm winter here and a late fall there, but they are really talking about trends. Orville: Yeah, I just, you know… What they've seen, or at least what I gather from what they tell me, is, you didn't see these warming trends all bunched together all in one big lump. If there was, it happened like one year out of maybe twenty, you'd have a warm winter like we see now. And sure it's not breaking a record now, and sometimes, sometimes you look at the weather, and its… three or four days it's got near record, record height, you know. And it happens three or four winters in a row. And they never saw that, they can tell me in the stories that may be, you know, even in a hundred years they never saw that back to back in two years. You know that's the kind of stuff Grandma Angeline would tell me. It's not something like… You know the stuff you learn in one lifetime is such a limited small amount of knowledge. And what she was, she tries, the way she teaches us is what her great great great grandparents were teaching their grandparents as they're going along. And those changes they saw, you know it goes way back, it's way beyond the lifetimes of what's documented at the university or anything like that. In fact a lot of the knowledge that's up there is probably going to be lost pretty quick, and that's too bad you know. There's still some of it alive in oral history, but … that we're still maintaining in the village but, even the stuff we have documented, I don't even think they understand half of it. They don't understand the stories that were told to them at the time they were documenting it. And so once those tapes are lost or they fall apart up there, I think they're gone, unless somebody learned it right in the Koyukuk River.
Orville: I think, as a scientist myself, I have learned to be pretty humble with what little I know. What little I know in my lifetime, it's just nothing compared to what I learn sitting at a table with an elder that's learned in a different way. Even when they tell you, they're really humble when they tell the story, it's like even they, they want to know a little bit more when they're telling a story, that's why they're telling it. And I think sometimes as scientists we don't give them back what they want to know. what little I know, I try to give back, to help them understand the changes they're seeing. Like when an elders telling me a story, she'll tell me that, she can predict weather down, she used to predict a month at a time, and then week at a time, and now it's like two out of three days. So what is it in those two days that's still working that she can see? And what's that one day, why is it not working that she can't predict that one day of weather? And I, as a scientist, there is probably a reason I could figure that out, you know, but I need to give that back to her too, because she is asking to learn more. You know, she might be an old person who is still teaching in her own way. But too often as young people we don't sit and listen to the whole thing. We don't listen and learn what they are trying to tell us. And I'm guilty of that I know I don't spend enough time doing that, but I try, what little I know. Bill: What you were just saying, is that what elders have been telling you about prediction? Orville: Well, like I said, they don't like things they don't understand. And it seems like lately it's been more and more, you know. Even the young guys that I grew up with are starting to say, 'yep, yep, that's global climate change.' And the only reason I know that they're saying it is that they hear it on TV, they're using somebody's word for it. But I think they're talking to their elders and their elders are telling them those stories too, you know, it's not just me. These other hunters I go out with, I know they're getting those stories from those elders, and I don't ask them because I know what they're getting, the information they're sharing. I don't know what they give back to the elders I'm sure, besides food to eat and stuff. I'm sure they're sharing some of what science knows with them, I would hope. But, yeah, it's hard for them as elders because as we were taught, they were supposed to help us understand things, and if there is something they don't understand, they can't pass that on because they don't understand why their prediction thing wouldn't work. But there are still times when they are just right on the money. I mean there was a time when I went up to this old ladies house and she told me, 'Watch' she said, 'When the sun comes up red like that three or four times in a week,' she said 'that whole next month is going to be warm.' And sure enough we had that warm spell when it got really…. She was telling me that when you see that red sky, which we saw, I think it was four days in a row I went up there, it was stormy. And she said when it happens… I think I tied it in with another story an elder, a guy told me that when you watched a full moon, if things happen around a full moon, it'll be like that for a month. And this is what she told me, it was happening around a full moon and I just happened to go up and I was sitting around, I wanted to visit her, it was right during a race or something. I think I had got in the race, and I'd brought my little hand held radio, you know, what do they call those, VHF? I brought it up there so she could listen to me race. And she was telling me this story, and she said if you watch the weather around you, you know, she was always telling me little things to watch for, and one was that red sky. And she said, 'Four days now, next month it's going to be really warm.' And that was when we had that really warm spell come in. It got really warm in Anchorage, raining, rain, rain, whatever. I guess this was after thee race and I had gone up to get my radio back, and that's when she told me the story, and even when… That's when we had our rain, and that's when everything changed. It went from like really winter conditions to spring, water everywhere. We were even making jokes that we were hearing geese, and it was like February. It was early February, late January, we were saying we could hear geese already. But that was how warm it got, and she was right it was like that for the whole month, we had that warm. And then the funny thing was for me, as a scientist, I grabbed a paper one day and here is this national weather forecast guy saying, 'Yep this is not any different than it's always been, this is just the way it always was.' And he was saying about how this weather event was just a normal thing. And for me I could see what he was talking about that in the past hundred years they had seen a warm event like that. In a way what she saw and what he saw was the same thing, as the weather guy. But they were different too in a way because, if you really understand what that elder was saying, and he had a disrespectful way of talking, he called it, 'why should I listen to these native experts?' That was his word. But it's just a disrespectful thing to have. If you understood the whole story, that that's not a normal event, when it happens year after year. That's not something they saw every year. But for him, this weather guy to say 'Yep, that was a normal event, same old, same old.' That just shows you how little science knows when they don't incorporate all their knowledge that's out there. It's just one little space in time in one person's life time, and that's not enough information to learn from. I mean, even western science goes way back. It goes back to as far as people started writing things down. And for us it was never written down it was just told, in a way you could remember it in your long term memory. That's how you would learn when you were taught. Bill: I think that story is really interesting because when I was in Huslia people mentioned that in the past there had been an event when people were out trapping and had actually been caught out trapping, because it warmed up and it rained and it was hard to get back. So putting those singular events in context is really critical, and the fact that sometimes we don't have the full picture and yet we talk as if we understand another person's full picture. Orville: Yeah I think that it hits the nail right on the head. I mean you know that… I've really become humbled in the last few years. For a while because I was a scientist I thought I knew everything, but I know so little, every time I go to an elder I learn something. It's just a lot of information that can be learned if you learn how to learn it I guess, and if you keep on learning it.
Sidney: Orville, were you formally trained in science then? Orville: I have a wildlife biology degree from UAF. Yeah, they want me to go for that masters program, but if I had time I would do it. It's just time is something I don't have much of. I don't know other many things that have to do with environmental change. Those are most of the things I noticed, but… Sidney: How about different species, how about changes in birds or changes in… Orville: Well, I guess for our area it would be beluga. We never used to get beluga in the summer. And when I was over in the… I went over for National Science Foundation, and Alaska Native Science Commission, we put on that Northwest Alaska regional meeting. And I had to ask them I said "What do you guys do with your beluga?" you know, I said, "We're getting beluga up the Koyukuk River now and they're moving my net around. I don't know what to do with them. You guys are telling me you're seeing our beaver, you don't know what to do with them. I can tell you what… I grew up with them, I know what to do with beaver. But I don't know what to do with a beluga whale that's in the Koyukuk River, I really don't. And the stories, I don't know if you heard this on those, if they told it to you, but, we don't mess with them because we don't, that's their animal, and there is bad things that happen if you try to take their animal. So the way we're taught is that we leave it alone. There's this joke around that we are going to make harpoons and stuff, and start getting belugas, but we don't know anything about that animal. And you know, they're just… I don't know if they're just following them up because they're starving, or, I have no idea. Even as a scientist I don't know. But it's like a common event now. We're going down river and somebody will tell me, 'Orville look, there's a beluga!' 'Naw, you've got to be kidding me.' And I'd look over there and sure enough there's a white whale. And it just… I come to my fish net, you know, I'm expecting to see fish and my net's pushed way over, off to where it shouldn't be, and I know that beluga moved it. You know, but, you know it's just… I really don't know what to do with that kind of animal. But that's one of the things we've seen. And then I guess there's another one, where on the coast they say they're seeing geese they've never saw before in some of their drainages. Sidney: How about song birds? Orville: Well that's a big story back home. That's a story they'll have to tell, but from what I gather, it's nothing now compared to how it used to be. If you listen to aunt Catherine tell that story, you can almost name, you know, when she names those birds in Athapaskan, it's the song of the bird. And some of those songs, it's just like she's remembering when she was a little girl, all those different songs of so many different birds. And now in the spring, you know, there's so few birds around. It's just nothing compared to how it used to be. And soon as spring come, as a little boy, we'd get all excited when we see all those little birds come down, you know, they'd eat the seeds off the ground. And even now you know, we don't hardly see that anymore, there's just less and less birds, and then we get those, what they call cow birds or whatever they are, just all over, that we never used to see. And they just come in and, I don't know what they call them, nest robbers or something, were they drop their eggs in other birds nests and the other bird raises them. Yeah, I mean, we see those kind of birds when we're spring hunting now. And we see seagulls staying way into the fall that used to leave right away. I couldn't believe it, that one… I think it was October, late October, there's a seagull sitting out on Willow Lake, and I couldn't believe it was that late in the winter, and it's warm, and the seagull was still sitting there. And you know, the geese stay, you know, two or three weeks longer, whereas they used to just leave on that big wind that blows that way, down south. There's a story that goes with that, but they all wait for that wind to go down. And I guess the winds are so messed up now they don't know when to leave even any more, so they stay longer. Bill: Can you say more about the winds, or is that private information? Orville: Well, I don't know, you see, a lot of the stuff that I say, I have to watch what I say because I don't know. Because of my beliefs I'm not sure what I can talk about. That's why I never say anything about bears, because that's stuff that I learned. A lot of the stuff they told me don't talk about, so I don't talk about them. Bill: But you mentioned wind, I just. Is there a particular wind in the fall that people… Orville: Well yeah, there's always that wind, you know, that you could see. You just feel it coming, you know, when I blows out of the trees, and then that's when the birds go, you know, they go South. Well I guess our birds go to Kotzebue and then go south, our white fronts, but our Canadian geese they just go south. Sidney: So it's a north wind, or a northeast…? Orville: No it's a, wind that blows toward the… from our area south. You know, not necessarily out toward the ocean, but toward the central USA, it blows that way. I don't know what wind direction it is, it's just a wind that… We know that's when they leave. And then once that happens, that's when that cold air comes behind it. But now, it's just like, the winds are all messed up, and they blow in, they blow faster and from different directions. There's still a prevailing wind, but there's days when I don't even know if the winds are the same. The storm intensities are different, you know, we get more intense storms blowing in from somewhere.
Orville: When I travel and, put in a situation where people don't understand, especially our own native people, they don't live in a village anymore, a lot of them, so they don't relate to what's going on in the village even. And the way I was taught is, it's not up to Fish and Wildlife, it's not up to Fish and Game to manage those animals out there. That's our cultural responsibility, especially us young hunters. Well I, I'm older, but I'm still a young hunter, when I think of I still give elders meat, you know what ever I catch, fish. I'm a gatherer, and it's our responsibility. And when I go to these meetings and these young people, who are supposed to be leaders now, you know, they don't understand that it's not somebody else's responsibility to take care of this earth. That's our cultural responsibility, if they follow their beliefs, if they really say and be who they're supposed to be. And I think too often they get caught up in western society, and they loose track of who they are. And there is just times when I have to put my foot down and just, practically just holler at them and say, 'Hey!' or you know, 'Why don't you listen, listen to your elders, listen to what's going on around you, learn what they're trying to tell you, because you're the one that's responsible. If you bring up a young hunter, that person is supposed to be taking over for me when I'm going.' You know, I know my sons understand that, my daughters understand that, but I think too often we get caught up in saying, 'Aw, that's their… Fish and Game has to do that.' But that's not Fish and Game's responsibility. In the Koyukuk River it's our responsibility, we're the ones out there. Yesterday I just got in such a big argument because I just can't take it some times when some of these young people don't understand. They never really stayed in the village long enough to learn it I guess. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a village, I was born in a village, I got my college education, I live in a village. So you know, one of those rare instances, I know what it is because I am out there every day in that environment hunting, fishing, trapping whatever. I think too many of our young elders are so caught up in politics, they don't even realize their cultural responsibilities any more. It's our duty to sit there and listen to those stories. You know, as young stewards of the Earth we have to listen, we have to learn those stories otherwise they're going to be lost. That's why I get so angry sometimes. I don't mean to get angry, but boy it's just frustrating. I go to these meetings 'Where are the elders, where are the leaders of tomorrow?', and they haven't learned a thing. They haven't learned anything. They're just political puppets being played by these powerful people in positions. And a lot of them don't like me because they know I'm right. It's frustrating, as a young teacher. That's the way I like to think of myself. I teach what the elders teach me, I teach what they share with me. Those are the hard things to pass on to people who don't listen. I guess I might have been that way myself once, there was probably times when I was young when I thought I knew it all, but… There's times in your life when you just need to listen, you need to not just hear them, but try to actually understand them, you know, what they're telling you. There's so much knowledge there if people could listen and learn. Especially scientists, boy they're the worst ones because they have their own way of thinking, their own belief system. And to penetrate that scientist world, it's getting easier, but it wasn't always that way. Science is a belief, it's documented, the way you do it, but it's weak, and it needs more knowledge. That's the way I look at it.
Sidney: I always figured that if kids could really understand what science is, how it's structured, what questions it can ask, what it accepts for evidence, and what kind of information you get, then science would no longer be God. If you saw that these are the parameters, you know, and then if you could see the same thing for your own culture. You know, this is how we think about the world, and this is how we organize it, then you could, somehow you could weigh that instead of being taken over by it. If I were a high school science teacher that would be my goal, would be for kids to understand the strengths and the limitations of science. And then to be fully grounded in what their culture and their traditional knowledge has to teach them. I would love that. Orville: Well that's something I think we have to work on together. As scientists and as, I'm not an elder yet, but as our elders; I think they have to work with the teachers in science. They have to work in those schools together and figure a way, a better way to understand what the elders are teaching them. Because I think too often, they'll make a token effort of bringing an elder to school, and they're not really listening and learning from them. You know, they already have their class plan ahead of time, and you can't do that with an elder, you have to be able to adjust to what they're trying to teach you. You have to be open, you know, you have to have an open mind when you go to talk to them. You can't limit it, and too often, I think, even at the university, their class plans were really limited, and they had really a special focus, you know. At times, I knew they were wrong that, you know, as scientist they were supposed to be teaching me this hypothetical deductive reasoning stuff, and I understood it. But I could see that sometimes their points sometimes were wrong, and you know, and they were saying it because that's what they believed things to be, and there were times when I took lower grades, because I just know in my spirit that's wrong, what they're saying is wrong, what they're teaching is wrong. I'll happily get a lower grade if I know they're wrong and I feel I'm right. And you know that's, so be it, if I get a B I don't care. But if I follow my beliefs truly, and I know what it is in my world that I am supposed to be doing. You know I don't care about grades. Grades don't mean anything, its learning that means something. You know, learning is what it's all about, because were not here long enough to learn, let alone teach. You know, I got to my teaching part of my life too late, it seems like. But as Grandpa Joe used to tell us, "You just learn and you just start figuring stuff up, and your headin' back down." And that's true, you know I can already see it. I don't have enough time to teach all that I know now. And you know, the thing is, I am still learning to, and that makes it even harder. Because I'm still learning, and in that learning mode, I have to really watch what I teach to make sure and think it through, that's the right thing to teach. Bill: What did Grandpa Joe say again? Orville: He said, you know, you're just figuring it out all your life, and then you just start figuring it out, and you're going back down, which means your dying. The way he tells the story is a lot better, but you get the drift I guess you know when you think about it.
Sidney: One of the science activities that is most popular with teachers and kids that we do is watching the trees in the fall for when they start changing colors and when the leaves fall off, and again in the spring time when the buds start swelling and burst and then reach a plateau. And then Dave Verbyla at the university, he wants that information because he is trying to ground true the satellite photos. But my question is, ok so those are a couple of markers that are pretty significant for seasonal change. What about, how do you think about seasonal change? Are there key markers are there a sequence of activities, continuum? How does that work for you? Orville: I guess there's a continuum. It's harder now than it used to be. I guess in the past there was definitely things you could look at as changing from, say spring to summer, from summer to fall, from fall to winter, from winter to spring. There was definite things you could see. Probably trees are the most resilient, they've probably maintained the photosynthesis and all that, senescence truer than most things. I think we as mammals and stuff, we are not so strong. But I think the study he is doing is probably more right on because it is related to light, light energy, and that's one thing that stays pretty constant is light. The only thing that might change it would be storms, clouds, more storms coming in. But light pretty much stays the same so trees would be, a true marker of spring, summer, fall, stuff. I kind of wonder if trees are hanging onto nutrients longer now, I kind of wonder because we have warmer weather. I wonder if that's making our animals fatter, because they eat the same trees they used to eat when it was 60 below, and a lot of them would die off because they are filling up with fiber? But I wonder, are there more nutrients left in that willow now than there was 40 years ago? I don't know, I'm just putting this out there, I really don't know. I'm still learning. That's one of the things I was thinking is these willows aren't totally frozen in the winter anymore. If you get 40 degrees for two weeks or a week, what's that do to that willow that that moose is eating? I don't know. But it just seems to me that light is the same so the growing should stay the same, I just don't know if they would hold nutrients longer or not, I don't, maybe I'm a pretty poor scientist too, maybe I just don't know, but there's things we don't know. When I first got out of college, I told my professor, 'You know, one of the things I see back home in the spring is I see moose going out, and they're eating those pushups those greens that come up on top of the ice in the spring, they're the first ones to melt. They melt and its green and those moose are eating it. And I'm kind of wondering, you know, what's that doing to the environment? Are they eating the muskrat food out from where the muskrat used to be? You know, and what changes are they causing, and how important is that food source to that moose? That it's warming up faster, now the moose are getting more to eat, they are even fatter in the spring now, and they're healthier, are we going to have even more moose. I don't know, maybe that's a good thing because we eat them, but things are changing the environment, it has something, usually bad on some other animal if something is good for one animal. That's the way I've always seen it. There's some balance, you know, things are not always good for everybody, somebody suffers. I don't even remember what you're question was, I lost it. Sidney: No, you didn't lose it, you did great.
Sidney: I guess, it's a question about, if you were to think of Huslia in sort of the seasonal round, what marks the seasons for you? Orville: Well it used to be for me, as a young hunter, when it got really warm, like it got last month and January, end of January early February, that was geese. That was the first thing I thought of when that warm, really warm air was hitting us. Is man I could just see those geese coming over that, you know, where I used to hunt on the Willow Lake. But here it is, supposed to be middle of winter, and we're getting that kind of thing that my mind tricks me into thinking, 'yep, there's geese coming', but it's still winter, so that thing, can't use that anymore. But the light thing it's still the same, cause I noticed it got dark right when it was supposed to, you know, early, and it got light late, so it's not spring, it's not that April weather. I mean, it's April weather, but it's happening the wrong time of year. So that marker for me, I've learned to put that away in the past 20 years, actually 10 years it's been worse, but it's not a marker for me anymore. But that used to be a marker, was those warm winds I felt, because they're so warm. There's times I remember, in New Years Race where it would be 32, 33, 34 above, boy it was warm, and all the sudden it would go back to 50 below, you know, that was normal. Now you don't really see that switch back to cold, you always see that switch back to warm, it gets a little bit cold, and you almost think 'boy we got some good winter weather coming', and all the sudden it would warm up again. It seems like a change to me. It used to go from warm to cold again, now it goes from cold to warm, cold to warm, always going the other way now. That's one of the markers I used to use, and in the fall it would freeze and you know it was coming. You'd get that freeze up, but we never used to get that warm up again, like in the late fall hunting season, we never used to get that warm up, you know, we'd have to cut up the meat right away because it would get too warm. You know, 60, 60 above in the late fall, how is that, you could make dry meat in that kind of weather. But that was my marker, it used to be 'yep cold weather's coming' you'd just let that meat hang, but can't do it anymore. As a wild life biologist working with people that are hunting out there it changes our use patterns. I can see our use patterns changing, the timing of stuff, the way we do stuff. We could keep our nets in longer now. We're catching red salmon, more and more red salmon in the fall because it's warmer longer, so, you know, we can leave our nets in longer, and we're catching good rich red fish we used to have a hard time catching I guess, I don't know how they'd catch them, maybe fish trap. But you know, here I am late fall, still got my net out. But I just adjust my use patterns to what's there and what I can use. Those are some of the indicators that I look for I guess. I look for some of the things while I'm actually out traveling. And when you're in boat in fall and you feel cold weather coming, it used to be just, you'd know it was coming, but now it's just like, 'Hmm I wonder if its going to get cold or not, or it's going to warm up again. Maybe I have another week to go, you know I could stay up at the trapping cabin another week and work on stuff.' Or you know, when I felt that cold back in Dakli (Dakli River) when I was a young boy hunting I'd, it's snowing on the ground you'd better get home, because it was coming, you knew it was coming, that winter was coming. But now, it's like, you don't even get that snow, you lay out there and sleep and it's like springtime. I don't know, it's just some of the stuff I noticed I guess. I'm probably leaving out half of what I know, but I… Sidney: Well that's because what we need to do is we need to spend a few months out on the land with you. Orville: Well I think, I think that's the only way, is you know, if you're not out there with us when we are doing stuff, our activities, our subsistence activities, you don't really get the whole story. I can tell you it, but when you're actually there and you see it, it's different. If you are actually there with me late fall, going to my net with me, its way different than what I'm telling you right now, because if you ever listen to some of the work I've done with other people, its not easy work checking a net. If I'm pulling fish out of the net, and there's stuff I'm going to remember by what I'm catching, you know, there's a story that goes with that, and you won't get it sitting in a classroom, you're going to get it out there. Just like those elders, if they were out on that trap line or if they were out at their trapping cabin they'd have a way different story to tell, than sitting at their home. I mean even Henry Deacon from Grayling, I was telling him one day 'You know, I know you told me a lot of good stories, I tell you, but I bet if you were out at your trap line in Innoko I'd get the whole story, I'd get everything then.' He'd just laugh. But I just… There's just so much we can do as humans, I guess, we're just limited to what we can do, what little we know. Bill: Well I think this has been a good start. And I know that Kathy has sure appreciated the work you've done with her, and the continued relationship there, that's important. Let's hope that there are going to be some educational opportunities to find ways to help pass on the knowledge. Orville: Yeah, I think we have to. We owe that to the next generation to save some knowledge and pass it on. I think too often we think other people will do it and there is nobody there doing it. And if we don't do it then you know, boy, we didn't do our job. We didn't pass on what we should have while we had the chance, you know, while we are here. Bill: Thanks for taking the time to do this today. Orville: Oh yeah, it's no problem.