My earliest memories of Potlatch are in the old red community hall in Minto taking my great-grandmas to the outhouse. My mom or grandma would make me walk Grandma Linda or Grandma Evelyn down a short trail behind the hall. I vividly remember doing this is in the fall when the darkness returned. I would be terrified walking with them back to the outhouse, me a small kid afraid of the dark and an elderly lady.
“Neither of us can run fast enough if anything comes out of the woods,” I’d think to myself.
The floorboards inside the hall looked like they’d collapse at any moment from our dancing and singing. The elder’s voices led us as people formed circles around them while they sang dratakh chelik – our mourning songs. As we sing, we bow our heads to the floor in respect of the person we are singing for. Each song that is sang picks up tempo until the energy in the hall is so high the men bring out their drums and lead us into faster and what some may say, “livelier,” songs. The women gather around the men and in my childhood memory, I recall the walls shaking from their voices.
None of us were allowed to sit and watch. We were all taught to sing and dance from birth. To this day, I have a complex about standing in the doorway of places, the elders would yell at us, “Sit down you kits!” We were never allowed to stand in the doorway.
I remember falling asleep on the benches when the Potlatch lasted until the wee hours of the morning. Many of us don’t remember our first potlatch experience. I asked my mom when she brought me home to my first potlatch, “let’s see, you were born in September, moose season, so I must have brought you to your first Potlatch when you were just born,” she said. We usually hold Memorial Potlatches in the late summer or early fall time.
The one thing I remember the most though, is the food. For generations we have packed our community hall each evening of Potlatch. Community members and guests gather and sit along the benches of the hall with two rows back to back on the inside. People walk down the rows shaking hands greeting everyone as they find a spot to sit with their dishes brought from home. Today, butcher paper is unfurled on the floor in front of the rows to place your potlatch dishes on, this is our table. Actual tables are placed in the center. The family hosting the potlatch will use this as a central area to store dishes for serving from salads to fish to berries. Everyone in the hall stands silently in respect for the Moose Head Soup as men haul the huge vats of it, usually the last to be brought in.
This was all normal to me, I didn’t know anything else.
“You guys don’t do potlatch?” I asked another kid at school in Fairbanks.
“I don’t even know what that is,” they responded.
I wondered, how do I explain Potlatch?
The moose head soup and the meat are central to this ceremony. I have never, and pray I never have to experience a Potlatch without it. There was a time where this was a possibility.
In October 1975, Delnor Charlie, a young man from Minto died and as per usual, family gathered to prepare for a Funeral Potlatch. According to my Uncle Kenny Charlie, his younger brother Delnor was a quiet man. Delnor lived a similar life to many Alaska Natives born in middle of the last century. He was sent to boarding school in Oklahoma and came back to live in Minto. He enjoyed participating in many activities’ men did for his age, hunt, fish, trap, living a traditional subsistence lifestyle.
“But he had his demons too… like his bout with alcoholism,” Uncle Kenny said. “That’s how he died (and) we never pursued how he actually died, but they said he drowned in the river (in Fairbanks).”
Minto is a tightly knit community, a village just north of Fairbanks in the heart of Alaska. One of our traditions is to be with the family when they experience a loss, no matter who they are.
“Where are they making tea?” is one of the first questions we ask after receiving news that someone died.
We call our gatherings tea. Usually, tea is held at the house of an immediate family member. The family and community gather in one house and people bring food dishes, help with arrangements, and whatever else is needed before we start the ceremony of our Funeral Potlatch.
Men go hunt for a moose, this is the central part of the meals we eat over the three-day ceremony. Women bake and sew and keep things moving, there is a role for everyone and everything. This helps with our initial moments of grief and loss.
Men go hunt for a moose- That’s just what the men did when Charlie died unexpectedly. It was outside of the usual hunting season but the men gathered anyway to go look for a moose, nobody questioned this practice.
“I was living at your grandparents house when they knocked on my door to help them go look,” said Carlos Frank, my uncle. At the time he drove a Ford Super Cab and the men in the village wanted him to drive out the road to help haul any moose meat back if they found anything.
It wasn’t until my teens or 20s when someone told me about Frank. I’ve known him all my life, his sons are my age and we grew up together but nobody ever told me about his central role in a case decided by the Alaska Supreme Court.
“Cultural and Subsistence Harvest Permits,” are permits in a program authorized by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to harvest meat for cultural and subsistence uses. According to the website there are several programs that qualify for this type of permit: Cultural Education, Koyukon Potlatch Ceremonies, Nuchalawoyya Potlatch, and Stickdance Permits.
These permits wouldn’t exist if Frank hadn’t driven up to mile 91.5 of the Elliot Highway, Ptarmigan Hill as we call it, to help transport meat back to the village for the Potlatch.
According to my Aunty Irene Sherry and many others, her uncle Solomon Peter was the one who shot the moose, but he was an elder and they didn’t want him to be arrested.
As the men butchered the meat and hauled it back to the road for Frank to transport to the village, helicopters flew over. “They flew over us and hovered above us and everybody just waved at them,” he said They landed by the road and got Frank’s license plate number.
The next day Fish and Game with the Alaska State Troopers arrived in Minto to arrest him.
“Boom, boom, boom, I got up and went to the door and they just walked right in,” Frank recalled that at six am he woke up to someone pounding on the door.
“You have the right to remain silent,” they shouted as they walked into his house.
The troopers told Frank they knew it was him that transported the meat, they had his license plate number and they saw blood all over the back of his truck.
At the time, Frank was living in my grandparents’ house across from Charlie Titus Sr.’s on the main street. When Titus saw the troopers outside he walked over and asked what was going on.
“Well we always kill a moose whenever we lose someone from the village,” Frank recalled Titus saying.
The troopers then asked Titus to go get the person who shot the moose because they knew that Frank wasn’t the one who did it. Titus walked around the village to round up all the men who were part of the group who shot the moose.
“There was a big long line of men out in front of the house, every one of them filling out papers saying they shot the moose,” Frank said.
The troopers couldn’t charge anyone with shooting the moose, they couldn’t prove who did it. But they charged Frank with transporting the meat. They could prove he transported the meat because of the blood in the back of the truck. Fish and Game confiscated his truck and gun.
According to Frank, they invited the troopers and fish and game people over to the house where they were making tea for lunch. They didn’t have anything to eat or a place to stay and Minto was five to six hours away from Fairbanks by road at that time.
Uncle Kenny couldn’t remember if they had actually stopped by. But that’s normal, during our Potlatches, the host family is busy with arrangements and the house is packed with people so it’s hard to remember everyone who comes by. But I do know that back then it was a 5-6 hour drive from Fairbanks to Minto, on a good day, so it seems likely they stopped for food.
Once the news made it to Governor Hammond, he instructed the troopers to continue pursuing the case. Frank said Hammond told them, “Usually we just let them go when somebody passes away or something, but now it’s in the news you might as well keep on going with it.”
Frank thought Doyon, Limited and Tanana Chiefs Conference hired lawyers to advocate on behalf of his case. Doyon and TCC are the two tribal organizations that represent the social needs support and for-profit business enterprises for Tribes across the Interior.
When I reached out to both organizations to confirm this, they didn’t reply or couldn’t confirm who worked on the case. One of the people believed to work on the case ended up working for Doyon for many years after this case, so it is possible that a lawyer who represented the case did end up working for one Tribal organizations but at the time of this publication I couldn’t track this information down.
Frank’s case went to the district court where the presiding Judge Monroe Clayton determined in a brief of the case that the funeral potlatch is an integral part of the cultural religious belief of the central Alaska Athabascan Indian. Clayton further said “that moose is an integral part of the diet and the staff of life to these Athabascan Indians.” The brief stated further that based on Frank’s testimony the food for such a potlatch “is primarily required to be native food…that moose is more desirable for such a celebration than any other native food… but that it is not specifically required for this ceremonial occasion however desirable it may be.”
Frank was sentenced to 45 days in jail with 30 suspended a $500 fine with $250 suspended, one-year probation, and hunting license suspended for one year.
He appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court where a case was presented with testimony from expert anthropologists (whatever that means) and elders.
One of the most well-known and beloved Chiefs from Minto was Chief Peter John. He was born on the banks of the Yukon River in 1900. John was born at a time where he heard elders speak a higher language, different than the languages we speak today. He was born at a time of great change in the Interior. Fairbanks, the second largest city in Alaska was settled by European-American colonizers around the time John was born. He was born before the gold rush which rapidly changed the landscape of Alaska. John spent his entire life living and subsisting off the lands across the Interior and raised a family on the Lower Tanana. When he spoke at Potlatches, his words carried a different weight. He would speak to us in his language and bless us with prayers. He was an advocate for education, our traditions, and speaking our language. John played important roles in many policy decisions affecting our way of life. One of his more famous quotes is, “Give whatever you got and you’ll get in return something better than what you give. You believe that? You got to share. That’s true. That is the old Indian way. That’s what we were taught.”
My words cannot fully explain how vital of a leader he was among Interior Alaska Natives. But he testified on behalf of all of us at Frank’s trial. He asserted that the Funeral Potlatch is one of the most important institutions in Athabascan life. According to the legal brief on the case, John recalled the moose meat was mandatory to the Potlatch Ceremony. He could not remember a death that was not followed by a Funeral Potlatch. John stated, and many of us still believe, that the Funeral Potlatch is the last meals we share with the deceased person before sending them off.
Tribes all over have lost rights to their ceremonial traditions. I once read about the Makah Tribe in Washington state, they were not allowed to hunt whales. According to their website, on May 17, 1999 the tribe harvested their first whale in 70 years. That means several generations missed out learning their traditions.
“What does moose meat taste like?”
People have asked me this before and I struggle finding the words to describe the flavor. I feel like Bubba from Forrest Gump when he talks about shrimp. There’s fresh meat, fried with a little salt, or boiled fat with the stomach lining, gi’troth is what we call it. You can make soup with it, dry it and eat it later with fat or butter. “Dry meat,” is given to teething babies to gnaw on. During the Potlatch meat is passed out, and one of my favorite ways to eat it is the next day with some mayo. I generally dislike mayo, but some leftover potlatch meat with mayo tastes decadent.
The point of all of this is to tell you, we are given moose meat since birth. I have tasted moose meat for probably as long as I’ve tasted water. What does water taste like? That’s how I feel when people ask me what moose tastes like. I don’t have an answer.
I know that in Minto, our men have trained all of their lives to hunt and fish. When we talk about hunting, we don’t even say those terms. We say, we’re going to look, and we don’t even say moose. We have so much respect for that animal that we don’t talk about them. When we find a moose, we turn the head away from the body and face it home and immediately say a prayer giving thanks to that animal for giving itself to us. All of that is to say, we don’t handle these matters lightly. We have hunted and fished on our lands for centuries, if anyone knows how to manage our fish and game, it’s us.
Moose is not just food for us, it’s a relationship we have with that Animal. To hear that the Makah tribe in Washington was not allowed to hunt or eat a staple food for 70 years is disheartening. I could never imagine a life without the very food that has sustained us for so long. I could never imagine a life where our relationships with our fish and game is disrupted. I would feel awful sending my loved ones off with a Funeral Potlatch where we serve fried chicken or hamburgers. I know that when I leave home I go to my grandma’s house so she can make me a home-cooked meal, and she always makes sure to send me off with my native food. That’s what we’re doing to our loved one when they die.
When the case was appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, they argued that the Potlatch and all of our Potlatches are religious ceremonies. According to the brief, “Other witnesses stated that moose meat is a necessary requirement having the sacramental equivalent to the wine and wafer in Christianity. Frank and all of the Athabascan witnesses, including Peter John, testified that they could not risk showing disrespect to the dead by failing to provide moose for the post burial ritual.”
Just like our potlatches, there is a role for everyone and everything. Frank’s role in that Potlatch ended up being way more significant than he anticipated when he went to help the men that day in 1975. In December 1979, Frank’s appeal was granted and it was determined that he was protected under his First Amendment rights. The red community hall is no longer in use, it was demolished after Minto built a bigger community hall with running water. No kids will have to experience escorting an elder down a short and dark path to use an outhouse now. Aside from that and how much food has changed since the 1970s, our Potlatches have remained nearly the same much thanks to the many elders in our community who stood up for our food and land rights.
While interviewing family and researching for this story, I realized that Charlie’s death played a significant role in the case as well. Uncle Kenny wanted to be respectful of the work that Frank put in to defending us but agreed with me when I mentioned it to him.
Many of us younger people are learning our songs and using our language more with our children. The next generation is learning and reclaiming more parts of our culture than previous generations lost to colonization. With that we are forging new paths and finding new opportunities to protect our hunting, fishing, and spiritual rights.
I started this essay in February 2019 to document a historic moment in Minto, Alaska’s history. The essay was originally published in the July-September 2019 edition of First Alaskan’s magazine.
Potlatch Permits is a work in progress. Since starting this essay, there have been updates to the current status of the regulations in the Minto Flats. Through a series of very fortunate events, I was able to get ahold of the lawyer who worked on this case. I am currently writing an updated version of this case with more details.