Tradition in Kaltag

Kaltag, Alaska Wildcats sign

The sign that welcomes mushers and visitors off the river into Kaltag

After a lifetime spent at sea, the ocean-tough salmon battles its way upriver and completes its lifecycle in the spawning grounds where it was born. The fact that this species has no true capacity for recollection makes this tenacious journey doubly remarkable. This knowledge is mapped in its DNA, like an intergenerational memory that echoes through the ages; a tradition that ensures their survival.

Tradition is a river that flows between generations. As humans, if we ignore our heritage we, too, become salmon lost at sea. Cultural pillars keep us rooted when we are out swimming with the sharks––but it is the burden of each generation to pass it onto the next, for tradition left unnourished quickly vanishes.

Rick Casillo Kaltag Iditarod

Rick Casillo approaches Kaltag on the Yukon River

Kaltag is the last Athabascan village on the Iditarod trail. From there, the Yukon River sweeps southward and the mushers travel west overland through the Kaltag Portage toward the Bering Sea coast. From the air, the topography naturally concludes one culture’s range and gives way to another. Carved between extensive mountain ranges that seem to cascade north and south forever, the relatively narrow east-west corridor abruptly fans out into the open expanse of the coastal plain. Historically, the Athabascans in this part of the interior did not need to leave the life-sustaining Yukon River and its surrounding beaver and moose. Similarly, the Eskimo needn’t stray far from the abundance of the Bering Sea and the caribou migration. Two cultures were shaped by the details of the landscape, from the food they eat, to the clothes on their backs, to the traditions they’ve kept. For generations, anything desired in the neighboring people’s landscape could be traded for in the cultural seam somewhere in the middle of the Kaltag Portage.

Yet just as an unnourished tradition can dissipate, a shared tradition can migrate. In Kaltag, an important tradition is being prepared for today. The Stick Dance which will be held to honor passed loved ones at the end of March, originated in a since abandonded village on the Innoko River. The story goes, a man on the Innoco River lost seven sons in a short amount of time. He wrote thirteen songs to honor them in ceremony in order to grieve and help the spirits find peace. The ceremony was adopted in Grayling and overtime moved to Kaltag and Nulato––the two villages that carry on the tradition today, and typically alternate years for hosting the tradition.

Each ceremony requires years of preparation. The people who will be remembered at the end of this month died five years ago. The ceremony goes something like this:

Prior to the ceremony, the villagers select a special spruce tree. The branches at the apex are left intact, while the rest of the trunk is peeled in preparation. Although the Stick Dance lasts one night, it’s encompassed by a week-long tradition that commences with potlatches every night. Each person who is being mourned for is represented by an individual from the village. Twice a day in the community hall, they’re fed a favorite dish of the person who passed and it’s important that the dish is returned with something still in it.

Friday night is the night of the Stick Dance and people come from all over to attend. The spruce pole is decorated with ribbons and feathers and then brought into the community hall by the people who are “going to be dressed,” or represent the deceased. They walk with the direction of the sun and then enter the community hall to set the pole as the centerpiece in the community hall. The attendees sing the thirteen original songs from the first ceremony, and the people dance and drum well through the night until about ten in the morning.

Richard Burnham at the checkpoint Iditarod 2017

Richard Burnham at the checkpoint

“It’s so emotional you can feel it in your very bones,” former Iditarod musher Richard Burnham tells me. Though originally an outsider, he’s lived in Kaltag for 43 years and has been “dressed” several times.

His granddaughter Jamie adds, “It’s important to stay with our parents during the Stick Dance because the spirits are also dancing around the pole.” She implies that children might get lost in this mixing of these two realms.

“No one can take pictures,” local Ben Madros explains. The spirits might show up  on the photograph which is bad. It’s happened.”

The Community Hall in Kaltag

The Community Hall in Kaltag

Everyone chants in front of the houses of the deceased before walking the pole to the riverbank. There the villagers break the “stick” against the flagpole that stands there, and throw the pieces into the river where they are washed downstream like salmon at the beginning of their lives. This ritual releases the deceased’s spirits to help them continue on their journey.

The ceremony continues the next day. On Saturday, each person representing the deceased is dressed in clothing similar to that individual’s style. The dressing occurs behind a curtain in the community hall, and it is important that when they come out from behind the curtain they do not look anywhere but down. This can’t be stressed enough. “You don’t look sideways, or glance up. You only look down.” Richard emphasizes. Everyone walks out to the flagpole and the clothes that the “dressed” have changed out of are bagged up and smacked beside the riverbank several times to indicate the changing of personas. At this point, the “dressed” can look up and for the rest of that day and the next they adopt the name of the person they’re representing.

At some point in the ceremony, the possessions of those who have passed will be given away in the community hall. Many tears are shed in this emotional process, but it’s an important step to healing. When all of their things have been passed onto people who can use them, the grieving ends. Although the finality is not so stark for everyone, they are comforted in the knowledge that they’ve done all they can to honor that person and help them transition. Similar to a funeral, the ceremony provides time and space for cathartic release.

Kaltag checkpoint Iditarod 2017

Jamie McGinty stands in front of the flagpole used in the Stick Dance ceremony

But it’s also a celebration in appreciation of that person’s role in your life and the community. Jamie, who is taking a break from helping with mushers’ drop bags tells me she looks forward to seeing people from different villages, such as Koyukuk, Grayling, and Nulato. It is an important intergenerational tradition that has become their heritage.

In two years, Richard will be dressed as his father-in-law, Austin Emailka, Sr., who posthumously received this years Spirit of the Iditarod award. Richard originally came to Kaltag as an assistant on a guiding operation. Incidentally, his pilot was the original pilot of the volunteer Iditarod Air Force. Something clicked with the Northwest Oregon boy in that experience, and when he moved to Kaltag Emailka took him under his wing and taught him the survival skills necessary to interior Alaska winters.

Richard ran the Iditarod from ’75-’78, and his last race coincided with Susan Butcher’s rookie year. “I’m one of the few guys who can say Susan didn’t beat me,” he laughs. His granddaughter Jamie is obviously enamored with the race and loves being invited to participate in checkpoint duties. “She’s part of the clean-up crew,” checker Mark Greene tells me. They help separate the food leftover by mushers, so the kibble goes to community dogs, the food gets organized and donated, and the kids who help get a reward. “It’s another way to get everyone involved,” he beams.

How does one convey the countless values passed on through tradition? Cultural survival comprises a complex intergenerational connectivity that can hardly be itemized, let alone weighed out. Perhaps there is much to learn from the tradition of the salmon. In an era when many Alaskan villages are struggling, no monetary value can be placed on a strong foundation that gives each generation a sense of identity and, like the salmon, a river to which they can return.