Adonis Diaries

Life in the Arctic: “Two old women” by Velma Wallis

Posted on: October 22, 2008

“Two old women” by Velma Wallis (Written on May 1, 2007)

I guess that I’m mostly interested in recording the way of life in the Arctic, the tools used, the games hunted for in each season and the loneliness of the harsh and long winter.

Ch’idzigyaak is 80 of age and Sa’ is 75 and are left behind by their Eskimo band: The family could no longer feed the elderly women and carry them during this harsh winter of famine and starvation. Shruh Zhuu, the grandson of Ch’idzigyaak, left the two old women his hatchet made of sharpened animal bones, bound tightly with hardened “babiche”.

The band slowly trudged away and left the old women a bundle of babiche of thickly stripped raw moose hide.  The two women decided to move on saying “better die trying to survive” instead of facing certain death.

They made snowshoes out of birch wood and boiled to soften the wood and bend it and then drilled little holes with their sewing awls and then with the soaked babich they wove it onto the snowshoes.  They agreed to move to a camp near a long time visited creek where fish is abundant.  They packed their caribou skins serving as pulling sleds.  They fastened long woven ropes of moose skin leather onto the front of the skin sleds and tied a rope around their waists.

They trekked for six days; each night, they would dig deep pits in the snow, fill them with spruce boughs, and then build a small campfire from the embers of hot coals that they preserved in hardened moose skin sacks or birch bark containers filled with ash. In the mornings they barely could move their limbs and joints and many times they would have succumbed to pains and aches and stop short of their destination but they found the strength of spirit to prove their worthiness for survival.

In winter they laid snares and nooses for rabbits, in the spring it was squirrel and grouse, in summer it was muskrat and fish, in autumn it was mostly salmon.  They dried their games and stored them in holes topped with thorn to prevent the carnivorous animals from steeling their livelihood.  They worked all day long and constantly gathering wood and branches and stacking them around their shelter.

The shelter was made of two large caribou hides wrapped around 3 long sticks shaped into a triangle. Inside were thickly piled spruce boughs covered with fur blankets.  In the winter mornings the caribou skins had to be laid on the ground and have the crystal frost brushed off.

At night the old women would confection mittens, head caps and blankets out of the rabbit furs. During the harsh winter they would drink the broth of the rabbit meat for several days before eating the meat and, although the two women barely communicated when they were with the band, they ended up confiding stories.

Sa’ grew up playing and hunting among her brothers, way past her adulthood and never would accept doing the women chores; her father was lenient because she brought more games than the men.

Once, the chief ordered an old woman, blind and deaf whom she did not know, to be left behind and Sa’ confronted the chief who ordered her to stay with the old woman; the woman died during the winter and Sa’ had to fend for herself.  Ch’idzigyaak heard stories from her mother when she was a kid that in starvation period the old members were eaten by the band and she dared no longer look at the young members for fear they remember that she could be an easy pray; she was forced to marry and old man of the tribe.

The next winter the tribe returned to the same original camp as hungry and weary as the previous winter and could not find any signs that the women died there.  The chief sent a team of scouts and located the old women.

The women agreed to join the band on condition that they remain in separate camps and would trade instead of relying on their charity.

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October 2008

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