Last updated: April 14, 2015
November’s Object of the Month is a historic photo which demonstrates the abundance from the land and Dena’ina values revolving around gratitude. November is the perfect month to share this story because it is recognized as Native American Heritage month. It is also the month between the sweet costumed excess of Halloween and the busy season of all of the winter festivities. November is when many people gather, sit down, and consciously give thanks for the treasures in their lives. Thanksgiving is one of the rare holidays that requires no presents, is non-denominational, and requires merely food, friends, family, and a grateful heart.
This photo of Mary Ann Trefon and her daughter Katie Trefon with their bountiful harvest was taken around 1927. Mary Ann and Katie were at the mouth of Walker’s Slough, off the Chulitna River. In front of Mary Ann are pike and whitefish, and Katie is holding muskrat pelts that will be sold to purchase food and supplies for the winter. The Dena’ina place name for this area is: Hulehga Tahviłq’a, which translates to “whitefish net hole,” a descriptive place name that shows how productive this area is. Although this photo was taken during Łitlen Nuch’etdeh, or Spring Camp, it embodies the concept of the giving of thanks for the blessing of the harvest. In Dena’ina, Ye’uh qach’dalts’iyli, means ‘what we live on from the outdoors.’ This is how and what the Dena’ina live from; a connection to all living things in the natural world—the outdoors. It is traditional values passed on through generations.
Much as the Wampanoag helped the English who established a colony at Plymouth in 1621, the Dena’ina of Lake Clark helped Euroamerican settlers when they came into the country—sharing with the settlers their deep understanding of the environment. Some of this included an introduction to food from the land, important techniques used in hunting, fishing and trapping, hints on how to watch the weather, tips on how to gather plants, advice on important places and the best routes and trails to take, as well as other knowledge; the Dena’ina helped the Euroamericans survive in a place that was foreign and new to them.
The Dena’ina are not only respectful in their interactions with each other, but also in their interactions with the natural world. Their worldview is one of being inseparable from the natural world—humans and animal are equal and everything on the land has a spirit called K’etniyi, ‘it’s saying something.’ Respect is the foundation of their values. According to the elders, if you treat everything and everyone with respect, life will be easier and good things will come back to you. The Dena’ina are keen observers of nature and because of this, they are scientists. Their vast knowledge base, their social and material culture clearly defines their roles as meteorologists, diplomats, artists, architects, linguists, botanists, biologists, midwives and astronomers.
The Dena’ina have numerous practices and ways of giving thanks that connect them to the places they live. Acknowledgment of the environment and its gifts of food helped maintain the reciprocal relationship with the land. Olga Balluta from Nondalton explains one way of celebrating and sharing:
“Long ago, the first fish they got, they would have a big potluck and invite mostly all the elderly people. Invite them to eat one little bit, even if they get just a little piece out of the fish they got. And they share that one fish with everybody, that is with the soups and all, pass it to everybody to have a drink out of the cup. That is how they used to do with their first salmon that they catch.” (Lake Clark National Park Subsistence Interviews, 2003)
Over many generations, by understanding and practicing the ancient beliefs and values of their ancestors, the Dena’ina continue to live, learn, and adapt to the many changes and cultural sustainability remains central. The land and water continue to provide physical and spiritual sustenance for the Dena’ina people.
Whether you eat caribou, moose, salmon, turkey, pumpkin pie or tofurky, whether you gather with your family, your friends, or spend it alone, we hope you take the time this month to give thanks to the natural world around you.