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Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival

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Overview

Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River area in Alaska, this is the suspenseful, shocking, ultimately inspirational tale of two old women abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter famine. Though these two women have been known to complain more than contribute, they now must either survive on their own or die truing. In simple but vivid detail, Velma Wallis depicts a landscape and way of life that are at once merciless and starkly beautiful. In her old women, she has created two heroines of steely determination whose story of betrayal, friendship,community, and forgiveness will carve out a permanent place in readers' imaginations.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060975845
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 07/01/1994
Series: Harper Perennial
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 4.94(w) x 7.26(h) x 0.47(d)
Lexile: 1030L (what's this?)

About the Author

Velma Wallis was born in Fort Yukon, a remote village of about 650 people in Interior Alaska, near where the Porcupine River flows into the Yukon. Wallis was raised in a tradtional Athabaskan family, one of thirteen children. When she was thirteen, her father died and she left school to help her mother raise her younger brothers and sisters. Later, she passed her high school equivalency exam and moved to a trapping cabin twelve miles from the village, where she learned to live off the land by hunting, fishing, and trapping. Wallis based her first two books, Two Old Women and Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun, on the Athabaskan stories her mother told her when she was growing up.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Hunger and cold take their toll


The air stretched tight, quiet and cold over the vast land Tall spruce branches bung heavily laden with snow, awaiting distant spring winds. The frosted willows seemed to tremble in the freezing temperatures.

Far off in this seemingly dismal land were bands of people dressed in furs and animal skins, huddled close to small campfires. Their weather-burnt faces were stricken with looks of hopelessness as they faced starvation, and the future held little promise of better days.

These nomads were The People of the arctic region of Alaska, always on the move in search ,of food. Where the caribou and other migrating animals roamed, The People followed. But the deep cold of winter presented special problems. The moose, their favorite source of food, took refuge from the penetrating' cold by staying in one place, and were difficult to find. Smaller, more accessible animals such as rabbits and tree squirrels could not sustain a large band such as this one. And during the cold spells, even the smaller animals either disappeared in hiding or were thinned by predators, man and animal alike. So during this unusually bitter chill in the late fall, the land seemed void of life as the cold hovered menacingly.

During the cold, hunting required more energy than at other times. Thus, the hunters were fed first, as it was their skills on which The People depended. Yet, with so many to feed, what food they had was depleted quickly, Despite their best efforts, many of the women and children suffered from malnutrition, and some would die of starvation.

In this particular band were two oldwomen cared for by The People for many years. The older woman's name was Ch'idzigyaak, for she reminded her parents of a chickadee bird when she was born. The other woman's name was Sa', meaning "star," because at the time of her birth her mother had been looking at the fall night sky, concentrating on the distant stars to take her mind away from the painful labor contractions.

The chief would instruct the younger men to set up shelters for these two old women each time the band arrived at a new campsite, and to provide them with wood and water. The younger women pulled the two elder women's possessions from one camp to the next and, in turn, the old women tanned animal skins for those who helped them. The arrangement worked well.

However, the two old women shared a character flaw unusual for people of those times. Constantly they complained of aches and pains, and they carried walking sticks to attest to their handicaps. Surprisingly, the others seemed not to mind, despite having been taught from the days of their childhood that weakness was not tolerated among the inhabitants of this harsh motherland. Yet, no one reprimanded the two women, and they continued to travel with the stronger ones--until one fateful day.

On that day, something more than the cold hung in the air as The People gathered around their few flickering fires and listened to the chief He was a man who stood almost a head taller than the other men. From within the folds of his parka ruff he spoke about the cold, hard days they were to expect and of what each would have to contribute if they were to survive the winter.

Then, in a loud, clear voice he made a sudden announcement: "The council and I have arrived at a decision." The chief paused as if to find the strength to voice his next words. "We are going to have to leave the old ones behind."

His eyes quickly scanned the crowd for reactions. But the hunger and cold had taken their toll, and The People did not seem to be shocked. Many expected this to happen, and some thought it for the best. In those days, leaving the old behind in times of starvation was not an unknown act, although in this band it was happening for the first time. The starkness of the primitive land seemed to demand it, as the people, to survive, were forced to imitate some of the ways of the animals. Like the younger, more able wolves who shun the old leader of the pack, these people would leave the old behind so that they could move faster without the extra burden.

The older woman, Ch'idzigyaak, had a daughter and a grandson among the group. The chief looked into the crowd for them and saw that they, too, had shown no reaction. Greatly relieved that the unpleasant announcement had been made without incident, the chief instructed everyone to pack immediately. Meanwhile, this brave man who was their leader could not bring himself to look at the two old women, for he did not feel so strong now.

The chief understood why The People who cared for the old women did not raise objections. In these hard times, many of the men became frustrated and were angered easily, and one wrong thing said or done could cause an uproar and make matters worse. So it was that the weak and beaten members of the tribe kept what dismay they felt to themselves, for they knew that the cold could bring on a wave of panic followed by cruelty and brutality, among people fighting for survival.

In the many years the women had been with the band, the chief had come to feel affection for them. Now, he wanted to be away as quickly as possible so that the two old women could not look at him and make him feel worse than he had ever felt in his life.

The two women sat old and small before the campfire with their chins held up proudly, disguising their shock. In their younger days they had seen very old people left behind, but they never expected such a fate. They stared ahead numbly as if they had not heard the chief condemn them to a certain death--to be left alone to fend for themselves in a land that understood only strength.

Two Old Women. Copyright © by V. Wallis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Dedicationvii
Acknowledgementsix
Introductionxi
Chapter 1Hunger and cold take their toll1
Chapter 2"Let us die trying"17
Chapter 3Recalling old skills31
Chapter 4A painful journey45
Map74
Chapter 5Saving a cache of fish77
Chapter 6Sadness among The People93
Chapter 7The stillness is broken107
Chapter 8A new beginning123
About the Gwich'in People137

What People are Saying About This

Ursula K. Le Guin

This story speaks straight to the heart with clarity, sweetness, and wisdom.

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River area in Alaska, this suspenseful, shocking, and ultimately inspirational tale of survival follows two old women who are abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter famine. Though these two women have been known to complain more than contribute, they now must either survive on their own or die trying. In simple but vivid detail, Velma Wallis depicts a landscape and way of life that are at once merciless and starkly beautiful. In her old women, she has created two heroines of steely determination whose story of betrayal, friendship, community, and forgiveness will carve out a permanent place in readers' imaginations.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Two old women are left to die so that the rest of the tribe might have a better chance to survive, but they do not die; in fact, after overcoming incredible environmental conditions and physical limitations, they survive the winter and prepare for the next better than the tribe. What does this story illustrate about society? How does it seem a particularly "American" story (consider the role of the individual versus the group, attitudes toward overcoming adversity, the physical environment)?

  2. The two women rediscover skills they had not used in many years. If they had never been abandoned, they would never have discovered what they are capable of. What do the two women gain and lose from this experience?

  3. Compare and contrast the two women. How do their histories contribute to their survival?

  4. Are you surprised when you learn that these women who have lived and worked together did not really know each other? Why do people who live together or in close proximity keep an emotional distance? Does the story of the two women suggest that intimacy makes for a better quality of life?

  5. The chief regrets his decision to leave the old women. Was the chief's decision the correct one? What if the women had died -- is your answer the same?

  6. The women are left with all their belongings, which ultimately was crucial to their survival. Why did the tribe allow this, especially in light of its own desperate circumstances?

  7. Ch'idzigyaak is heartbroken when her daughter and grandson allow her to be abandoned. Do you blame them? What would have happened if they had stayed behind with her? How does their relationship change?

  8. Though this story describes an ancient culture's mores, in what ways does it resemble modern life? Compare the role of women in an Athabascan tribe with modern day American women.

  9. What does this story tell you about how Athabascans view women? How does Two Old Women compare with other fablelike feminist stories, such as Lilith or Persephone?

About the Author

Velma Wallis was born in 1960 in Fort Yukon, a remote village of about 650 people in Interior Alaska. Growing up in a traditional Athabaskan family, Wallis was one of thirteen children. When she was thirteen, her father died and she left school to help her mother raise her younger siblings. Wallis later moved to her father's trapping cabin, a twelve-mile walk from the village where she lived alone intermittently for a dozen years, learning traditional skills of hunting and trapping. Wallis lives in Fort Yukon with her husband, Jeffrey John, and their two children.

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