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11 Upper Kuskokwim The Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskan people occupy the headwaters of the Kuskokwim and its tributaries upriver from the Selatna River. This area includes the modern communities of Nikolai and Telida, which were established by Athabaskans, and McGrath and Takotna, which are mixed communities established for trade and commerce. Linguistically, Upper Kuskokwim is closest to the Lower Tanana language of Minto and Nenana, but the two languages were historically separated by Koyukon speakers who moved into the Lake Minchumina area at the head of the Kuskokwim. The population probably never exceeded three hundred residents. This made it necessary to maintain ties with surrounding Athabaskan people for purposes of trade and marriage. But in spite of these ties with speakers of Dena’ina, Holikachuk, and Koyukon, the Upper Kuskokwim language developed and remained a separate and unique form of Athabaskan. There are now only about fifty fluent speakers left. Because of their relative isolation, the ceremonial life of the people, including the potlatch, was not as elaborate as that of some of their neighbors. The resource base was not as rich as in some other areas in Alaska, and the people had to rely on a variety of fish and game. They moved with the seasons to fish camps and to hunting and trapping camps. The villages were historically quite small and only seasonally occupied. As late as , my family were the only ones left in Nikolai when everyone else moved to fish camps for the summer. This situation has changed, with most of the Athabaskan residents of the area now living in the settled communities year round. In spite of the dispersed nature of traditional life or perhaps because of it, the Dina’ena (as they call themselves) of the Upper Kuskokwim maintained a rich storytelling tradition. Many elders spent their winter evenings in the  Upper Kuskokwim isolated camps and small communities entertaining their family and neighbors with traditional stories. The most important of these were the hwzosh, or stories of the ‘‘distant time’’ when the traditional world was being formed and shaped by Raven and others. Most adults could share stories of personal or family history and were familiar with the hwzosh from a lifetime of listening , but only a select few were able to memorize these stories so they could tell them with the accuracy required of the storyteller. They were usually told during the winter, beginning in the late fall, as the hunting activity slowed and the days became shorter. In the evening as the stories were told, someone in the audience was expected to give traditional responses at appropriate points in the story. The stories might continue late into the night as long as there was an audience. The storyteller stopped when no more responses were heard. Children were strongly encouraged to remain awake and alert as long as the stories continued, as it was felt the stories would assure a long and successful life. Those who did not listen or quickly fell asleep would pay the price later when they were confronted by situations in their lives that required the wisdom provided by the stories. Listening was considered a more important skill for children to master than was speaking. With age and experience speaking would come, but if they did not learn to listen they would suffer all their lives. In the following story by Lena Petruska about a talking head, this point is made a number of times. The traveler finds her sister living in squalor and poverty because she did not listen when she was growing up. Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskan was an unwritten language until the mid-s. In  Ray and Sally Collins of the Summer Institute of Linguistics moved to Nikolai to begin the first study of the language. Prior to this, Michael Krauss had conducted a brief dialect study and recognized that the language was related to Lower Tanana but was distinct and was not closely related to Deg Hit’an (as some anthropologists, such as Osgood, had thought). Edward Hosley had conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the early s and at first called the people the McGrath Ingalik, but in  he concluded that they were a distinct cultural group and proposed the name Kolchan. By the late s an orthography had been developed, and some initial literacy materials and a noun dictionary were available. In the early s with the growing interest in bilingualeducation, Ray Collins in cooperation with the Alaska State-Operated Schools held a literacy training session...


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