Oral History

“[This legend is] about a newlywed couple. The temperature was very low in the middle of winter. People were moving through the mountains in search of food. The young wife jokingly said, ‘I will take a long time to sew the soles onto these boots.’ The foolish young groom became unhappy. He was so angry that he took her warm parka off her and left her to freeze in the cold. Word got around the camp like wildfire. Everyone was busy packing to move on. They all minded their own business. Fortunately for the young woman, she had a good friend in the camp. As the people moved on ignoring her, the friend stopped by her long enough to inform her of the hot coals she left under the brushes for her. She also left some sinews for her.

After she was sure everyone was well on their way, she went to her friend’s place. Here, under the brushes, were hot coals and sinews — just as she was told. Happily, she built herself a warm, crackling fire to warm herself by. She was also busy twisting the sinew into snares. The woman soon became aware of all the ravens around her. They were hunting the camp for food. A thought came to her. Quickly, she took her snares and set them all around the deserted camp. In an hour or so, she was busy skinning ravens she caught in her snares. The skins provided her with a warm coat. The toes gave her small but usable sinews. Wasting little time and material on hand, she was well on her way to survival. Days sped by, and when it was warm enough, she travelled to a river nearby. Along the river banks, she found plenty of rabbits. She set snares and caught rabbits by the dozens. As spring came nearer, she moved along the bank, catching more and more rabbits. She had more than enough food. The skins she made into parkas and other clothing, like pants and dresses. The story says she even tanned the rabbit skins and did some quillwork on them. She caught porcupines and dyed the quills different colours. She also built herself a tree house [lodge made from spruce poles], which kept her warm and dry.

After ice moved out, she kept on snaring rabbits and going after small game around her. One day, as she was on her way home, she was walking on the shore of the river, she saw a canoe coming her way. Two men sat in the canoe. She became frightened and froze right on the spot she was at. She thought maybe she would go unnoticed if she didn’t move, but it was too late. The men had seen her. As they came closer, they both greeted her and told her there was nothing to fear. After much talk, she was convinced the men were harmless. Polygamy was practised among our people at that time, so it was only natural when they both proposed to her. She agreed and took them to her home. She learned that the two men were looking for her. They knew she had been deserted by her people, so they looked for her until they found her. They were happy to see that she had been doing well for herself.

Fall was coming on. The three moved to the mountains, where they found plenty of food. As soon as they got some caribou, the woman went to work on the hides. She tanned them and then made herself some good outfits, dresses, and a parka for winter. This was her first good clothes since she was deserted. The next thing she did was make a tent. She cleaned and tanned all the hides. She made clothes for her husbands. As winter came, they had all kinds of meat. They dug a hole into a small hill where much of the meat was stored. They also had an extra tent.

In the meantime, the people who had left her a year ago were wandering through the mountains in search of food. They were pretty close to starving when word went around that someone smelled smoke as they were passing through a valley a few miles back. They were thinking of checking this out, but before they did, one of the young men arrived. He told them of how they had looked for the deserted woman, found her and were now living with her. He invited the starving people to go back with him.

At home, the three prepared food for the people. The woman set up the extra tent by her own tent. Everything was ready when the people came to them. There was good food. Dry meat, roasted meat, fried meat, boiled meats, bone grease, fats and hot meat juice to eat and drink. The woman’s friend moved with her family into the extra tent already set up for her. Her friend was more than willing to do just about anything for her in return for leaving the hot coals and sinews when everyone else turned against her for making a silly little remark about sewing.

After everyone ate well and was strong enough to do some work, they set up their tents. The foolish ex-husband thought of some way he may reclaim his wife. Finally, he brought out his only tool. It was a little instrument used when making a snowshoe. It was an awl. At the door of his ex-wife’s tent, he held it out in his palm, saying to the two men, ‘Give me back the woman and I’ll let you have this.’ Before either of the two said anything, the woman was beside him, grabbing the awl out of his hand. Without a word, she threw the instrument into his face. It hit him in the nose and gave him a nosebleed. That was all; he knew what it meant, so he turned and left quietly. He was sorry, but it was too late to try taking his wife back.”

Bella Alexie, Teetł’it Gwich’in Elder, ca. 1976 (“Marriages”)