45. Two Old Women (Gwich'in Folklore)

In today's episode we discuss the Gwich'in story of Ch'idzigyaak and Sa', as told in the book Two Old Women by Velma Wallis. We discuss oral tradition, forgiveness in a story, and the importance of recognizing a story as not universal


Sources

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

Paula Gunn Allen's Grandmothers: Toward a Responsive Feminist-Tribal Reading of "Two Old Women" by Genie Babb

Support the Gwich’in people and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge:

Gwich'in Steering Committee

Donate to Gwich'in Steering Committee - Patagonia Action Works

Protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge | NRDC

Indigenous Peoples of the Arctic Refuge | Gwich'in and Iñupiat

Gwich'in Tribal Council

To donate to the podcast, please go to ko-fi.com/mytholadies. 

Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux.  You can find her and more of her  work on Instagram @helena.cailleaux.illustratrice. Our theme song was  composed and performed by Icarus Tyree. To hear more of their music,  check out icarust.bandcamp.com.

Transcript

[intro music]

Zoe 

Hello, and welcome to Mytholadies, the podcast where we talk about women from mythology and folklore all over the world. We're your hosts.

 

Lizzie 

I'm Lizzie.

 

Zoe 

And I'm Zoe. Lizzie, how are you doing today?

 

Lizzie 

I'm fine. I have a little bit of a cold, which you can hear from my voice, I think. So, sorry about that. But, um, other than that, doing perfectly well. How are you?

 

Zoe 

I think it's fun.

 

Lizzie 

Thank you.

 

Zoe 

I'm all right. I'm in the middle of finals right now, and--I'm doing fine with that. Like, I only have one big exam, so it should be okay. But it's not the best place to be in the world. It's not my favorite.

 

Lizzie 

No, it's really not. Finals times are horrible.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Being a student is--well, it's very stressful.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. So that's--that's where I'm at right now. Um, I'm pretty tired. And also have to get ready to pack up and go back home for a while. So we have to plan accordingly for that. So that's exciting.

 

Lizzie 

It's true.

 

Zoe 

But, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Ooh, this is our last--this is our last episode of 2021.

 

Zoe 

Oh, it is! You're so right. That's exciting. Alright.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, that's crazy.

 

Zoe 

Yeah! Wow. So this will be a--yeah, a year and a half--ish. Not really. A year and three months.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, yeah.

 

Zoe 

'Cause it started in December--September.

 

Lizzie 

Our second calendar year, though.

 

Zoe 

Our second calendar year.

 

Lizzie 

Our--our first full calendar year.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah! That's--that's the real exciting (Lizzie laughs).

 

Lizzie 

Yes.

 

Zoe 

We've been looking at our Spotify Wrapped, so shout out to everyone who had us in their Spotify wrapped this year.

 

Lizzie 

Yes, it was very exciting for us.

 

Zoe 

Very exciting. Also, if you wanna support the show, we have a Ko-fi, which is linked in the description. You can do a one-time donation or a recurring donation. And we appreciate that very much! So thank you so much.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah!

 

Zoe 

All right.

 

Lizzie 

Okay.

 

Zoe 

Lizzie, who are we closing out the year with?

 

Lizzie 

Ooh, (laughs) fancy. Okay, so today, we are going to talk about a story from the Gwich'in people about two elderly women called Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak. So, I think I said, like, last episode that I got a bunch of books from the used bookstore in, like, the folklore and mythology section, and this was one of them.

 

Zoe 

Yes! Oh, that's awesome.

 

Lizzie 

(overlapping) I hadn't heard of this book or the story, and now I love it. And I'm--it was a super good find.

 

Zoe 

Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

So, the story comes from the Gwich'in people, who are an Athabaskan people who live in the northwestern part of North America with about 3200 people in Canada and about 1100 people in Alaska. And they are one of eleven Athabaskan groups living in that portion of interior Alaska and Northwestern Canada. And the story that I'm telling you today was written down by Velma Wallis, who was told the story by her mother. The story has been--has been passed down in Gwich'in villages along the Yukon for many years, and tells about two elderly women who are abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter.

 

Zoe 

Hm.

 

Lizzie 

And Wallis published the story in 1993 under the title Two Old Women.

 

Zoe 

Huh.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah! And we two love talking about elderly women. So--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

It's a great story.

 

Zoe 

It's really a themed month this month, old women.

 

Lizzie 

(laughing) A lot of old women, yeah, that's so true!

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And I'm super excited to get into it. So shall we start with the story?

 

Zoe 

Yes, let's do it.

 

Lizzie 

So, there were two old women who belonged to a migratory band of people in the Arctic region of Alaska. One was called Ch'idzigyaak, which means "chickadee," and she was 80. And the other one was called Sa', and she--which means "star," and she was 75. So it was winter, and food was scarce. What little food there was was first given to the hunters, because their skills were needed by the rest of the group. But there were too many to feed and many were malnourished, and some even died of starvation.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Which, side note, kind of correlates to our last episode, where we were also talking about the brutality of winter.

 

Zoe 

Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

So one day, the chief announced that the people were going to leave two women behind. They were the two eldest people in their group, and as such were seen as, you know, weak. This was a pretty common act in such harsh climates and everyone was cold and starving so nobody was really shocked and no one contested this decision.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

The two old women disguised their shock and stared ahead without emotion. When they were young, they had also seen elderly people left behind, but they hadn't expected it to happen to them.

 

Zoe 

Mm.

 

Lizzie 

Ch'idzigyaak had a daughter named Ozhii Nelii, and a grandson named Shruh Zhuu. Ozhii Nelii chose not to speak up about abandoning her mother because she didn't want herself and her son to be left behind too. But Ch'idzigyaak was deeply hurt that even her daughter didn't stand up for her.

 

Zoe 

Mm.

 

Lizzie 

The rest of the band began to pack up to move right away, and Ozhii Nelii offered her mother some babiche, which was a sort of cord made of raw moosehide. Um, but Ch'idzigyaak ignored her presence.

 

Zoe 

Hmm. Wow.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, it's rough. So Ozhii Nelii laid the babiche on the ground and turned to leave. Ch'idzigyaak's grandson, Shruh Zhuu, was disturbed by this turn of events and wanted to speak up. But his mother warned him against it so the people wouldn't turn on him as well. So ultimately, he stayed silent. However, he removed his hatchet from his belt and placed it within the branches of a spruce tree where people wouldn't see. He caught his grandmother's eye and pointed to his empty belt, then to the tree, so that she would understand.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

So that she would have a chance of surviving.

 

Zoe 

Good!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So the people moved on, leading Ch'idzigyaak and Sa' sitting stunned on their piles of spruce boughs. Sa' was indignant. She and her friend weren't even close to death, and yet they were condemned to die. She said to Ch'idzigyaak that they could just sit here and wait for death, but this would prove the others right about their helplessness.

 

Zoe 

Uh huh.

 

Lizzie 

She said that if the two of them were going to die, they should die trying. Ch'idzigyaak agreed. Together, they were able to set up a shelter and a few rabbit snares, but neither were very optimistic that they would actually catch anything. They saw a squirrel skittering up a tree and Sa' was able to throw the hatchet and kill the animal, drawing upon hunting knowledge that she hadn't used in a long time.

 

Zoe 

Hm!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So the two women boiled the squirrel meat and--in snow water and drank the broth. It was the first time they'd eaten in a long time since the people didn't like to waste food on people about to die.

 

Zoe 

Mm.

 

Lizzie 

They went to sleep, but were both awakened by a scream. They got dressed and ran to check their snares, where there was a rabbit caught. Sa' killed the animal, and they went back to their camp with renewed hope.

 

Zoe 

Hm!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah! So over the next few days, they began recalling skills that they had learned when they were younger. They made snowshoes out of birch wood and were able to catch another rabbit. They decided it would be smart to move camp, and Ch'idzigyaak recalled a place near a creek where they used to fish so they decided to go there.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

The journey there was cold and arduous and lasted a few days, during which they pushed their bodies to their physical limits and were in great pain, but still they pushed on. There were times during the journey where Ch'idzigyaak thought it would be easier to just curl up and let death take her, but she and her friend moved forward. Eventually they arrived at the lake and set up camp. The next day, the two women worked, making preparations for the winter and setting up rabbit snares. In the evening, they sat around the campfire and Ch'idzigyaak thought about her family and about how her daughter had abandoned her and fought off tears.

 

Zoe 

Mm.

 

Lizzie 

She noticed Sa' was also deep in thought, so she decided to speak. She told Sa' that when she was a little girl, the people left her grandmother behind. She couldn't walk and was nearly blind, and everyone was fearful of death due to harsh conditions and lack of food. Ch'idzigyaak's father and brothers argued with the rest of the men, but ultimately, they lost. They bundled her grandmother up and put blankets all around her. Even though she was too blind and deaf to hear what was going on, Ch'idzigyaak thought she knew what was happening because as they left campus, she could hear her crying.

 

Zoe 

Oh my gosh, Lizzie! (laughs)

 

Lizzie 

 I--yeah, it's-it's-it's sad. I mean--

 

Zoe 

This is very sad.

 

Lizzie 

It-it is--it was a rough landscape. It--the setting is-is grim. But, um...yeah, I don't know. Anyway, she later learned that her father and brothers went back to camp to end her life so that she wouldn't suffer.

 

Zoe 

Oh my gosh!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. I mean, it's a horrible decision to have to make. Like, they're not reveling in it.

 

Lizzie 

Like, they--I mean, it's horrifying.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

When she finished, Sa' begin telling her own story. When she grew up, she was like a boy, always with her brothers and learning things from them instead of sewing or other womanly duties.

 

Zoe 

Hm.

 

Lizzie 

 As she grew up, she noticed the girls around her getting married and having children while she was still free like a child. People mocked her and her mother tried to get her to stay home and work, but she didn't want to. She was still doing her share of the work by providing food, sometimes hunting more food than the men, who did not like that. Food began to grow scarce, and her people decided they had to leave behind an elderly woman. Sa' didn't really know the wo--old woman and had barely noticed her up until that point, but when she learned what was about to happen to her, Sa' argued that it was wrong. She was the only one to stand up for this woman, and she argued with the chief, who was a cruel man and said to her, "All right, strange girl. You will stay with the old one."

 

Lizzie 

(sighs) Yeah, so Sa''s family was horrified and begged her to apologize to the chief, but she wouldn't. Her people moved on and left her and the old woman behind. Food was scarce, but they survived for a while on mice, owls, and other small animals that Sa' could find. The old woman didn't survive the winter, and then Sa' was alone.

 

Zoe 

Mm.

 

Zoe 

Mm.

 

Lizzie 

 She said to Ch'idzigyaak, "At least you and I have each other." In her isolation, she had begun talking to herself frequently. One day she was walking along, talking to herself, when a voice came and asked her who she was talking to. She turned and saw a big and strong-looking man and was embarrassed. (Zoe laughs) I know! (laughs). Meet-cute. She told the man her story, and he said he was also abandoned by his people, although for him it was because he had fought with another man over a woman.

 

Zoe 

Mmm.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah (laughs). Sa' and the man grew close and ended up joining Ch'idzigyaak's band. However, her husband died when he tried fighting a bear.

 

Zoe 

Oh.

 

Lizzie 

I know, he sounds awesome.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Ch'idzigyaak told her that she was lucky because Ch'idzigyaak was forced to be with an older man, with whom she had her daughter.

 

Zoe 

Ohh.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, I know. She didn't want to get married, but they kind of made her, which--yeah, anyway.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

They reflected on their stories, and were happy to get to know each other better. During our time together, they began talking about anything and everything and enjoying each other's company. After some time, the two women were used to fending for themselves and caught plenty of rabbits, grouse and muskrats. And eventually they decided to move camp again, this time to an undesirable location with lots of mosquitoes so that they wouldn't come across their former band.

 

Zoe 

Oh.

 

Lizzie 

Before they--yeah. Before they decided to move, they had taken lots of bark off of surrounding birch trees for varying purposes, which they now recognizes as a mistake, because potential travelers would recognize it as a sign that someone lived there.

 

Zoe 

Oh.

 

Lizzie 

But they couldn't do much about it besides hope that nobody would find them. In their new camp, they set up their belongings, including their large cache of dried meat from all the hunting they were able to do. They also caught fish easily and added a large amount of fish to their cache. They found a new problem, which is that they caught so much fish that they didn't know what to do with it, and created standing caches to hide them from predators.

 

Zoe 

Nice.

 

Lizzie 

I mean, it is probably either a feed two people than many dozens of people, but--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--anyway, good for them (Zoe laughs). So meanwhile, the former band was not doing well.

 

Zoe 

Oh, no!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, they were suffering and they missed the two old women who they had abandoned. The chief led them to the place where they had abandoned them, but they were shocked that there were no signs that anyone had ever been there. Not even the tent or any human remains. Among the band was a man named Daagoo, who was old,  though not as old as Sah' and Ch'idzigyaak, and had worked as a tracker. The chief asked him to take a group of men and search the nearby camps. They came to where the women set up their first and second camps, but saw nothing.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

The men wanted to turn around, but Daagoo implored them to look closer at their surroundings. He told them to look at the birch trees and how they had been stripped. Daagoo walked in the direction that they thought--he thought the old women might have taken, seemingly senseless because they wouldn't have wanted to be found. Eventually he smelled smoke, and so he stood and called out the women's names. When Ch'idzigyaak and Sa' heard this, they were fearful, but decided to answer back. Daagoo and his men traveled in the direction of their voices. When they approached, they told the women they meant no harm and that the chief sent them to find them. Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak were understandably distrusting of the chief, but believed that Daagoo and his men were trustworthy. And so they invited them inside their shelter and serve them dried fish and rabbit broth. The men realized that not only have these two elderly women survived, but they had done well for themselves, faring even better than their people who were half-starved. Daagoo told them that the people were not doing well, and that most of their group feel bad about what was done to the two of them. And the chief will probably ask them to rejoin.

 

Zoe 

Hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah! So, um, Sa' said, "So that they will leave us alone again when we need them the most?" And Daagoo said he didn't know what happened, but that if it were to happen again, he would protect them with his life.

 

Zoe 

Hm.

 

Lizzie 

The other men in Daagoo's group said the same thing. The women talked privately. Sa' was ready to trust them, but Ch'idzigyaak was unsure and was worried that the people would take their food stores away. Sa' said to remember that they are suffering, and that they should put away their pride. She reminded her friend of her grandson, and Ch'idzigyaak knew that she was right. Sa' told Daagoo that she didn't blame them for the way that they acted because she knew what cold and hunger could do to a person, and that they would be willing to share their food stores, but that the people could not become greedy, for they would be willing to fight to the death for what is theirs. They would not return to the band, but would share when needed, and speak to Daagoo and the chief but no one else. Daagoo and his men left to deliver the message, and Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak slept without worries because they were no longer alone!

 

Zoe 

Mm!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, they felt hopeful. That's nice.

 

Zoe 

Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. So the chief decided to respect women's wishes. People were happy because they were able to eat properly, and were filled with a sense of renewed hope when they learned that the two women were doing well. They settled in a new camp near to the woman, and eventually the chief asked if others could visit them because many missed the two women and longed to see them. Ch'idzigyaak was reluctant to accept, but she missed her family. So they accepted and people began visiting them, bringing gifts of moose meat and animal furs, and relations between the two groups became better. So the people came to have a new respect for these two women, and the knowledge and wisdom that they had to share. At first,Ch'idzigyaak didn't see or hear anything from her family. One day, she was gathering wood when she heard a voice behind her say, "I have come from my hatchet." Shruh Zhuu and Ch'idzigyaak stared at each other with tears in their eyes before Ch'idzigyaak finally embraced her grandson.

 

Zoe 

Aww.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, isn't that nice? He loved his grandmother and he was really, really upset. But--so yeah, it's a touching scene. So Shruh Zhuu came to visit them everyday, but Ozhii Nelii felt too ashamed to be able to face her mother. Shruh Zhuu told Ch'idzigyaak that he was worried for his mother because she was making herself old with grief.

 

Lizzie 

Ch'idzigyaak told him that she understands why her daughter did what she did, and that she didn't hate her. So he told his mother. He relayed the message, and she was stunned, though she was still afraid to face her mother. Shruh Zhuu encouraged her to go see her, and when Ozhii Nelii arrived at the two women's camp, Ch'idzigyaak embraced her daughter.

 

Zoe 

Mmm.

 

Zoe 

Oh!

 

Lizzie 

And they both cried. I know.

 

Zoe 

Aww.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, it's nice.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

The chief appointed Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak honorary positions within the band and everyone wanted to help them however they could. But they were enjoying their newfound independence. They didn't allow much assistance.

 

Zoe 

Ha! Nice.

 

Lizzie 

More hard times followed, but the band never again abandoned any elders. And the two old women eventually died happily. The end.

 

Zoe 

Wow! What a story!

 

Lizzie 

Isn't it great? I loved it.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. That's, like, such a--that's, like, a whole--that--I mean, like, I understand why, um, the author wrote that in a book because that is like a whole book's worth of story right there.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, it's like a whole saga. It's not like, just--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--a small little folktale.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Very in-depth.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah. I mean, well, what I was gonna say earlier is that, you know, we're seeing once again, that the tradition, or not really tradition, but the tendency to abandon the elderly and the "weak" in times of hardship in different groups. We saw that when we were talking about Yamauba in, uh, Japan.

 

Lizzie 

Exactly.

 

Zoe 

And I think we talked about it with a different woman, too, but I can't remember who.

 

Lizzie 

I feel like a lot of times it's kind of mythic, and that it wasn't like for sure that it actually happened in a lot of societies. But--

 

Zoe 

 Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--it has been at the very least legendary in many, many places, and possible also practice all over the world. Europe.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

North America, all over the place.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

But yeah.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I mean, it makes sense because it does--when you're creating legends and stories, or, like, when legends and stories are being told and passed down, like, it's a very compelling story, because it's a compelling question.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah!

 

Zoe 

What do you do when--I mean, it's the trolley problem, right?

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. There's no way to win really.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Like, do you sacrifice two people for the greater good?

 

Zoe 

Yeah, basically. And it's like, obviously, it's really awful. And it was really upsetting for those woman. But it's like, you can also understand where the people were coming from. Because--

 

Lizzie 

I mean, it wasn't, like, a logical decision or, like, a happy decision. It was more like, how are we supposed to survive these really harsh times?

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

No solution was incredibly, you know, it was not good for the women, obviously.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, it--well, it wasn't a good solution. But it was also, you know, a solution--a time where there probably wasn't really any good solutions.

 

Lizzie 

Exactly.

 

Zoe 

And I was--I mean, I was also thinking about, like, what you said at the beginning of like, the food order, and you know, the hunters ate first, and then they didn't give much to the rest of the people.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

And--I mean, that's a little--I don't know how I feel about that. I mean, I don't know like--I mean, that's just--we haven't, like, gone in-depth about that, like, we don't know a ton about that in general.

 

Lizzie 

No. It was just, like, a sentence, I don't know, like, the details.

 

Zoe 

(overlapping) I think it makes sense--it makes sense that the hunters eat because they're the ones that are going out to do the hunting. But also, you know, looking after the weak, and looking after the people in your community is really important, looking after the people who can't always look after themselves.

 

Lizzie 

And children as well are also vulnerable.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. But I think also that is like, ultimately, the message of the story, right? The story is not saying, Oh, that was a good way.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, of course.

 

Zoe 

You know, the story is saying these woman had lots of wisdom and strength to offer their people. And by casting them aside, they were basically ignoring that fact or refusing to even consider that to be a possibility.

 

Lizzie 

And it was also bad for the group because they were miserable.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And it didn't even help them really with their food issues. It just really weakened morale, and everyone was really sad.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah! Absolutely. And I feel like, from what you've said, it's basically a story that just talks about the wisdom and importance that elders have to a community. These women are able to survive out in the woods--or the wilderness, I guess, not the woods.

 

Lizzie 

I mean, there was woods involved.

 

Zoe 

Yeah (laughs). Um, but--because they had so much attained wisdom from like, the past decades of their lives, like they knew so much, because of their other experiences and because of their age.

 

Lizzie 

(overlapping) Yeah. And their experiences helped them to figure it out and survive, and thrive.

 

Zoe 

To figure it out and survive and, like, actually do very well for themselves.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Which no one expected, but they--they knew they could do it because they had, like, they had the experience of hunting. And they had the knowledge of how, you know, animals work and stuff.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, but I also think they didn't know they could do it. They decided that they were going to try even if they ultimately just died--

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--that it was better to try even if they weren't certain of the outcome.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Yeah! And so I think that, you know, it shows if they were younger, they probably wouldn't have been able to do the same thing because they just didn't have the same experience.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

And that shows, you know, the importance of--even if you're old and you can't look after yourself, you're not strong enough to hunt anymore, necessarily.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, I mean they really struggled with their, you know, elderly bodies. Like, they were in a lot of pain a lot of the time.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah, like you can't go out anymore and do a ton of stuff to look after your community, you still should be a part of your community because you have things to offer in different ways. It's not just, like, the physical labor is the only way you can contribute.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. Definitely. And even if you're not actively contributing, you can still be, like, a valuable member of the community. And I think it shows a lot of strength that just to say, like, you may not think I'm a valuable person anymore, but I-I do. I still think that I have value and I will prove it.

 

Zoe 

Yeah! Yeah, and that's really awesome.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, and Ch'idzigyaak really, like, struggled with that. Like, at first she was just like, okay, well, nobody--nobody values me in my life so might as well just give up and die.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

But then Sa' says, like, no, actually, we do have value and we can survive.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And they do!

 

Zoe 

Yeah! And they do. Yeah, that's really cool.

 

Lizzie 

I think it's such an amazing story.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I think it's--the story of the daughter not saying anything is really powerful as well. And the story--the forgiveness element--in so many stories, there just isn't allowed to be forgiveness because there's so much black and white morality in, like, legends and folklore and stuff.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah!

 

Zoe 

And so whenever we, like, come across a story that allows there to be forgiveness and, like, people to go--

 

Lizzie 

Redeem themselves.

 

Zoe 

--and say, like, yeah, what I did was wrong. And I feel really bad about it. And the person being, like, yes, but in the future, we're going to do better. And we're going to do that together is like, super powerful.

 

Lizzie 

I agree. And I also think that there's the aspects of the story that show their trust was, like, broken and the people had to, like, rebuild it.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And, like, they had grovel in front of these two women because they acted horribly. And they have to prove themselves now to show that, like, they are trustworthy, and that they actually are sorry, and, like, aren't just gonna change their behaviors. And that's also really--

 

Zoe 

Yeah, and that's really important.

 

Lizzie 

I just remembered--I hadn't thought about this, but when you were talking about forgiveness, I remembered in the Yennenga episode how, um, the cruel father figure, like, he was kind of redeemed at the end by like, teaching his grandson.

 

Zoe 

Right.

 

Lizzie 

And when he had kind of not been a good father to Yennenga, and he--yeah, it's like, nice to be able to show, like, yeah, people can be redeemed.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Doesn't change the way that they acted in the past, but, like, it's-it's nice to have some nuance in terms of people's behaviors. And, like, if they deserve any redemption or forgiveness, I mean, that's really nice. It's a nice theme.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I also really like that their people had to earn their trust back, too.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah!

 

Zoe 

You know, because it's like, yeah, that--I mean, that's really mess--it's a really traumatizing experience to be abandoned to die--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

--by people, your community and the people you thought you could trust, like--

 

Lizzie 

Exactly. And--

 

Zoe 

You know, and that's something you can't just, like, go back to because of that.

 

Lizzie 

And I think it's important that they learned that the women weren't gonna, like, go crawling back to them once they found them again. Like, it was up to the people to, like, regain the two women's trust. Like, it wasn't that they were struggling, it was that they were the ones in power in the sense of, yeah, we--they had--they got to make the decision of, like, if they want to come back and, like, what were they going to do? And the chief had to just respect that.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. But also that, you know, the woman were like, well, they are struggling, they are suffering. And that's also important to consider, like, we can't just let our, like, own hurt feelings--ultimately, what it comes down to is people are starving. And we-we gotta help them too.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah!

 

Zoe 

Because that's the whole point. Like, we wanted people to help people who are starving and suffering, because that's how, like, they ended up in this place in the first place is 'cause no one wanted to help them. Or they were deemed, like, not worthy of being helped.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And it shows the importance of community. And--yeah, 'cause they were--like, even though they were really hurt by their people, they still really missed them.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And they missed the sense of community and, like, family. And they missed little kids who they were fond of.

 

Lizzie 

And I didn't say that in the story, but that was something from the book. Anyway. Yeah. It's just a really beautiful story with beautiful themes.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

So the story was a part of a large tradition of oral storytelling, which as we know, has been the case for thousands of years all over the world. So in Velma Wallis’s book, Two Old Women, represents an instance of writing down an orally transmitted tale and doing so in English, publishing it to an audience of Euro-American readers, which has both benefits and drawbacks.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

 So Paula Gunn Allen wrote in The Sacred Hoop, "The oral tradition is a living body. It is in continuous flux, which enables it to accommodate itself to the real circumstances of people's lives." Producing a written version of an oral story represents what Gerald Vizenor called, "the sudden closures of the oral in favor of a scriptural," thus representing an end to a cycle of retelling that had shaped it up to that point.

 

Zoe 

Hm.

 

Lizzie 

And, like, just calls into question of what happens when you write down an oral story?

 

Zoe 

Yeah, no, absolutely. Very interesting question.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And so when Wallis first chose to publish Two Old Women, it caused debate within her community. Many people were concerned that the representation of senicide would shine a negative light on the Gwich'in people. And there's also a sense of reluctance in broadcasting their culture's stories to outsiders. Which, yeah, is very understandable.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Katherine Peter, a Gwich'in elder, said, "Selling your stories is kind of like selling your heritage to another nation [...] there is always an undercurrent of suspicion [...] that whites will take over and profit from what belongs to natives."

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

So when the book was published, it received positive reviews, and many of the reviewers implicitly illuminated the appeal of the book to Western audiences with what Genie Babb referred to as, "a romantic conception of the Other, a noble savage in an exotic (natural) landscape, who (because closer to nature) is closer to 'universal' wisdom about the human condition. "

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

So like, for example, in a blurb on one edition of the book, a quote from Ursula K. Le Guin states, "This story seems to come from a place and people utterly different from modern America, speaking straight to the heart with clarity, sweetness and wisdom."

 

Zoe 

Ursula, no!

 

Lizzie 

I know (laughs).

 

Zoe 

Ursula, no!

 

Lizzie 

I know. I know.

 

Zoe 

Alright.

 

Lizzie 

And (laughs)--yeah, the other example, an editor at HarperCollins said about the book, "It's just such a remarkable thing to imagine for us New Yorkers - a seemingly barren wasteland and how these two women survived."

 

Zoe 

That's--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

--so--no.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, no, no. Not good.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Not good writing or...thoughts.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

So these are just two examples of many instances that both exoticize the characters and the Gwich'in people while taking the story completely out of its context to highlight it to universal applicability.

 

Lizzie 

I think it's obvious why this is disrespectful. First of all, it's racist. But secondly, it centers misunderstandings of the story itself. By taking the story out of its cultural context, the message is completely misinterpreted, which Genie Babb talks about in her article, "Paula Gunn Allen's Grandmothers: Toward a Responsive Feminist Tribal Reading of Two Old Women," which I'm drawing on a lot for my analysis.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

Awesome.

 

Lizzie 

So western storytelling is often viewed in the lens of archetypes and a general narrative structure of conflict, crisis, resolution, within which the story of Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak would be classified as man-versus-nature. For us, I'm sure you as well, like, it's just super like, reminiscent of stuff we learned about in English class, you know?

 

Zoe  

No, yeah, yeah, absolutely learned that.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, exactly. Seeing the story through this lens suggests a protagonist and an antagonist, a win-lose situation that oversimplifies the relations of power within the story. And most Native American literature's power structures are less about conflicts between powers and more about balance between powers and the belief in the complementary nature of all life forms. An example of this from within the text is included--like, there's a scene in the book where Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak discover a bear who tries to eat their fish. And so they come to, like, a--an agreement with the bear where they will leave fish guts out for it, and--like, from a safe distance away from their camp.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

And they do that, but they get to keep the parts of the fish that they want, obviously. And yeah, it just kind of symbolizes, like, symbiosis with nature.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, for sure.

 

Lizzie 

And there are other examples of that as well, uh, within the text, I obviously didn't go into detail--every single detail within the book. It's like a hundred and something pages, but--anyway, so in terms of the power between Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak and their former group, this is still shown by the way that the exchange of power is ongoing and reciprocal. After they reunite with their people, they provide them with food, and the people gift them moose meat and animal furs. To view their story as one about struggle with nature ignores the principle of cooperation within nature that are central to the story.

 

Zoe 

Mm.

 

Lizzie 

It's also not an individualistic story about the triumph of people in isolation, like we're kind of used to with nature stories in, like, Western literature. So, a quote from Jeannie Babb: "Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak are not the Gwich'in equivalent of Huck and Jim floating down the river on a raft. When Sa' is first abandoned in young womanhood, she realizes that isolation from the group diminishes and impoverishes the individual.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

Even though Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak can survive on their own, they begin missing their community and Sa' says that "the body needs food, but the mind needs people."

 

Lizzie 

When they reunite with their former band, it's not only an act of wise forgiveness, but a return to the cycle of balanced interdependence and interconnectedness.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

The two women realize during the course of the story that they had allowed themselves to become too dependent, allowing others to provide for them while they rested and complained, which led their people to pit them as individuals against the group. Both the women and the rest of the group suffer until harmony is restored and Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak are seen as important members of the community. Another layer of specific cultural context within the story involves the ongoing threat of a proposed oil development on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

 

Zoe 

Ahh!

 

Lizzie 

Have you heard of that? It was, um...

 

Zoe 

Is this--was this in the book?

 

Lizzie 

No, no, no, it's not--no, it's not in the book.

 

Zoe 

Okay.

 

Lizzie 

It's just, like, within the context of it being published, really.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, I'm--I-I think I've heard about it.

 

Lizzie 

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is important to the Gwich'in people because it provides them access to caribou, which are important to the Gwich'in culturally. Two Old Women was published in 1993, when this debate was very important and contains some clear parallels. In the story, the people are threatened by scarcity of natural resources, and in the present day, the Gwich'in people are also threatened by the taking away of important physical resources.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

In 2021, the Gwich'in people are still fighting for permanent protection of the Arctic wild--National Wildlife Refuge, though a huge development occurred in 2019 when they passed the Arctic Cultural and Coastal Plain Protection Act that halted work on the oil development.

 

Zoe 

Oh, that's super great!

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, it really is. And that's why it's not universally applicable. Like, the story in it--the historical sense that it takes place in--I mean, it's-it's important to the-to the story, to the characters, and to the balance of powers. But yeah, taking that out of context misses--

 

Zoe  

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

like, a big part of--a big aspect of the story.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, for sure.

 

Lizzie 

Like I said earlier, the vitality of oral traditions lies in their cyclical nature--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--where lessons and themes in the stories continue to be adapted. The story of Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak, though it happened far in the past, continues to be relevant to the Gwich'in people and their values. I feel like in acknowledging the importance of oral traditions, and the fact that this story comes from a long line of Gwich'in oral traditions, it's hard to ignore the fact that the story is specific to the Gwich'in people. It is not universally applicable, and its strength is found in its not being universal. Stripping the story from a specific cultural context misinterprets it and even weakens it.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Which--yeah. This whole discussion, like, calls into question the way that we Westerners--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--interact with stories from cultures and places that we don't belong to. And the fact that we try to make stories and characters seem appealing by placing them into contexts that we understand--

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

--which I think is understandable. But it should be acknowledged that the lens through which we understand other cultures' mythology and folklore is very biased.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, absolutely.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. And, um--yeah, I mean, you can't help, like, where you're from and, like, what languages you speak, but you can help the way that you approach other cultures.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And--yeah, if you--if you want to be receptive to, like, life lessons, like, just listening and not inputting your own--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--thoughts. The story of Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak is extraordinary, like we were talking about. It's-it's a beautiful story

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

The themes like the importance of community, the importance of valuing elders, um, the rebuilding of trust after acts of cruelty. Um, I loved reading it. I was really enthralled by it. And I hope I did it justice today.

 

Zoe 

Yeah! I had a good time listening to you tell it.

 

Lizzie 

Thank you.

 

Zoe 

So that was good. Yeah, it was--it was a really interesting experience, because it was like, we tell each other stories a lot. We tell each other stories of mythology and folklore a lot.

 

Lizzie 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

And you know, this one, it was just very much nice to just sit back and hear you telling a story and, like, talking about it, and it wasn't like--there wasn't really any supernatural intervention. It wasn't--

 

Lizzie 

I mean, I love that kind of thing, too, but--

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it was like--you weren't like, oh, and then, like--yeah, there wasn't any divine intervention that happened. There wasn't any, like, big climactic moments necessarily.

 

Lizzie 

No, just, like, a human story.

 

Zoe 

It was just a bit--yeah, it was a very human story. You're just, like, telling me about people.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

And yeah, it was just really nice.

 

Lizzie 

I agree with that. And yeah, this is, like, thinking about oral traditions, like, the way that we interact with stories like oral traditions--it really made me think about like--broadly, oral traditions, traditions, in general, mythology, folklore--like, it really relies on communal storytelling. That's kind of what mythology and folklore, like, are.

 

Zoe 

Yeah! Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And that's really beautiful. And that's why I think any sort of adaptation of some sort of traditional story is like, so nice. Like, I've talked about this before, I think, but like--yeah, modern retellings. It's just, like, a really nice way to continue tellings of stories that have been told for a long time. And--

 

Zoe 

Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

And yeah, it's just a beautiful thing about folklore, mythology, legends, etc. Their, like, their cyclical nature and their, like, adaptability. And there's the way that they keep going and going.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And people adding their own meaning to it.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, and I really loved what you said about, you know, the question of writing down an oral story and how that stops the cycle.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

Because you know, now nothing, like, can--necessarily can be added to it.

 

Lizzie 

Mm hmm.

 

Zoe 

Or it can't be changed in the same way. And I thought that was just really interesting, because I am super interested in the concept of oral storytelling. And--

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

--oral storytelling, like, ritual and practice and stuff.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah.

 

Zoe 

And, I mean, there's, like, just--it's just so interesting. And the question of oral versus--

 

Lizzie 

Written.

 

Zoe 

--written storytelling, and, like--yeah, that stops it, you know, that--it's not the same thing. And you can't like, really--you can't really travel between one or the other that simply.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, and I mean it's not-not a bad thing, of course, to write down oral traditions. Like, it preserves the story for yourself, your own culture, as well as other people as well.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

But, um--yeah, I mean, it's nice to have some sort of archive of the way that the story was told in like, 1990, or whatever.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

And maybe it'll be told in a different way many years from now.

 

Zoe 

Yeah!

 

Lizzie 

And that's also wonderful. I mean, it's nice to, like, write down a story. Like that's not the definitive telling of it, but that's a way to interact with it.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. And I think--yeah, the question of, like, the definitive telling is so important, because there's no definitive telling for, like, any of these stories.

 

Lizzie 

Exactly.

 

Zoe 

And that's what's fun. And important.

 

Lizzie 

And that also goes for cultures with like, a bigger literature, like, written--

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

--tradition as well. Like, there's still many different ways to interpret a story. And I mean, I think that even now, like, generally, mythology, folklore from all over everywhere, it all started with oral tellings.

 

Zoe 

(overlapping) Yeah. It all did.

 

Lizzie 

Like, even-even the ones that were written down, like, they're--it's comes from a long line of oral traditions more often than not.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm. Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah, like I remember what you were saying in, um, I think it was the episode about the Icelander sagas.

 

Zoe 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Lizzie 

Gudrid.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. Gudrid, Guðrún.

 

Lizzie 

Yeah. About how, like, even, like, sagas, like, things that are--that have been written down, like, passed through oral traditions first, most likely.

 

Zoe 

Yeah.

 

Lizzie 

I mean, that's really nice.

 

Zoe 

Mm hmm.

 

Lizzie 

I just love mythology, folklore, sagas, everything. It's all great. I love it all.

 

Zoe 

Yeah. 'Cause it's all about telling stories.

 

Lizzie 

It is. And that's so wonderful. And I mean, we can see it here today. The story of Sa' and Ch'idzigyaak is so good. I'm really glad that we get to read about it. I know that there was some debate within the Gwich'in community of, like, whether we should even be allowed to access it. And that's--like, I super respect that. But I, uh--I loved it. I loved reading it and telling about it.

 

Zoe 

Well, yeah, thank you so much for telling us that story, Lizzie. If you enjoyed this episode, please feel free to subscribe, comment, leave a review, tell all your friends donate to our Ko-fi, and we'll be back here in two weeks with another episode. See you then!

 

Lizzie 

Thank you.

 

Outro, underscored by music:

 

Zoe 

Mytholadies Podcast is produced by Elizabeth LaCroix and Zoe Koeninger. Today's episode was researched and presented by Elizabeth LaCroix. You can find us on Instagram and Twitter @Mytholadies, and visit us on our website at mytholadies.com. Our cover art is by Helena Cailleaux. Our music was written and performed by Icarus Tyree. Thank you for listening. See you next time.