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Chief Peter John
By Charles P. Wohlforth
All Rights Reserved
Originally published in Alaska Magazine, September 1997.
The voice is low but powerful, commanding, mournful. Ninety-six-year-old hands beat time with two sticks. Time-weakened eyes focus on something here in the room, something other eyes can’t see. For a moment, Chief Peter John’s powerful Athabascan words fill his house.
He breaks off.
"I learn it from the old people who live many, many years ago. They knew how to live."
A few minutes later, he sings again, then translates.
"This is the caribou song," he says. "People sing that song for change, if having hard time for the winter, they use these songs, and try to get something they can use. You see the animals, a long time ago, talked through people. That’s what they used to do."
He sings again.
"Two old people were sitting down, a man and a wife," he explains, "and they talk to each other, ‘How we going to live? How can we make it?’ They talk about how they going to make it through the winter. And the caribou sing through this song. They say, ‘You just follow the younger people, and that way you’ll get something you need. You’ll get caribou skin for clothes, jacket, you’ll use that.’
He sings more Athabascan words.
"‘You hear this song and follow these people, because God is going to bless these people.’ And they follow these people and they tell the old people not to turn back. They’re the ones who are going to help."
For Peter John, traditional chief of the Athabascans, the meaning of this song intertwines with his long life. He lived most of his life out in the brush, raising and feeding his family in the traditional way, through sheer, ceaseless effort. For food, he hunted, fished and trapped every day. Today, the incidents of that life make good stories: of hunting without a shell to spare, with undersized guns, or with a bow and arrow. Of killing a bear with an ax. But it was a life of untold hardship and pain. Without access to medical care, he saw seven of his 10 children die.
Today, physical needs are easier satisfy. Living in the village of Minto in a comfortable log house, cared for by his granddaughter, the hardships are a memory. Chief John spends many days seated in a recliner in front of a large television and a picture window that looks out on the smooth, sparkling water and green-tufted islands of the Minto Flats.
But life isn’t so easy, even now. Elsie John, Peter’s wife of 70 years, died in December, 1995. He worries over her memorial potlatch, which he hopes the family will hold this fall. The songs must be right; he must make new verses.
And he worries for his community. Television seems to have stolen the interest of the young people away from the old songs and traditional way of their people. He sits alone. He is so full of knowledge to pass to the next generation, yet few ever come to ask.
The television he abhors stays on nonetheless. Trashy talk shows such as Leeza and Ricki Lake, soap operas and Star Trek reruns flash and murmur hour after hour, even as we talk all day of the precious traditions and he sings the old songs. Chief John calls the TV images little rag dolls, manifestations of evil. Yet he lets them dance on.
Would he prefer to go back to the old time?
"The life that I went through, I wouldn’t want to live through that again," he says. "Too hard."
Then it’s better now?
"No, too many wrong things going on."
In 1992, village elders from across Interior Alaska’s Athabascan region, an area about the size of California, met in Fairbanks to choose a new traditional chief. The role would not be one of government, but of teaching: passing down knowledge and traditions, and reminding villagers what it means to be Athabascan. One man would unify different tribes, dialects and villages. Peter John was selected.
He speaks with authority. "You get up in front of the people and tell them what they are, right to their face. They may not like that, but that’s what you stand for," he says.
No one can question his knowledge. Other elders in Minto say he knows songs no one else learned and remembers people who no one else met. Peter John was born in 1900 in another world, when there were almost no whites in the area and Athabascans still sometimes hunted moose with bow and arrow and bear with spears. His mother died when he was 2. He didn’t see a white face for the first 10 years of his life.
At age nine, he went to St. Mark’s mission school in Nenana. He says he learned nothing in five years there and made it only to the second grade. Back in the village, he later taught himself to read and write using a dictionary. Recently, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
When Peter John was still a teenager, his father died. Peter was on his own. For one summer he took a job as deckhand on a river sternwheeler, but quit to go back to the village. Eighty years later, he has never worked for cash again, never ventured beyond Alaska, and rarely left the Minto area. Instead, he married Elsie and they lived in a small cabin. He hunted every day and worked a trap line, covering a 28-mile circuit daily on foot. After snowmachines were available, he still trapped on snowshoes.
"Me and my wife butcher 600 fish a day, and I got two smokehouses going," he says. "And we never complain. My wife do it, and I help her. It’s 45 bale of fish. When you catch more, you dry the meat and use the fat. Nothing is waste. Tough life. I know. I’ve been through it."
Lige and Susie Charlie, elders in Minto, remember how for many years Peter and Elsie John were too busy surviving on only wild food to mix much with other people. As their ancestors did, they constantly had to move to where the hunting was better. But when they did settle in the village, Peter became chief.
"He give smart advice," Susie says. "He listened to elders when he was young, but he didn’t let it out, he held it in until he was elder, and then he started to teach what he knew like the elders did for him."
People beyond Minto listened, too. During the debate over land claims, Native advocates recruited Peter John to testify at hearings in Fairbanks and Juneau. His knowledge of the Minto Flat area enabled him to describe traditional uses of hundreds of sites on a broad swath of land--hunting areas, fish camp sites, and even battlegrounds from long-ago wars. His eloquent, commanding style of oratory carried influence beyond his own area among governors and congressmen.
Even at age 97, Chief Peter John involves himself in the practical affairs of the village, says former village Chief Luke Titus. When the state considered winter closure of the Taylor Highway to Minto, he spoke forcefully to Governor Tony Knowles in a teleconference.
"I told him that’s not what people voted for," Chief John says.
The highway remained open. Knowles keeps a picture of Peter John in his office.
People come to Peter John for his prayers. He doesn’t like to be thought of as a guru, but that’s how many people see him. "I’m not here to try to preach to anybody," he says.
But he has recently published a volume titled The Gospel According to Peter John, his second book of transcribed tape recordings. The first was an autobiography. This one contains memories and spiritual meditations, dictated by the Holy Spirit while Chief John was speaking in tongues. He has many complex ideas about parallels between the Bible and Athabascan stories. His is a white hot faith with no use for church. And, like many of his lessons, his spiritual beliefs are not always easy to understand.
"He takes the responsibility deadly seriously," says David Krupa, the oral historian who collected and edited The Gospel. "He feels it’s his obligation, religiously, spiritually, to share what he knows, and to do it in a way that won’t necessarily come to life for years. And I’ve found that to be true myself. He’ll spin out the enigmatic, difficult little phrases, and years later I’ll really understand it, or maybe, in other cases, I never will."
Krupa met Peter John in 1988, a young anthropology graduate student looking for a subject to study. They developed a close friendship over years of interviews. In an introduction, Krupa describes how the spirit would speak through Chief John, breaking the words with a barklike "tchk-tchk-tchk."
I get to hear the bark, too, as and I struggle poorly over a long afternoon of talk to understand the riddles created by our incongruent cultures. He peers hard at me from an intense, expressive face. His combed-back corona of white hair accentuates an appearance of arrowlike focus. I am interrogated about where my family came from, what was my tradition.
When I ask him to explain the word ch’eghwtsen—a word I’ve been told describes an Athabascan leader’s love for his people—Chief John doesn’t expect me to understand. It doesn’t have to do with the materialism of "white man way." It’s a love, he says, that my parents didn’t give me.
"Did they give you the best? In your way, you say yes. In my way, we say no." Children need something else, he says. "It’s very hard to explain what they need more. To me, ch’eghwtsen means to give them the right thing, and just the right thing. You try to give them everything, and you’re missing something."
Peter John’s own childhood was not simple. His father, who had a disability, couldn’t teach him to hunt and trap. Moreover, he was a medicine man or shaman—one of those who could understand the voices of the spirits of animals—which the Christians taught was evil.
"I don’t want to talk about it, because my father told me it’s not good for you, it’s not good for teaching young people, because that’s not a world you want to live in," Chief John says. "It’s there. These things never die, and you can’t get rid of them. There’s no way to communicate with the things that’s there. And I don’t think it’s right to talk about it, because it’s not my world."
Krupa has talked with him about the subject. In the old way, spirituality was an everyday part of relating to all animals. Certain people would be better at making contact with the spirits in the animal world, which would provide themselves as food to morally upright hunters.
"Whole generations of Native people in this country were taught that the traditional spiritual specialists in their community were practicing evil," Krupa says. "Peter John’s own spirituality bears a lot of resemblance to that tradition, but it’s in the Christian vernacular."
In The Gospel According to Peter John, he tells a story of hunting with a white man, looking for moose, when a camp robber landed on the peak of a tent and told him to look on the opposite side of a lake. Indeed, a large moose was there.
"I actually know the white man, and the event did occur," Krupa says. "So how do you read it? I don’t know. I’ll say that anyone who spends a lot of time around Peter John is struck by these odd incidents, or his ability to say what you’re thinking just before you say it. He does seem to have some kind of special perception."
The memorial potlatch for Elsie John originally was scheduled for last year, but Peter postponed it to this fall.
"He’s really disturbed," says granddaughter Julie John, who cared for Elsie to the moment of her death, and now lives with Peter. "He’s always thinking, ‘potlatch, potlatch, potlatch.’
"She was everything to him. For the first few months after she was gone, he was lost. He just slept every day. But I think trying to make this potlatch together has lifted his heart."
She looks forward to the potlatch, too, although it will require months of work to host hundreds of people for several days, and a lot of money to distribute valuable gifts to the guests.
"It ties your mourning and it makes you feel like you did everything you could for that person. It lifts the grief and lets you know that person was put away with great respect."
Susie Charlie says Chief John met with the village elders to drink tea made in the old fashioned way and talk about new verses he will sing for Elsie at the potlatch.
"He was really happy, because he just found songs," she says.
Everyone remembers Elsie fondly. "She used to deliver babies out in camps," Susie Charlie says. "She just made herself nurse. She didn’t have no training, she just taught herself. She didn’t say nothing about what she did for other people. That’s what kind of wife Peter John had. Right now he’s real lonely, because his wife taught him lots."
In his chair by the television and window, talking with me, Chief John breaks into the flow of his own thoughts to talk about his late wife.
"You’re never going to find that kind of woman again," he says. "She was a very brave woman. She go after moose, she’s not going to go back. She’s going to get him. She killed moose and bear. She trapped, just like me. My wife was a special kind of woman—I didn’t expect her to be that way—but the things she did I don’t think any other woman would."
Later when I ask how he will decide the songs for the memorial potlatch, Peter John makes it clear the interview is over.
"It wouldn’t do you any good," he says. "We talk about too many things."