Charley Family Traditions
In tonight’s premiere episode of the sixth season of Bizarre Foods America, I head to Alaska’s Copper River Valley to visit the Charley family, a group of Native Americans who live the traditional life of the Ahtna Tribe. In this far flung outpost of the great Alaskan wilderness, people survive by maintaining skills their ancestors used a thousand years ago – fishing, trapping, hunting, preserving, foraging, mushing, you name it.
The Charley family lives in Chistochina, a village of about 100 people who are scattered over an area of 350 miles. This is rugged country, so when I arrived in late fall, winter was rapidly approaching and everyone was busy prepping food to last them through the long, harsh winter. The matriarch of this clan is Lena Charley. She’s a living link to the past, when hunting, fishing and trapping were not done for sport, but for survival. Lena is an amazing woman, who is keen on passing down traditional knowledge, customs and language to her children and younger generations.
Lena still participates in the family moose hunt, which is central to the family’s way of life. It provides the raw material for cooking, preserving and for making clothes. She is a master when it comes to transforming the moose’s stiff hide into gloves and boots that are worn throughout the community. It’s a labor of love, about a month long process of scraping, stretching and smoking the hides into something malleable. She even uses the same natural softener employed by ancient peoples all over the world – animal brains (naturally, moose brains in this part of Alaska).
For nearly half a century, Lena was also one of Alaska’s premier mushers. During her childhood, mushing was a necessary part of life – the dog sleds were needed to haul wood and food in the dead of winter. Nowadays, her daughters, Evelyn and Agnes, are carrying on the family tradition with a team of some of the fastest dogs in Alaska.
Lena has long been an advocate for preserving the Ahtna language and way of life. She’s one of about 80 speakers of a language that’s facing extinction, but she’s on a quest to share her knowledge of the Ahtna language as a teacher, mentor and linguistic consultant. With the help of her daughters, Lena has written language books and produced CD recordings with simple expressions and audio story books. She’s an incredible woman with a lot to share. For more info on Lena, the Charley Family and the Ahtna Tribe check out:
- Bizarre Foods America
- Yukon Native Language Center
- Ahtna Language Lessons
- Mount Sanford Tribal Consortium Language Projects