In Alaska the tribes we might refer to generally as Eskimos are culturally and linguistically distinct, speaking as many as two dozen or more separate but somewhat related Athabaskan languages. Despite their differences nearly all the tribes in Alaska share some version of the story the Two Old Women.
The Two Old Women is an important story because besides being entertaining it has a message. Isn’t that the way with legends?
Many years ago a small tribe found itself without sufficient food put away to survive the harsh winter which would soon be upon them. The hunting had been poor during the spring and summer, and the people suffered. Two old women both widowed, one eighty years old, the other seventy-five were members of the tribe. These two old women had gotten into the habit of complaining about their aches and pains, using walking sticks to move about, and allowing the younger women in camp to take care of their needs, packing and unpacking, moving and setting up their shelters.
As the scarcity and want became more severe, with no prospects in sight for improving their situation the chief called a meeting and announced that they would be moving their camp, looking for caribou and better hunting in another area. Then he told the gathered members of the tribe that the old ones who could not help themselves would be left behind.
The two old women were shocked. They knew there had been instances in the past when the oldest members of a tribe had sometimes been left behind during periods of extreme hardship, but the ones left behind had been so old and weak that they could not walk. Many of those left behind were blind and mentally feeble. The two old women knew they were not in that category. They looked at the members of the tribe, waiting for members of their own families to speak for them. No one spoke on their behalf.
The next morning the tribe packed their belongings, tied their bundles to their tent poles and began the trek to a new and hopefully more fruitful spot. Women dragged the tent poles across the snow and soon the camp was bare except for one shelter made from three tent poles covered with caribou hides. The two old women sat inside their shelter above the frozen ground on branches covered with furs. They looked at each other with sad eyes. They had been abandoned. Their fire had burned down to embers during the night and the cold had entered their shelter.
The older woman’s daughter stopped at the shelter before she left. She did not look at her mother; she did not speak, but she set a bag of moose sinew inside the shelter. The woman knew here daughter was ashamed, but in her own anger the old woman did not thank her for the valuable gift. Her grandson also stopped at the shelter. He pointed to a nearby tree and then to his belt. The woman saw that his ax was not in the loop on his belt. She nodded. He was leaving her an ax. But she felt very old. “We will sit here until we die,” she told her companion.
The seventy-five year old woman agreed. “Yes, we will sit here until we die unless we do something to save ourselves.”
The older woman sighed. “You are younger than I am. Perhaps you can save yourself.”
“If we are to survive we must help each other,” the younger woman insisted.
The eighty year old was tired, but she decided to try. She pointed out the ax in the tree. The younger woman went and got the ax. She began cutting wood to rebuild their fire. Soon she had a large pile of wood. The older woman got up and helped her move the wood into the shelter where they built up the fire. While they were moving wood, the younger woman saw a squirrel on the trunk of a tree. She pointed, then paused, aimed and threw the ax at the squirrel. To both women’s surprise she hit the squirrel in the head killing it.
The two old women melted snow and boiled the squirrel. They agreed to drink the broth but save the meat for the next day. They went to sleep with a warm fire and full stomachs. In the morning they built up the fire again and ate a small amount of squirrel meat. Then they used some of the sinew to make rabbit snares. They made snowshoes and used the moose sinew to hold the wooden frames in place. They walked back and forth over the snow setting and checking the snares. Their hands were full, they could not use their walking sticks. In the middle of the night they heard a rabbit scream. They knew that at least one of their snares was successful. They could not wait or a fox or wolf would eat their rabbit, so in the middle of the night the two old women walked out and retrieved the rabbit.
The next day they talked again about what they should do. The younger woman remembered a spot where she and her family had camped many years before. It was an area with abundant game, with fish and with caribou. Perhaps they too should look for a better place to camp. They tied their furs and baskets, into bundles. They tied everything they owned onto the caribou skins stretched between the tent poles. Then they began to walk northwest along the Yukon River. It was very difficult for them to walk and pull their belongings but they knew that without shelter they would die the very first night in the open.
Although the walked all day they did not get very far before they made camp. In the morning the women woke up to a cold fire. The younger woman thought she would get up and gather wood, but when she tried to sit up she could not move. She had overworked herself the previous day. So had her older friend. They lay in their furs and tried to move. Finally one of the old women managed to roll over and crawl outside where she collected a little wood for the fire. They warmed themselves and ate some rabbit. Then they slowly packed up and began again. In this way they walked for six days. They crossed the river on the ice and continued onward. Eventually they came to the area the younger woman remembered. They built a camp deep in the trees where they could not be seen. They set out their snares, they fished through the ice. Every day they caught animals in their snares. Every day they caught many fish. They dried the fish and packed them for days when they might not catch fish. They skinned the rabbits and squirrels and foxes they caught and tanned the hides. They saved the extra meat for times of want. They used fallen trees to build a stouter shelter where animals could not break in and raid their food supplies. The women grew stronger. There were happy with the work they did.
In the meantime, the tribe continued to suffer from lack of food. They did not find caribou. They did not find fish in quantity. Some of the people felt shame that they had abandoned the old women. Several men spoke to the chief. “Let us go back and find the old women,” they suggested. The chief shook his head. It is too late. The women could not have survived this long. Still he too wondered what had become of them. Finally he agreed that they should go back to their old camp.
Imagine their surprise when they arrived and there was no sign of the women or of their shelter. Even if the two old women had died, the shelter should have still been there under the trees. One of the trackers looked for signs. “Perhaps they tried to move and find a more prosperous spot. If two or three men will come with me I will try to find where they traveled, and where they died.:
Three men set off. It took them one day to reach the camp by the river where the old women had crossed. The same trek that had taken the two old women six days. The men followed from camp to camp. Finally they came to a dead end. They could not see the women’s shelter build deep in the trees. The men made camp that night and in the morning they heard someone down by the creek. “Listen, someone is fishing through the ice,” whispered the tracker. They crept forward. There were the two old women. The men were very happy to see the women healthy and well fed, living in a solid shelter. The women were not so happy to see the men. “You left us to die,” they scolded.
The men explained that the entire camp was in danger of dying of starvation. They wanted to come and make camp here near the two old women. The two women discussed it. “What if they take our food and leave us to starve again?” “How can we protect ourselves? How can we trust our people?”
Finally they agreed that the tribe could come and camp nearby. They would share food from the stores of meat they had gathered. But no one could come to their camp except the tracker. They would decide how much they could share at any one time. If the tribe was willing to abide by their rules they could come and camp in the area.
So the tribe came. The two old women shared their food and their warm furs. The members of the tribe fished and hunted. The area was filled with game. Slowly the old women learned to trust their former friends and family. Finally, the older woman invited her daughter to come and visit at their shelter. She let go of her bitter feelings and embraced her daughter.
Because of the courage and strength of the two old women the Athabaskan tribes agreed that they would never again leave behind their aged members. Because of the two old women younger people learned to respect and honor their elders.
But the two old women learned many lessons too. They learned to continue working even when it seemed difficult. They learned that it is possible to do many things together that can’t be done alone. And they learned that we can do more than we think we can.
Because of this they saved their people and they saved the old ones of future generations. Because they did more than sit and wait to die they became an example that all the tribes in the north heed and follow.
What example will we choose to set today?