Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival
“In this particular band were two old women cared for by The People for many years. The older woman’s name was Ch’idzigyaak, for she reminded her parents of a chickadee bird when she was born. The other woman’s name was Sa’, meaning “star”, because at the time of her birth her mother had been looking at the fall night sky, concentrating on the distant stars to take her mind away from the painful labor contractions” (Wallis, 2004, p. 3).
The above paragraph is from Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival which introduces to the reader, the first of the few characters that the reader will follow in the pages to follow. Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival is a fascinating story by Velma Wallis in which she shows how sheer determination can bring a person out alive from circumstances from which one would hardly expect to survive through. Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival is Velma Wallis’s first book and was published in 1993 (Cevado Technologies, 2004).
The story is a captivating one from the very beginning as Velma Wallis chooses to make two elderly and aged women the center of her story. The story starts out when the tribe of Gwich’in is introduced to the reader and the reader finds the very first of the numerous events to follow to be one that leaves the readers racing from cover to cover in anticipation for the next development. However, it is necessary to highlight that the novel is not a thriller nor an action based novel but has a particular sense of anticipation for the events to unfold rapidly. It is perhaps the loneliness and the helplessness that the characters find themselves in that leads the reader to find themselves in a position where they want to know how fate rewards the lead characters for their strength of will.
When the Gwich’in tribe faces a particularly harsh set of circumstances, the tribe decides to leave behind Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’ in light of the intense winter that is to follow and the shortage of food that they know that they are about to run into. The members of the tribe appear to be unanimous in their decision to leave behind Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’. However, it is apparent that the close relatives of Ch’idzigyaak and Sa’ both seem to be not entirely pleased with the decision when we see that Ch’idzigyaak’s leaves hands them an un-tanned elk’s skin and her grandson goes as far as to hide the symbol of his manhood, his osseous hatchet, for his grandmother.
When the tribe abandons the women and departs, the two women are left stranded and cold in the freezing weather and with death feeling closer than ever before. However, the two women are visited by a sense of desperation that pushes them to try and survive through the cold for as long as they can. The chain of events that brings the two women out of their ordeal begins when Sa’ manages to kill a squirrel and the women boil the meat of the squirrel and not wanting to waste anything they can get their hands on, they drink the broth. Motivated slightly by their meal and the sense of self sustenance, the women set out to build a rabbit trap to see if their luck stays with them. They are woken up in the middle of the night and are delighted to see that their traps worked and they have managed to capture two rabbits.
Having captured two rabbits for further food, the women decide to take their chance with their luck and begin to set out to search to broaden their hunt and to hunt for better game. They make themselves snowshoes and manage to arrive at a river that they are familiar with from the seasons of the past. The two decide to survive through the nights by making shelters from animal hides. Faced with the choice of choosing between certain death and continuous struggle for survival, the women decide to live for as long as they can use the simplest of means of survival. However, the women do come close to another tribe and they decide to stay away from it out of the fear of cannibalism. As time passes by, they both manage to create a significant stockpile of food with surplus food. As seasons come and go, they capture different types of game ranging from musquashes, to beavers to fish and store them away after drying them.
When the tribe returns to the same region the next winter, they are amazed to see that the two women who they had considered a liability and had left behind to die had managed to survive through the entire year on their own. They had suffered through all the hardships that the land had to offer and had managed to survive by them. On the other hand, the author shows that tribe itself had very little success with regard to capturing game through the year. However, we see that the women are more than willing to share their food with their home tribe.
It is necessary to note that when the women were abandoned, they spent their evenings talking about the pains in their joints and the hurt that they felt from being abandoned by their home tribe. So when the tribe decides to attempt to make amends with the women, the women are hesitant at first, but eventually give in and decide to open their arms to the tribe. They accept the tribe and even decide to share their food with the members of their home tribe. Another significant aspect is the tension that builds in the relationship between Ch’idzigyaak and her daughter. Ch’idzigyaak’s daughter is ashamed at having left her mother behind and then being part of the tribe that shared the old women’s food when times got hard. However, Ch’idzigyaak decides to forgive her daughter and welcomes her daughter once again.
The tribe learns a highly important lesson from this series of events. The tribe learns that instead of considering the elder members of the tribe to be a liability and leaving them behind when times get difficult, the elders are assets that should be kept close and should be considered centers of knowledge, learning and hope. The tribe had decided to leave the women behind because there had been almost no food to share with the old women. They had taken care of the old women for years and had decided to leave them behind when times got tough. Yet, even though the women had been left alone and helpless, it did not change the fact that they women were learned and held the epitome of knowledge in their hearts from years of experience and life (Quadagno, 2007).
It is clear that the two women are aged and old and their bones have grown week because of the old age, yet they choose to hold on to the few droplets of courage and opportunity that pass them and choose to let death come to them instead of walking to death. One can see that the two women choose to continue to live their lives until death comes to them instead of becoming stationary and inviting death to come and put them out of their misery. The women begin by engaging themselves in small attempts to survive and choose to do so for as long as they can. As they continue to do so and continue to come across opportunities to sustain themselves, they enter a process of learning in which they learn how to continue taking up the small opportunities of survival that they come across and develop themselves to a point where they decide to choose to continue living their lives for as long as they possibly can without considering the eventuality of death or dreading the reality of their loneliness. They become completely self reliant ant and it does not come as a surprise that fate decides to reward their will with prolonged life and reconciliation and reuniting with their tribe and their family.
Cevado Technologies. (2004). Author’s Life Story . Retrieved June 6, 2009, from Velma Wallis: http://velmawallis.com/index.php?page_id=22
Quadagno, J. (2007). Aging and The Life Course: An Introduction to Social Gerontology. McGraw-Hill Humanities.
Wallis, V. (2004). Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage and Survival. Harper Perennial.