Alaska mountains reflect in the water below. Photo by Rod Long/Unsplash

Water determined our way of life. Our food, clothing, and ways of life revolved around and mainly came from the ocean and rivers. Our tightly sewn animal skin clothing and regalia were to honor the spirits of the animals. The seasons of light determined what we did. Everything we did in songs, drum making, hunting, fishing, gathering, and storing food depended on the season. Gathering together was our ceremony; being together, we celebrated birth, maturation, life, death, union, family, and transformation. These celebrations would be individually marked on our bodies to represent where we were in life.   

Winter is our social season. As the land freezes and becomes covered in snow and darkness creeps over the mountains earlier each day, we set aside our subsistence gear and focus on each other and taking care of our homes. Preparations included making gifts for each other, preparing lots of food, and decorating with devil’s club from last season’s harvest to ward off evil spirits. Women sew seal skin parkas, men mend hunting and fishing tools, and the children play games while everyone prepares for celebrations. Our houses take up the smell of wood-burning fires while guests are invited to feast, dance, sing, and share stories.  

At the climax of the sun, people started to gather in the potlatch house. A loud chorus of voices and drums would begin to play as dancers moved about the floor. Suddenly, an array of people with painted faces and masks painted red, black, and white and ornamented with eagle and raven feathers would join in while women started chanting. Rattles made from puffin beaks and dance fans from bird feathers would wave around the room. Ceremonies would last several hours and repeat upon occasions.   

As a reminder, while we all gather with our family and friends, remember we are practicing ancient traditions. Winter is a time of rest, internal creativity, feasting, socializing, sharing, and giving thanks for our abundance. These are cross-cultural customs shared by people all around the world. 

 Raven Cunningham is the Tribal Fish & Wildlife Director for the Chugach Regional Resources Commission.   

The Native Voices Column is a Cordova Times column that highlights and uplifts the experiences and culture of the many Native populations that make up our community through guest contributions to the paper. If you are interested in submitting something about your Tribe, Village or a Native topic that is important to you, you can email us at [email protected]. The Cordova Times covers and is distributed on the historical and unceded territories of the dAXunhyuu (Eyak people), the Prince William Sound Sugpiaq, and the Yaakwdáat Lingít.