Replacing silence with truth

Best-selling Alaska writer Velma Wallis makes peace with the past by telling tales of life in the village

Posted: Thursday, February 27, 2003

Velma Wallis, the author of the popular Alaska Native books "Two Old Women" and "Bird Girl," received news that her brother Barry was in intensive care while she was on a book tour in 1996. By the time Wallis arrived at the hospital, her brother couldn't speak because he was on a ventilator.

"I was shocked to find out that he had full-blown AIDS and he wasn't going to make it," Wallis said.

Since they were children in the Gwich'in village of Fort Yukon, Wallis and her brother had been very close. Though she had not finished high school, he encouraged her to be a writer, and helped her get "Two Old Women" published. The book became the most popular of its kind in the history of the Alaska, selling more than 1 million copies. Three weeks after Wallis arrived at the hospital, her brother, her biggest source of inspiration, was dead of a disease she never knew he had.

"I had so many people come up to me after my brother died. They were talking to me, 'You should write about this, about how it's all falling apart,' " Wallis said. "You don't always want to write something when people tell you to, but in this case I did."

Wallis had been at work on a third book, a piece of "feel-good Alaskana" about her grandmother and subsistence. Even in death, Wallis' brother became her muse. After his funeral, she changed her focus of her manuscript, penning a memoir, "Raising Ourselves," about life in the village, from the pleasures of duck soup and pilot bread with margarine, to the terror that came to her house with the welfare check, when her mother would go on a two-week bender.

"I realized that we are basically just lying to ourselves. The choices that my brother made to keep (his HIV infection) from us, those are all part and parcel of growing up in an alcoholic community," Wallis said.

She will speak about writing her memoir at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 4, in the Egan Lecture Hall at the University of Alaska Southeast. The event is part of the university's Women's History Month celebration.

"Raising Ourselves" opens up something that nobody really wants to think about: dysfunction that occurs in villages due to drinking and drugs. Let's get it out on the table - that is pretty much what my book is about," Wallis said.

In "Raising Ourselves," Wallis writes vividly about her girlhood in a small crowded cabin in northeastern Alaska, on the banks of the Yukon River. She chronicles the way outside culture, with its teachers, televisions, candy and liquor stores, slowly ate away at the fabric of traditional life. Her parents, once self-reliant subsistence hunters, slid slowly into alcoholism, which killed her father and impaired her mother for weeks at a time, leaving Wallis to care for her brothers and sisters.

"You always hear, 'It's the white people that are making us do this.' It is not the white people; we are doing this to ourselves," Wallis said, adding that as she grew up she learned that older people used alcohol to cope with sadness they had never expressed.

Eventually, Wallis left her childhood home to work trap lines on family land abandoned since her father's death. Alone in a tent in the freezing night, Wallis felt first terror, and later inspiration, sipping tea and admiring the sky through an open tent flap.

Wallis brought her mother to the land to remove her from the temptations of the town. Sober, her mother taught Wallis how to hunt marten by gingerly removing the wall of the animal's den, placing a trap inside, and then carefully reconstructing the den, pouring water on the frozen exterior to help seal it.

As deftly as her mother revealed the inside of the marten den, in "Raising Ourselves" Wallis reveals the complex, often dysfunctional world of her family and rural community. In a culture where morals are implied in the analogies of traditional stories, and secrets are second nature, Wallis worried the direct approach she took would alienate her from Fort Yukon.

"There are a couple people that just freaked out and they thought I should never have shared with the world that my brother had died from AIDS. (When he died) they said, 'This information that should never leave the room. As far as anyone is concerned, my brother died from diabetes,'" Wallis said.

Wallis was surprised that most people, including her mother, were supportive of the book.

"There is like 75 percent of people in Fort Yukon that applaud me and there is a small percentage that get enraged," Wallis said. "When you are not healed as a person, and you are into alcoholism and denial, you are going to react to anything you read in a very volatile manner."

Telling the secrets of her childhood, like being honest about how her brother died, is a matter of community survival, Wallis said. When people make peace with the past and heal themselves, they are less likely to be self-destructive.

"I get calls from Fort Yukon people who say they repressed all those feelings from the past and they bought my book and it opened up a whole flood of memories that got stifled."

Wallis lives in Fairbanks where she takes care of her mother, her two children and two other young relatives.

"I know that Native people are slowly turning around and looking at ourselves, seeing that our stories have value," Wallis said. "My niece and I will be walking down the road, and she'll go, 'Auntie, tell me a story,' and I know that we are turning around."



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