Athabaskan storyteller, author of 'Two Old Women' dies at 78

Posted: Wednesday, June 21, 2006

FAIRBANKS - A woman whose tales of life in a remote Interior Alaska village were the inspiration for a best-selling book has died.

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Storyteller Mae Wallis, 78, of Fort Yukon, never stopped teaching about the old ways of the Athabascans, their legends and her certainty of a divine Creator common to all religions, her family said.

Her stories reached beyond the boundaries of her home through her daughter, Velma Wallis, who retold some of Mae's tales in "Two Old Women," published in 1992.

The book, based on an Athabascan legend, has sold more than a million copies and has been translated into 18 languages.

Mae Wallis died Friday in Fairbanks with family and friends at her bedside.

Velma Wallis, one of six daughters and eight sons born to Mae and Pete Wallis, said her father wanted the children to learn modern ways and not dwell on the past.

"Mom never agreed with him and kept telling us stories and teaching us our traditional ways, and making us proud of being Gwich'in," Velma said. Gwich'in means "people of the caribou."

"It was second skin to her. She never had an identity crisis, not even in her belief system."

Mae Wallis had suffered from a stroke and chronic kidney failure and family members kept a 24-hour vigil around her during the final month of her life.

"She never questioned God; never, even in her worst times, when she lost two sons, struggled with alcoholism or through her illnesses," Velma Wallis said.

Daughter Clara Rauner said her mother was a sweet person with a good sense of humor who held the family together.

"She always taught us not to be mean to other people and live off the land, for the land was part of us ... and if we ever catch anything, we had to eat it or use it. And most of all, we had to be helping everyone we came across," Rauner said.

"For my mother, there was no bad person on this Earth, and even if we could only give them a cup of tea, that is what we should do."

A memorial service for Wallis was scheduled for Tuesday.

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