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Home  >  Teaching and Learning  >  Two Old Women  >  Assignment Ideas
Student Example: "Desperate Times" Essay
By Jordan Comfort

In the Athabascan culture, generations and generations ago, the people lived and hunted on the land. The Athabascans were a nomadic tribe. They didn’t settle down in places permanently, but rather would follow the caribou herd during the fall and winter months and then go to places abundant in fish during the summers.

Occasionally, there were years when food was scarce, and people were dying from starvation. The men of the tribe were forced to hunt for anything they could eat. When they did get lucky with the catch, the men had first rights on their catch. This sometimes left very little for the women and children, who sometimes died from starvation. In some extreme cases the tribe might consider leaving their old, feeble, and weak behind while the tribe attempted to hunt for any available food. Sometimes, things got so desperate that the people considered desperate measures: eating their own people that had died, mainly to survive.[1]

In the book Two Old Women, Velma Wallis’ main character, Ch’idzigyaak, retells a story she heard from the elders about cannibalism within the tribe. These stories were rarely spoken of; the elders emphasized, however, that any such practices were unacceptable. Ch’idzigyaak tells about her grandmother who was abandoned by the tribe at a time when food was scarce, and the people were in great need of food. Her grandmother was weak, blind, and deaf and a burden on their people. Her grandmother was terrified of being abandoned, and being left to die. Ch’idzigyaak later learned that some of her family had gone back to the place where her grandmother had been deserted, and had killed her. They actually burned her body, so that others wouldn’t have any thoughts about coming back to eat her, because they feared the people might do desperate things.[2]

Later, when Ch’idzigyaak was abandoned alongside Sa’, the two old women left for another location in part because they feared their own people. They feared the people might do such a desperate thing to survive in cold weather, remembering the stories of cannibalism told by their elders. [3]

If I had a chance to speak to Velma Wallis, I would ask about her take on cultural changes from the events in the book until the present day, and the current Athabascan view on cannibalism. I suspect that there have been significant changes in the culture. The Athabascan people are no longer a nomadic people, but rather live in villages and cities. They no longer follow the caribou as they migrate, but use their snow machines or skiffs to help them get to the place where the animals can be found. For those living in the villages, they are still reliant to a great degree upon subsistence hunting and fishing. Yet, at the same time, they are dependent upon having some sort of cash income so that they can purchase their snow machines, skiffs and gasoline to power them. With respect to cannibalism, it was a desperate thing of the past: desperate times called for desperate measures. Today, the thought of cannibalism wouldn’t even be considered in their culture.

[1] Velma Wallis: Two Old Women, (Seattle: Epicenter Press, 1993) 34.

[2] Wallis , The Two Old Women, 57-8

[3] Wallis, The Two Old Women, 34

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