Who is Chuda?
Who is Chuda?
Chuda is the Dena'ina word for grandmother. I use the
word "Chuda" to represent all of our native grandmothers.
Chuda made her from animal skins. She sewed her long
tunic (a shirt that reached to her knees) from the hide of
the caribou. Her summer boots were short and she wore
no undergarments. In the winter the women dressed in
a shirt with the fur side turned towards their bodies for
insulation against the cold. Chuda's boots had leather
soles with the fur side turned in. The boots were long
and extended over her knees. Sometimes she wore trousers
for an undergarment to protect her from the elements.
Chuda was talented and decorated her clothing with
porcupine quills dyed in various colors and sewed onto
a band. Sometimes beads were mixed with denlalium
shells and if the trading was good hyqua shells. If Chuda's
husband was wealthy, he made belts out of the hyqua shells.
Chuda also used red ochre to paint on the clothing. Summer
clothing was usually the most decorative. During the
rainy season she wore a parka made of intestines and
wading boots sewn from the sea lion esophagus. Her hat
was woven from spruce roots. Her mother had complete
control over family affairs, arranged Chuda's marriage.
Negotiations and marriage contracts were made between
the two families. During the negotiations gifts were made
to the family of the bride. If the groom was found acceptable
to the future bride they were joined in marriage. Usually the
bride and groom lived with the bride's family for two years
while he worked off part of the bride's price. After completing
his years of service to the bride's family, he was free to take his
wife to his parent's home. When the couple were ready to return
to the grooms family, the bride's father gave the groom a number
of gifts to finalize the union. If the groom was wealthy, he avoided
the whole procedure and paid for the bride. She went directly to
her own home. The wealthy groom might have several wives,
each one with her own home. Chuda's dwelling was called the
nichil or later the Barabara by the Russians. (The remains of
the nichil are in evidence today on many of our lands. They
can be spotted by the indentations left in the ground.) Chuda's
nichil was approximately 30 by 40 feet and sunk into the ground
about two feet. The sides were made of logs and secured by
corner poles placed on both the interior and exterior of the building.
Split logs were vertically placed against the braces and the roof
beams. Posts were set in the middle of the building to support the
inner roof beams. Split logs formed the roof. Sod, mud, thatch and
moss were used for insulation and to water proof the roof. The roofs
were peaked to avoid excess snow accumulation. Grass covered
the floors and could be freshened regularly. Sand was hauled in
and spread around the cooking area. The sand absorbed spills and
grease. The doors were made of grass mats. Chuda's bed was on a
platform erected around the interior walls. Some of the platforms
contained compartments for married couples and unmarried daughters.
The remaining platforms were used for lounging and workbenches
during the day. At night the rest of the family slept on the open
platforms. The bathhouse was an attached addition to the home.
Hot rocks easily heated the bathing room. The steam bath was
called the neli. A grass mat covered the entrance between the
neli and the living quarters. The ceiling was low and sloping. The
walls were covered with mud. There was usually one window
made of bear gut. The rocks were either heated outdoors on an
open fire or in the living quarters on the cook fire. When rocks
were hot they were carted into the neli on a wooden shovel.
Water was poured on the rocks to create steam. The elderly people
seemed to enjoy the neli and used it more frequently than the rest
of the family. The neli was a great place for visiting and many
stories were told in the bathhouse. When Chuda's time of delivery
came, she was taken into one of the sleeping compartments or into
a special structure that was built for her birthing. She was attended
by some of the experienced midwives. The mother and the baby
were kept in seclusion for five days. During this period of time, the
mother and the baby were washed twice. Throughout the birthing
process the men disappeared from the home. The infant was kept
in a skin bag lined with moss. Sometimes the baby was kept in a
birch bark cradle. Both the cradle and the bag had carrying straps
so the baby could accompany the mother while she did her chores
. The baby was dusted with charcoal to prevent rashes and chafing.
The baby often did not receive a name for a year or more. Many times
the baby was given the name of a deceased person by its grandfather.
This was done so the deceased person could continue living in the
body of a child. Many families would name the baby after a deceased
child and records show two and three children born to a family all
with the same name. Chuda's life was full of work. She had animals
to skin and clean, fish to smoke and dry, skins to tan, berries and
roots to gather, grasses to gather and weave, fires to tend, large
broods of children to cook and clean for, oil to render and many
other chores necessary for her primitive life style. Chuda had to
be ready to move to summer camps to gather food and trade.
Chuda did have entertainment. If Chuda's husband was wealthy
(owned a lot of objects especially denlalium beads from the
northwest coast), she would prepare food for potlatches (a form
of ceremony and feasting where massive wealth was bestowed
on others). "Big Potlatches" were important to Chuda's people.
A wealthy man could raise his status by giving the potlatch and
dispensing goods. Massive land transfers often took place at the
"Big Potlatches". Potlatches were held to honor the dead or to
honor a "slotsin" (a partnership between two men of different
villages). A man who gave numerous potlatches became a strong
candidate for chief. There were many "Little Potlatches" for
weddings, births reunions and other aspects of day to day life.
Potlatches usually began with a speech in honor of the person the
celebration glorified. Next, the drumming began accompanied by
song. Gifts were presented with the poorest man receiving the
largest amount. Although the potlatch was hosted in the wife's
name, the husband received prestige from the process. After the
feasting was over, Chuda and the other women usually removed
themselves from the festivities. Chuda enjoyed dancing in the dance
house. The structure was similar to Chuda's home in size. The dance
house did not contain sleeping compartments. Male guest usually
slept in the dance house. Chuda seldom went on long journeys away
from home. Most of her travel was on foot and the celebrations
contributed to her social life. Dena'ina men did not hunt whale.
It is said that Chuda's people lacked the magic for whale hunting.
Chuda's husband traded with the Koniag and other Eskimos for
whale meat. Chuda's family considered whale and lynx delicacies.
The family lived near the coast and fish was the essential food
ource. This fundamental food could be preserved by smoking or
dried on special fish racks. Seal and other forms of meat was the
second elementary dietary staple. Blueberries, salmon berries
(cloudberries), blackberries (crowberries), currants, and cranberries
were the third basic food product. Berries were easy to obtain and
store. Secondary staples such as beachpea, spruce inner bark, fern
and wild rice made a pleasant addition to the diet. Shellfish was an
agreeable diversion. Chuda's deep freeze was a deep hole (at least
6 feet) in the perma frost. Dried grass was placed in the hole. The
bloodline and eggs were removed from the silver salmon in the
late fall. A layer of salmon, a layer of eggs and a layer of grass
were alternated until the hole was full. Her pantry was a cache.
The cache was a structure built on poles approximately six feet
off the ground. The floor of the cache had gaps in it. Spruce
boughs were placed on the floor to allow the air to circulate.
One source says Chuda may have hung food with a pulley like
system on a tall pole. The pole was higher than the cache and
apparently higher than the flies fly. With the influx of missionaries,
cannery workers, fur traders and other industries the Tanaina
was introduced to diseases of the civilized world. In 1805,
Chuda's world consisted of approximately 3,000 native i
nhabitants in the Cook Inlet region. There were approximately
14 Tanaina settlements. In 1818, there was an estimated 1,471
native people due to the people moving away from the area. By
1821, there were probably 1,299 members of Chuda's people.
The remaining people were unprepared for a disaster that reigned
for two years--smallpox. The people were terrified and abandoned
the ailing and dying tribal members residing near the coast.
Dena'ina fled to the forest with hopes of avoiding the plague
that struck them. In 1840, the Cook Inlet region had only one
half of the population surviving. In 1884, influenza took its
toll on nearly all of the children under two and a large number
of the older population. In 1932 Chuda's people were reduced
to about 650 people. Chuda's people are survivors and today,
they are again learning the drum and songs of the early Tanaina.
They sponsor potlatches and teach the children the old traditions
and language. Peter Kalifornsky, and others like him, left Chuda's
people many traditional stories and worked to preserve the language.
Many of the elders are teaching ancient crafts such as basket weaving,
beading, carving and boat building to the youth. Other elders are
storytellers and language teachers. Chuda's descendants are doing
research, family trees, native artwork, writing stories and poetry in
order to preserve the past for future generations. The Kenaitze Indian
Tribe sponsors an educational fishery project, Interpretive Site, Drum
Circles, dancing, Elder Projects, Language classes and summer camps
for the children. Large potlatches are held where some of the traditional
foods are served. The preservation of old recipes, eating and
preparation of traditional foods and the drum circle at the potlatch
will preserve Chuda's people in the hearts of our children today.
Evidence of barabaras are present on my property in Ninilchik.
My mother talked of a Baby Basket left by the Indians hanging in
a tree near Ninilchik. No one was allowed to touch or remove it.
It disappeared before my time. The giving an infant the name of a
deceased person was very common. More evidence is found in the
graveyards because many of Chuda's children continued the custom
after the Russian influence. Spirit houses existed in both the Kenai
and Ninilchik graveyards until some time in the 1950's.