Erinia is always busy -- learning to make fur clothing, emptying buckets of snow into water barrels, helping Mamma, gathering spruce boughs to make fish traps, and grinding paint for a new canoe. It seems that Erinia works all the time. So she can hardly wait for visitors -- the company men who bring stock for trading, or the Indians who come to fish or sell furs. When visitors come, Erinia and the others are delighted to listen to old stories and music, and everyone dances at the odinochka.
Life has a good sameness that Erinia counts on...until the day when American Western Union Telegraph men arrive. Sent up north to build a telegraph line, the men bring news of the outside world, new inventions, and customs unfamiliar to Erinia's people. Everyone at the odinochka listens to the Americans' stories, learns their funny songs, and dances the waltz that the telegraph men teach them.
But as suddenly as they've come, the telegraph men leave -- their telegraph line abandoned -- and Erinia is bereft. Word comes that the United States has purchased Russian America from Russia; Erinia and her people have become American Alaskans. Their lives will never be the same, as they struggle to find their place in this American world that doesn't care about the old ways. Will there ever again be dancing at their odinochka?
Inspired by a five-page memoir written in 1936 by the real Erinia Pavaloff, a relative of the author's stepfather, Dancing at the Odinochka is a stunning story of family, culture, and hope that will leave no reader untouched.
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Dancing at the Odinochka
By Kirkpatrick Hill
Margaret K. McElderryCopyright © 2005 Kirkpatrick Hill
All right reserved.
Nearly 150 years ago, when Alaska belonged to Russia and was called Russian America, a little girl named Erinia Pavaloff lived with her family at the Nulato odinochka, on the banks of the Yukon River.
An odinochka was a trading post, a place for the native people to trade their furs. The odinochkas belonged to the Russian American Company, which wanted all the furs they could get to send back to Russia. The Indians and Eskimos wanted the things the Russians had to trade, especially tobacco and tea.
Not very many people lived in Russian America. Papa said it was a huge, empty country, not like the rest of the world, which was full of villages and towns and cities. There weren't even any villages along the Yukon, just a few Russian forts and odinochkas close to the mouth of the river. Papa said in all of Russian America there were only a few very small towns, and those were far, far away from Nulato.
He said that if Erinia were a bird and could fly up over the odinochka, she would see thousands of spruce trees and birches and cottonwoods stretching in all directions. And across the wide Yukon she'd see the flats, tundra with countless grass lakes and winding creeks glittering in the sun. And maybe in all that wilderness, maybe up the Koyukuk River above them, she might see a bit of smoke from an Indian camp, but that would be all.
Thinking about all that emptiness didn't make Erinia feel lonesome. Erinia never felt lonesome, because everyone at the odinochka took care to see that she was happy. Mamma said they spoiled her.
Besides Erinia and Papa and Mamma, seven other people lived at the Nulato odinochka. Mamma was Athabascan, and Lena Kozevnikoff was Aleut, but the rest were creoles. That was what the Russians called native people who had Russian fathers or grandfathers.
Old Man Kozevnikoff and Lena had a grown-up boy, Elia, and there were also Erinia's big brothers, Minook and Pitka, and the workers, Stepan and Mikhail. That made ten altogether.
Erinia's big sister used to live there too, and then it was eleven. Her real name was Ekaterina, but they never called her that because it was too long to say. They called her Kate.
She was very good and quiet, like Mamma, so Erinia didn't miss her too much.
Kate was at Ikogmute, way downriver. There was an odinochka there and a mission as well. The priest took a few children like Kate to teach there.
Papa said perhaps Erinia would go there when she was older, but Erinia knew when that time came, she'd just make such a fuss that Papa would change his mind. She was never going to leave Nulato.
The odinochka was made of logs and was built around three sides of a large, square yard. Erinia could run from one end of the building to the other without ever going outdoors.
The windows were all in the front, looking out on the yard. Papa said there were no windows in the back so that only the front of the building needed defending in case of raids.
At opposite ends of the building stood two tall, square watchtowers, so people could climb up and look all around to see if danger was coming. Erinia was not allowed to go up into the towers because the stairs were so steep. She did go up sometimes, though, when no one was looking. She liked the way things looked from up there, smaller and squattier.
All around the odinochka there was a tall, tall fence with a big gate. The fence and gate were made of spruce poles fitted tightly together, and the tops of the poles were cut into sharp points.
Papa told Erinia that every odinochka in Russian America had a tall fence like that because of raids.
When Erinia wanted to know why there were raids, Papa and Old Man Kozevnikoff said it was because after the Russians came into the country, people started to get diseases they'd never had before, and they blamed that sickness on the Russians. And because sometimes they thought the Russians cheated them when they were trading.
But they said that most of the trouble was because the Russians interfered with the trading that had gone on before they came. Those Indian and Eskimo bands who had been the biggest traders were not happy to lose business to the Russians.
Mamma didn't like to have the men talking about such things to Erinia, so she'd tell them sharply, "Daalek," be quiet, or she'd hustle Erinia out of the room.
There were wars between the native people as well as attacks on the Russians. When Mamma was a young woman, there had been a terrible attack on Nulato. The Koyukuk people killed more than a hundred of Mamma's people. They stuffed up the entrances to their underground houses with burning canoes so the people inside would die from the smoke. The ones who got out of the houses, choking with smoke, they killed with arrows.
Then they ran down to the odinochka and killed Mamma's first husband, who was the Russian in charge. He was sick, but the raiders burst into the room and killed him in his bed while Mamma bravely tried to protect him. He was buried in the Russian cemetery at the top of the hill, and sometimes Minook and Pitka took Erinia there to look at the grave.
Erinia felt sorry for Mamma's first husband, to have died so horribly, but mostly she felt sorry for Mamma, who'd seen such a terrible thing. She wondered if that was why Mamma so seldom smiled and almost never laughed. Mamma worried all the time.
Erinia never worried, but she might have if she had known that one day she would have to be as brave as Mamma had been.
Erinia's family lived on one of the three sides of the odinochka, the middle part was the store, and in the other side were the barracks, where Stepan and Mikhail and the boys lived. Next to the barracks were two big rooms for the Kozevnikoffs.
Behind the store building was a little bathhouse and two small log houses where tools and oil for the petroleum lamps were stored. And that was all of the odinochka.
There were no Eskimo people near Nulato, only Athabascan Indians, Mamma's people. The Indian families who came to trade didn't live in one place like most of the Eskimos did. They moved every season to a different spot: winter camp when it snowed, fishing camp in summer, muskrat camp in the spring, fall camp in the autumn. Erinia thought it must be exciting to be moving all the time, to see so much of the world, and she always felt a little jealous when she stood on the riverbank and watched the Indians go off to a new place.
But she liked her home very much too.
Old Man Kozevnikoff was the baidarshchik, the person in charge of the odinochka. He spoiled Erinia more than anyone. He called her Erinochka and cut pieces for her from the loaf of sugar.
He was a lot older than Papa and had white, white hair that stood out all around his head, and a bushy white mustache.
Every week he would shave with a long, sharp razor that he sharpened on a leather strap that hung on a nail by the washbasin. Then he'd take the little paper-framed mirror from its hook on the wall and peer into it, pulling his mouth sideways, turning his face this way and that to see if he'd missed anything.
It was the only mirror in the odinochka, so when he finished and was drying his face on his shirt, he'd let Erinia look into it. She'd carefully examine one brown eye at a time, run her finger over her eyebrows to smooth them down, and open her mouth to examine her teeth.
Once she'd been shocked to see her tonsils quivering in the back of her throat like something alive, and she'd let out a yell.
Kozevnikoff laughed so hard at that he had a coughing fit and his Lena had to pound on his back for a long time.
Lena told Erinia stories whenever she wanted them. Lena was born in the Aleutian Islands, far away from Nulato, so her stories were about seals and whales, animals Erinia had never seen, but that didn't matter. They were wonderful stories, and Lena told them with great swoops of her fat arms and with a different voice for each animal. No one told stories as well as Lena.
Elia, the Kozevnikoffs' son, was a tall, handsome boy who was the best hunter at the odinochka, and Erinia had liked him so much when she was a baby that she had learned to say his name even before she learned to say Mamma or Papa. Elia liked to tease her about that.
Pitka and Minook teased her, of course, but they spoiled her too. They let her do almost everything with them, even though she was a girl. When they were taking the dog team to the water hole, they'd put Erinia to ride in the sled basket, and in the summer they'd take her in the canoe down to the sandbar to get driftwood. But of course they wouldn't let her go if there was any danger, like open places in the ice where the rushing black water showed through or whitecaps in the river.
Her brothers were just a year apart in age, but the year that Erinia was six Pitka's voice slowly changed over the summer and became deep and rumbling. It was such a funny voice to be coming out of skinny, long-legged Pitka that sometimes Erinia had to laugh at him.
And the next year Minook's voice started to do the same thing, but it couldn't make up its mind how it would sound yet, so sometimes he squeaked and croaked when he started to speak. Papa said that happened to all boys.
"Does it happen to girls, too?" Erinia asked.
"No," said Papa.
Papa made a face and didn't answer. Erinia could tell he was thinking. "I don't know," he said at last. At least once a day Erinia asked questions that Papa had to answer like that.
Stepan, the oldest of the workers, was always making something for Erinia. When she was younger, he had carved her clever wooden toys with parts that moved: a dog whose head turned from side to side, a little man that could dance on a stick. When she was five, he had made her a wonderful little birch-wood bow with some bone-tipped arrows.
Stepan's left eye was covered with a blue film. When he was very little, he'd been standing too close when his father was chopping wood and a chip had flown into his eye. So that eye was blind now. Stepan wouldn't let Erinia come into the wood yard while they were chopping, in case it should happen to her.
Mikhail, the other worker, taught Erinia to use the bow Stepan had made and was very patient with her. He had a lame foot, which he was born with and which gave him a funny side-to-side way of walking, but he walked just as fast as everyone else.
Old Man Kozevnikoff never stopped teasing Stepan and Mikhail about having no wives, and whenever they went on a trading trip to Unalakleet or to Saint Michael, he told them that they must bring back a wife. But they never did. Erinia thought that was because they were very happy as they were, two old bachelors smoking their pipes together at night. Erinia was glad for that. She liked things to stay the same.
Copyright © 2005 by Kirkpatrick Hill
The winter months on the Yukon were long and dark and very cold. The smoke from the stoves went straight up and hung there, suspended, over the odinochka. In the few hours of daylight the sky was pink from the little bit of sun peeking over the hill, and the trees were pink too and heavy with thick frost.
In the winter everyone at the odinochka worked hard from first light until it grew too dark to see. There was wood to chop for the stoves and water for cooking and cleaning to get. Sometimes they gathered buckets of snow to melt in the kitchen water barrel, and sometimes they dipped water from the hole chopped in the river. Snares had to be set, and someone had to put the fish trap under the ice and check it every day. The dogs had to be fed, the tools had to be fixed and sharpened, and there was work to do in the store.
Mamma and Lena cooked and cleaned, and washed the clothes and linen, but their most important job was sewing. And Erinia had to sit with them every day to learn.
Every woman had a sewing kit, which was rolled up and tied when it wasn't being used. When it was unrolled, it could be hung on the wall next to you so everything was handy.
Mamma would send Erinia to get her sewing kit and bring it to the kitchen table, where she and Lena were working by the oil lamp. Mamma had made a lovely sewing kit for Erinia out of soft smoked moose hide, and the edge of each pocket was trimmed with bright calico scraps.
A sewing kit had to have an awl for punching holes. The sharp steel needles were good for thin skins, like rabbit or marten, but were hard to push through thick ones, like moose. If the skin was thick, you had to punch a hole with the awl and push the sinew thread through the hole.
A piece of tough moose hide was used to protect your fingers from the sharp needle. It helped, but not a lot. Mamma's fingers were so rough with needle scars that her fingers snagged in Erinia's hair when she was braiding it.
A little tlaabaas, a curved knife, was used to cut the skins, but Erinia wasn't allowed to do that yet. She was still too young and might ruin a skin.
There was also dried sinew in the sewing kit. When you got ready to sew, you twisted the pieces of sinew together to make a long thread. But not too long. Too long was a lazy man's thread. If you wanted a long thread so you wouldn't have to thread so many needles, that meant you were lazy.
Erinia always made her thread too long.
She was glad that she was learning, but she didn't really like to sew, mostly because she had to sit down to do it. Before long she'd be wriggling in her chair, scrunching down to stretch her feet out, dropping her needles, and being careless.
Mamma's face would grow stern. "A woman who can't sew is useless," she would say.
Erinia didn't want to be useless.
Every animal the men got when they went hunting, and every bird or rabbit Mamma snared, was carefully skinned. And then Mamma and Lena would tan that skin and put it away in the fur room of the store.
There were caribou and muskrat skins tanned for parkas, rabbit skins for blankets and socks, beaver skins for mittens, caribou fawn skins to make lovely soft gloves, feathers for decoration, and fish skins for making bags and boots. Even the little pieces of leftover fur they saved for fancy trims.
There was so much sewing to do: pants and parkas and winter boots, summer moccasins, waterproof boots, gloves and mittens and summer shirts. There was no end to it. Mamma never said, "There. We're finished and we don't have to sew for a week or a month." Erinia had to learn to sew as well as Mamma because Mamma said, "Someday my eyes will go bad, and then you must do it all yourself."
Erinia would look hard at Mamma's dark eyes to see if they were going bad yet. There were more and more deep lines around Mamma's eyes, but her eyes themselves looked just the same. Erinia was glad about that because she hardly knew how to sew anything yet.
Erinia was always relieved when the sewing time was over and it was time to help with other chores.
Erinia was very helpful.
When the boys were working in the wood yard, she'd struggle into the house with big baskets loaded with birch bark and moss and shavings for fire starter.
While Mamma made a spark with a flint to start the fire, Erinia would blow vigorously on the shavings, though sometimes she blew so hard that she blew out the tiny flame and Mamma had to start over.
She'd bring in buckets of snow for the water barrel, but she was too short to reach the top of the barrel without help, so a lot of the snow ended up on the floor.
Erinia was so busy and so quick, dashing here and there to help with this and that, that she almost wore Mamma out cleaning up the mess.
So when Mamma thought Erinia had helped her enough, she'd send her to the store. "See if Papa and Old Man Kozevnikoff need any help."
Erinia's house had real mica windows Papa had gotten from the company at Saint Michael when she was a baby. Mamma loved those windows so much she polished them every day with a soft rabbit skin.
The windows in the store were just greased seal intestines, which let in some light, but you couldn't see anything out of them.
The store was wonderful, though, even if it didn't have mica windows.
On a long table by the windows was the shiny copper samovar Papa had brought with him when he came north from New Arkhangel. You made tea with a samovar, strong, hot tea. You had to hold a piece of sugar in your teeth while you drank the tea.
That was very hard to do, and Erinia couldn't do it yet.
Right in the middle of the store there was the big woodstove made of gray stone, and by the door was a pile of wood taller than Erinia. Papa and Old Man Kozevnikoff said they were always glad to have Erinia help them. She'd take the spruce boughs they used for a broom to sweep up the bits of bark and wood that fell on the floor every time they stoked the fire.
Twice a week Papa would clear all the wood out of the stove so Mamma could bake bread in the ashes. It was a big stove and could hold twenty loaves of black Russian bread. And even though that was a lot of bread, they would always run out before the next baking.
When Papa and Old Man Kozevnikoff were busy with their accounts or their orders, there were still many interesting things for Erinia to do in the store.
A big room off to the side of the display shelves was the place the furs were stored. The door was always kept shut so the furs would stay cool, but sometimes Erinia would creep in there and play.
After beaver season in the spring the room would be full of stacks of beaver pelts.
Beaver skins were stretched into round circles, and Papa stacked them on top of one another. The skin sides were as stiff as drum tops, but the fur sides were sleek and shiny and slippery. As soon as Erinia climbed to the top of the stack, the beaver pelts would begin to slide and she would have a wonderful ride until she hit the floor with a thump.
Papa would hear the noise and drag her out by her apron strings. "Erinia, ty zanida!" That meant that she was a great nuisance.
Erinia also loved the little room where the special trade goods were stored.
When Papa and Old Man Kozevnikoff were making a trade, they'd throw in some little things to make their offer more interesting, things that didn't cost very much but that everyone wanted. Like buttons.
The Indians didn't use buttons in the usual way. They sewed them on their clothes for decorations, down the side seams of the pants or all over the shoulders.
Erinia loved to play with the buttons. She'd line them up in rows according to their colors and then according to their size. She'd make families out of them, with papa buttons and mamma buttons and baby buttons. There was no end to the fun you could have with buttons, and Erinia was always sorry in the spring when the buttons had all been traded away.
Besides the buttons there were packets of steel needles, which were much better than the bone needles the Indian women used to sew with. There were dozens of combs, which Papa said were made out of tortoiseshell, little tin pipes to make music on, and beads.
Erinia wasn't supposed to play with the beads because once she'd spilled a whole box of the long blue ones everyone liked so much. A lot of them had fallen down in the cracks between the floorboards, so they'd never gotten those back.
There were red and white and black beads too. And dentalium shells.
"These shells," Papa had told her, "came from far away, islands even farther south than New Arkhangel, where I was born. Little animals lived in these shells, in the ocean, and then the shells were washed up on the beach, where people found them." Erinia stared at the shells, imagining tiny animals like foxes and bears in the shells. Then she asked, "What's an ocean, Papa?"
Papa held his hands far apart. "An ocean is bigger than the Yukon River. Bigger than a thousand Yukon Rivers!"
A thousand Yukon Rivers. How could that be? Erinia frowned at Papa. He must be making fun of her.
With the trade goods there were also little brass bells, which people took for their children to play with or to tie on their dog harnesses. Erinia liked the sound the bells made, but she had to ring them very softly, one at a time, because the time she'd tied them all together on a cord, Papa had said the noise gave him a headache.
There were iron and copper bracelets and rings, which Erinia loved to try on, but best of all were the earrings: bronze earrings and earrings with glass pendants, glass with twisting colors inside of it. Those earrings were beautiful.
Every time the company sent a new supply of earrings, Erinia would beg to put holes in her ears so she could wear earrings like Mamma and Lena and the Indian women, but Mamma always said, "Wait till you're older."
Papa said the Eskimo men at the mouth of the river had two holes cut under their lips and in those holes they wore fancy ivory ornaments. Erinia wished she could see that. Some Eskimos and Indians had holes made in their nose cartilage to hang beads on, as well as the holes under their lips, but Erinia didn't have any holes at all.
She wouldn't have holes in her nose or under her lip because Papa wouldn't stand for that, but someday she could have holes for earrings.
She could hardly wait.
When Erinia went with Mamma to set rabbit snares and ptarmigan snares, the snow, dry with cold, crunched beneath her snowshoes, and the northern lights shifted and slid over the flats in cold white sheets.
She didn't mind the cold because she loved to be outdoors and because she had such good, warm clothes.
Mamma had made her a warm muskrat parka and caribou-skin pants with the fur turned inside. Her boots were part of the pants so no snow could get down inside and freeze her feet, and every day Erinia had to stuff the boots with clean straw, which would make the boots even warmer. She had rabbit-skin socks with the fur turned inside, and her parka had a good wolf-fur ruff to keep the wind from freezing her cheeks.
When she was very small, her mittens had been part of the parka, but now she wore nice little beaver mittens that were sewn to a long string that went around her neck so they couldn't be lost.
When there was no work for her to do, there was a new batch of sled-dog puppies to play with. Erinia would call, "Dzek, dzek, dzek," and they'd come running fast, tumbling over one another to get to her first.
Minook made her a little snow fort, and she and the puppies crawled in and out of it and pretended that it was their house.
Sometimes Erinia stood under the big spruce trees around the odinochka where the black ravens sat. She would imitate the calls they made, each one different from the last. Ravens knew a lot of different words, and Erinia wished she knew what they were saying.
Erinia liked to help the boys check the fish traps out under the ice in front of the odinochka. The fish froze immediately in strange shapes when they were dumped from the trap onto the ice, and Erinia would bring the circles and crescents of fish to Mamma in her little sled.
And when the moon was out and shining huge and bright on everything, she loved to slide down the riverbank on a piece of caribou hide, dried stiff and slick, the puppies racing alongside, snapping at her parka.
Sometimes when the sky was very black, she liked just to sit outdoors and look at the sharp, hard stars. On those nights it looked as if the stars had become much bigger and closer, and if she looked too long, they almost frightened her.
Every day, depending on the weather, the woods were different. Sometimes when the sun rose, every tree was coated with sparkling ice. Sometimes thick, soft snow fell for hours and coated every twig with a thin stack of snow. That was a good time to shake the trees so the load of snow would fall with a whispery shlump.
Erinia loved best the days when the frost on the trees turned to glittering crystals and with a shimmering sound gently drifted from the trees, throwing little sparks of colors in the bright sun.
But still, as much as she loved winter, she was always eager for spring.
Copyright © 2005 by Kirkpatrick Hill
Excerpted from Dancing at the Odinochka by Kirkpatrick Hill Copyright © 2005 by Kirkpatrick Hill. Excerpted by permission.
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