Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival

Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival

Paperback(10th Anniversary Edition)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060723521
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 06/29/2004
Edition description: 10th Anniversary Edition
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.12(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Velma Wallis was born in Fort Yukon, a remote village of about 650 people in Interior Alaska, near where the Porcupine River flows into the Yukon. Wallis was raised in a tradtional Athabaskan family, one of thirteen children. When she was thirteen, her father died and she left school to help her mother raise her younger brothers and sisters. Later, she passed her high school equivalency exam and moved to a trapping cabin twelve miles from the village, where she learned to live off the land by hunting, fishing, and trapping. Wallis based her first two books, Two Old Women and Bird Girl and the Man Who Followed the Sun, on the Athabaskan stories her mother told her when she was growing up.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


Hunger and cold take their toll


The air stretched tight, quiet and cold over the vast land Tall spruce branches bung heavily laden with snow, awaiting distant spring winds. The frosted willows seemed to tremble in the freezing temperatures.

Far off in this seemingly dismal land were bands of people dressed in furs and animal skins, huddled close to small campfires. Their weather-burnt faces were stricken with looks of hopelessness as they faced starvation, and the future held little promise of better days.

These nomads were The People of the arctic region of Alaska, always on the move in search ,of food. Where the caribou and other migrating animals roamed, The People followed. But the deep cold of winter presented special problems. The moose, their favorite source of food, took refuge from the penetrating' cold by staying in one place, and were difficult to find. Smaller, more accessible animals such as rabbits and tree squirrels could not sustain a large band such as this one. And during the cold spells, even the smaller animals either disappeared in hiding or were thinned by predators, man and animal alike. So during this unusually bitter chill in the late fall, the land seemed void of life as the cold hovered menacingly.

During the cold, hunting required more energy than at other times. Thus, the hunters were fed first, as it was their skills on which The People depended. Yet, with so many to feed, what food they had was depleted quickly, Despite their best efforts, many of the women and children suffered from malnutrition, and some would die of starvation.

In this particular band were two oldwomen cared for by The People for many years. The older woman's name was Ch'idzigyaak, for she reminded her parents of a chickadee bird when she was born. The other woman's name was Sa', meaning "star," because at the time of her birth her mother had been looking at the fall night sky, concentrating on the distant stars to take her mind away from the painful labor contractions.

The chief would instruct the younger men to set up shelters for these two old women each time the band arrived at a new campsite, and to provide them with wood and water. The younger women pulled the two elder women's possessions from one camp to the next and, in turn, the old women tanned animal skins for those who helped them. The arrangement worked well.

However, the two old women shared a character flaw unusual for people of those times. Constantly they complained of aches and pains, and they carried walking sticks to attest to their handicaps. Surprisingly, the others seemed not to mind, despite having been taught from the days of their childhood that weakness was not tolerated among the inhabitants of this harsh motherland. Yet, no one reprimanded the two women, and they continued to travel with the stronger ones--until one fateful day.

On that day, something more than the cold hung in the air as The People gathered around their few flickering fires and listened to the chief He was a man who stood almost a head taller than the other men. From within the folds of his parka ruff he spoke about the cold, hard days they were to expect and of what each would have to contribute if they were to survive the winter.

Then, in a loud, clear voice he made a sudden announcement: "The council and I have arrived at a decision." The chief paused as if to find the strength to voice his next words. "We are going to have to leave the old ones behind."

His eyes quickly scanned the crowd for reactions. But the hunger and cold had taken their toll, and The People did not seem to be shocked. Many expected this to happen, and some thought it for the best. In those days, leaving the old behind in times of starvation was not an unknown act, although in this band it was happening for the first time. The starkness of the primitive land seemed to demand it, as the people, to survive, were forced to imitate some of the ways of the animals. Like the younger, more able wolves who shun the old leader of the pack, these people would leave the old behind so that they could move faster without the extra burden.

The older woman, Ch'idzigyaak, had a daughter and a grandson among the group. The chief looked into the crowd for them and saw that they, too, had shown no reaction. Greatly relieved that the unpleasant announcement had been made without incident, the chief instructed everyone to pack immediately. Meanwhile, this brave man who was their leader could not bring himself to look at the two old women, for he did not feel so strong now.

The chief understood why The People who cared for the old women did not raise objections. In these hard times, many of the men became frustrated and were angered easily, and one wrong thing said or done could cause an uproar and make matters worse. So it was that the weak and beaten members of the tribe kept what dismay they felt to themselves, for they knew that the cold could bring on a wave of panic followed by cruelty and brutality, among people fighting for survival.

In the many years the women had been with the band, the chief had come to feel affection for them. Now, he wanted to be away as quickly as possible so that the two old women could not look at him and make him feel worse than he had ever felt in his life.

The two women sat old and small before the campfire with their chins held up proudly, disguising their shock. In their younger days they had seen very old people left behind, but they never expected such a fate. They stared ahead numbly as if they had not heard the chief condemn them to a certain death--to be left alone to fend for themselves in a land that understood only strength.

Two Old Women. Copyright © by V. Wallis. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Table of Contents

Dedicationvii
Acknowledgementsix
Introductionxi
Chapter 1Hunger and cold take their toll1
Chapter 2"Let us die trying"17
Chapter 3Recalling old skills31
Chapter 4A painful journey45
Map74
Chapter 5Saving a cache of fish77
Chapter 6Sadness among The People93
Chapter 7The stillness is broken107
Chapter 8A new beginning123
About the Gwich'in People137

What People are Saying About This

Ursula K. Le Guin

This story speaks straight to the heart with clarity, sweetness, and wisdom.

Reading Group Guide

Introduction

Based on an Athabascan Indian legend passed along for many generations from mothers to daughters of the upper Yukon River area in Alaska, this suspenseful, shocking, and ultimately inspirational tale of survival follows two old women who are abandoned by their tribe during a brutal winter famine. Though these two women have been known to complain more than contribute, they now must either survive on their own or die trying. In simple but vivid detail, Velma Wallis depicts a landscape and way of life that are at once merciless and starkly beautiful. In her old women, she has created two heroines of steely determination whose story of betrayal, friendship, community, and forgiveness will carve out a permanent place in readers' imaginations.

Questions for Discussion

  1. Two old women are left to die so that the rest of the tribe might have a better chance to survive, but they do not die; in fact, after overcoming incredible environmental conditions and physical limitations, they survive the winter and prepare for the next better than the tribe. What does this story illustrate about society? How does it seem a particularly "American" story (consider the role of the individual versus the group, attitudes toward overcoming adversity, the physical environment)?

  2. The two women rediscover skills they had not used in many years. If they had never been abandoned, they would never have discovered what they are capable of. What do the two women gain and lose from this experience?

  3. Compare and contrast the two women. How do their histories contribute to their survival?

  4. Are you surprised when you learn that these women who have lived and worked together did not really know each other? Why do people who live together or in close proximity keep an emotional distance? Does the story of the two women suggest that intimacy makes for a better quality of life?

  5. The chief regrets his decision to leave the old women. Was the chief's decision the correct one? What if the women had died -- is your answer the same?

  6. The women are left with all their belongings, which ultimately was crucial to their survival. Why did the tribe allow this, especially in light of its own desperate circumstances?

  7. Ch'idzigyaak is heartbroken when her daughter and grandson allow her to be abandoned. Do you blame them? What would have happened if they had stayed behind with her? How does their relationship change?

  8. Though this story describes an ancient culture's mores, in what ways does it resemble modern life? Compare the role of women in an Athabascan tribe with modern day American women.

  9. What does this story tell you about how Athabascans view women? How does Two Old Women compare with other fablelike feminist stories, such as Lilith or Persephone?

About the Author

Velma Wallis was born in 1960 in Fort Yukon, a remote village of about 650 people in Interior Alaska. Growing up in a traditional Athabaskan family, Wallis was one of thirteen children. When she was thirteen, her father died and she left school to help her mother raise her younger siblings. Wallis later moved to her father's trapping cabin, a twelve-mile walk from the village where she lived alone intermittently for a dozen years, learning traditional skills of hunting and trapping. Wallis lives in Fort Yukon with her husband, Jeffrey John, and their two children.

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Two Old Women: An Alaska Legend of Betrayal, Courage, and Survival 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 48 reviews.
librisissimo on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Substance: An old Athabaskan (Alaskan native) tale of two old women left by the starving band to die. Alone in the winter wilderness, they summon up reserves of courage, old skills, and new determination. They walk to a former camping-ground and not only survive, but manage during the next summer to accumulate a surplus of food that saves their band the next winter. The author pads the basic story with unnecessary PC elements and counter-cultural traits for some characters, but it remains a powerful tale of repentance and forgiveness. No mention is made of any moral foundation, however, nor of any gods - I don't know anything about Athabaskan religion, but it seems unlikely there is no kind of deity or spirit from whom some spiritual message would be conveyed by the story (as in Aesop's fables, most traditional tales point to some "moral" at the end).Style: Could use some polishing by an astute editor, but the narrative is natural and heart-felt.
cathyskye on LibraryThing 10 months ago
Protagonist: two old Athabaskan womenSetting: the Arctic Circle, many many generations agoAnother unusually harsh winter was coming to the Arctic Circle. The tribe was starving. Everywhere they went, they took care of two old women who didnothing but complain. For the survival of the tribe, the chief decided to leave the two old women behind. No one voiced dissent. At first the two old women were in shock. They couldn't believe what had happened. However it wasn't long before the younger of the two said, "Yes, in their own way they have condemned us to die! They think that we are too old and useless. They forget that we, too, have earned the right to live! So I say if we are going to die, my friend, let us die trying, not sitting." This story is based on an Athabaskan Indian legend passed along from mothers to daughters for many generations on the upper Yukon River in Alaska. It is told by Velma Wallis, herself an Athabaskan, and the story of getting this book published is just as good as the tale itself.
bibliophileofalls on LibraryThing 11 months ago
This was a good book. Simple, straightforward, no complex nuances to worry about. I felt it read more like a young person's book. It showed the perserverence of these two old women and the hardships they went through in a harsh, unforgiving climate.
EowynA on LibraryThing 11 months ago
Based on a Native American (or, as the Canadians say, First Nation people) story from the time when the tribes were nomadic. The tribe was starving, and could not support the two old women any more. So they are left stranded, with a tent and a hatchet and the clothes on their backs. The two women decide not to give up, but to do what they must. They set snares, and catch a rabbit that lasts them a long time, mostly as soup. They walk to a place one of them remembers from long, long ago. They depend on one another, and survive, against expectation. It is a small book, simply and well told. It has the feel of the long version of a story often retold. Recommended.
AuthorMarion on LibraryThing 11 months ago
In this well-told tale of two tribewomen who are in their old age we see what determination can do. Having earned the respect of their tribe these two women have been content to let others do for them over the years. But their age hinders the tribespeople's movements and they are facing a brutal winter. The chief makes the decision to turn these two out into the harshness of the bleak Alaskan Yukon to live or die. Together these two women forge a bond of friendship and recall the skills of their younger days, conquering the pain of unused muscles and fear of the unknown to survive even the harshest of conditions. The story comes full circle when they again meet up with their tribe and the chief who once turned them out now finds he and his people have need of their wisdom. A wonderful book for just about everyone. Full of hope and determination.
jmyers24 on LibraryThing 11 months ago
An Alaskan tribe faces starvation so elects to leave two old women behind. The women use their collective wisdom to survive and eventually reunite with the tribe and save them. It is an engaging tale of survival and the value of each individual, especially of older individuals, within the collective life of the community.
fglass on LibraryThing 11 months ago
A Indian legend about two determined elderly women who have been left out by their families to pass away quietly and alone in the wilderness. These two octogenarians must make concessions and work together to survive. This is a story of adventure, friendship and strength that gives octogenarian readers two beautiful heroines to look up to.
brsquilt on LibraryThing 11 months ago
Historical tale of survival. Very good.
coolpinkone on LibraryThing 11 months ago
This book is a small and quick read and two very determined older women who brave the elements and use their age and wisdom to make it despite being left behind by the tribe due to their age.
smknuth1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The Athabaskan legend is a reminder to youth of the importance of the elderly; a reminder to the elderly to keep moving, keep living, and keep teaching; and a reminder to everyone to be kind, forgive, and contribute.
Shelley60 More than 1 year ago
This little book should be on every school list as a "must read". Couldn't put it down, great story about survival, companionship, compassion.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Two old women book review Two old women, an exiting, yet predictable story like most others. The characterization was good and the setting was fine, yet, the theme and plot seemed overused and predictable. It is easy to see how the book would end from the first few chapters. The characters and the setting on the other hand were very unique. The characters, ( sa’ and chadzidygk) were very well put. They would learn things about themselves as the book goes on. This is what makes many books best sellers. It seems to pull the reader in and makes them feel as if they were the character. Also, the characters were old women. these days the characters in most books are teens or young adults. This makes the reader a little more intrigued by the characters. The setting was better than the plot. Old Alaska is a place that does not get used as a setting in many books ever. The plot on the other hand was slightly predictable. By reading the intro, you could tell what would happen in the end. Although there were a few elements of surprise. As the book goes on you would learn more about the women and there past lives, and how that impacts there present and future lives. Finally, the theme; “Treat others the way you want to be treated”. A very overused theme. Although it seems that almost all books are based on this theme, Two old women did a little bit better than most books. Two old women appear to use this theme in two ways. The women had learned to pull their weight around in the camp, and the tribe learned to be more patient with people. Two old women is exiting but predictable at the same time. It has many elements that would make it an amazing story if it had a more unpredictable theme and plot.it has unique characters and an exiting setting. I would recommend it for a high school English class. Overall, Two old women is a good book to read.
Mk0 More than 1 year ago
Two Old Women is a novel that is about two women who have to persevere through many obstacles and difficult situations. In my opinion, this novel is well written and tells a story of determination and perseverance. The old women, Sa and Chiidzygyakk, are abandoned by their tribe. They are banished from the tribe because they are old and hold up the tribe. The tribe leaves them to die. The two old women must survive without help from younger members of the tribe. Two Old Women is a great book because they must survive by getting through the Alaskan winter, having the will to fight, and prove to the tribe they should not have abandoned them. The two old women must survive through the Alaskan winter. When they are banished from the tribe, they are angry and disappointed at the tribe. They are angry because Sa is 80 and Chiidzygyakk is 75 years old. They must survive the winter being old and weak. They are always tired and want to stop, but they can’t because they want to survive. Also, there is not much food in the winter in Alaska. They have to eat rabbit heads and squirrels. The only weapon they have is a hatchet made out of animal bone. One advantage they do have is being wise. They remember an old fishing spot they used to go to. They travel there to find food and shelter. If the women want to survive they must have the will to fight. They have to want to survive. At one point during the book, Chiidzygyakk just wants to lay there and die. She wants to give up until her bladder annoys her and has to relieve it. If they don’t have the will to survive they will die and not prove the tribe wrong. They eventually just keep walking. Some days they feel like not walking because they are sore. They know that if they don’t keep walking they might not survive through the harsh Alaskan winter. There will to fight proves if they make it to the old fishing spot. Another thing the two old women do to survive is they want to prove the tribe wrong. They want to say that they survived. The women also want to say they survived better without the tribes help. They try to do that by using the benefits of being old and wise. They use their memories to remember the fishing spot they used to go to when they were young. They remember it as a lake with many plentiful fish in it. It also has many trees around so they can make shelter. They even go there to get protection from other tribes. Two Old Women is an amazing story of perseverance because they must survive through the Alaskan winter, must have the will to fight, and want to prove the tribe wrong. The novel tells about two women problems in the Alaskan winter. It is a great story overall. The novel is a great piece of writing and deserves to be read by many sophomore classes to come.
YoYoBird More than 1 year ago
Quick read with a great lesson for all generations.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
FernLily More than 1 year ago
My book club chose this for our January book because it was short and an easy read. This book turned out to be much more interesting then I thought it would be. The characters were very well described, the story well written. We had quite the discussion about why aren't older people valued for their knowledge and experience and how maybe they are made short tempered and bitter because of the way they are treated by younger members of the group. We decided this just might be a good book for required reading and discussion in a classroom.
Dblivy More than 1 year ago
Very empowering especially for those who believe they are privileged or incapable of succeeding. This book takes little time to read but spans through the spectrum of emotions from sadness, horror, realization, humor, and ultimately to satisfaction. A good way to send an hour or two and feel the time wasn't wasted. Great book to share with others though especially women of all ages. Truly inspiring!
Elderone More than 1 year ago
Being an old woman myself, I thoroughly enjoyed this tale of elders left to die in the snow by their friends and relatives because of a harsh winter. While one can sympathize with the reasons for this practice, i.e., survival of the younger, more useful members of the tribe, it was very rewarding when the old women not only survived against all reason, but later saved from starvation, all those who had left them to die.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The story would be good for adults or children.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful book, which demonstrates the strong character of the women involved. What a moral!
MarionMarchetto_author More than 1 year ago
In this well-told tale of two tribewomen who are in their old age we see what determination can do. Having earned the respect of their tribe these two women have been content to let others do for them over the years. But their age hinders the tribespeople's movements and they are facing a brutal winter. The chief makes the decision to turn these two out into the harshness of the bleak Alaskan Yukon to live or die. Together these two women forge a bond of friendship and recall the skills of their younger days, conquering the pain of unused muscles and fear of the unknown to survive even the harshest of conditions. The story comes full circle when they again meet up with their tribe and the chief who once turned them out now finds he and his people have need of their wisdom. A wonderful book for just about everyone. Full of hope and determination.
Tarri More than 1 year ago
Two Old Women by Velma Wallis is probably the most inspiring story I've read in years.

Velma Wallis has taken a story that was passed down through her family and put it on paper. The theme is two elderly women abandoned by their clan and left to die because there is not enough food available to survive the winter. It is the story of how these women survived and prospered by taking charge of their lifes.