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Book review: A gifted storyteller tells of her early life on the Yukon River

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“Tiny’s Stories: An Athabaskan Family on the Yukon River”

By Theresa “Tiny” Nellie Demientieff Devlin. Cirque Press, 2023. 139 pages. $18

“Tiny” Devlin was born in Nenana, Alaska, in 1945, the eighth of ten children in a family that lived in Holy Cross and Fairbanks and operated barges on the Yukon and Tanana Rivers. It was, Tiny writes, “a rather unusual occupation for Alaska Natives in those early days, but her father was a determined man.” With a mixed heritage of Athabaskan, Yupik, Russian and German, Tiny grew up in her family's Athabaskan culture at a time when Native values ​​were generally not appreciated. She died in 2020.

Tiny was known as a gifted storyteller and later in life collected stories from her earliest memories through to her time in high school. Each short memory is rich in specific details and shows that she was a bright, fun-loving and enterprising young person in a kind and loving family.

In what was certainly an unusual situation, the whole family lived on their paddle steamers and barges during the summer, supplying villages such as Tanana, Ruby, Galena, Nulato, Kaltag, Shageluk, Anvik, Holy Cross and St. Mary's. They even traveled up the Innoko River to the mining town of Flat. Tiny once wrote, “It amazed me, as I'm sure it did most people in the villages, that we all grew up and none of us drowned.”

In their early years, the family lived in the Athabaskan village of Holy Cross, which also housed a Catholic mission run by nuns. The mission included a huge church, gardens, a small hospital, dormitories for staff, and a school for boarders and village students. Although it was uphill from the village, it seemed to dominate much of village life. Religious holidays were celebrated, and community dances included square dancing and waltzing. During the summer, most villagers lived in their fishing camps. The Demientieff family, like everyone else, worked feverishly during the king salmon run to catch and preserve a vital foodstuff.

To a child, life on the riverboat sounds idyllic. “After a tiring visit to one of the villages, I liked to stand outside the wheelhouse and watch us leave… Usually friends or relatives would stand on the river bank and say goodbye. We would wave until we could no longer see each other. Sometimes I was happy, thinking of the next village and the people; sometimes I was sad to leave the village we were in.” Adventures included when a bear came on board and her sister shot it, and another time when her father called the family together to watch so many geese take off that they darkened the sky.

When Tiny was of school age, the family moved their operation to property on the Chena River near Fairbanks. For a reason Tiny doesn't explain (or perhaps doesn't know), she was sent to a different school than her siblings. There were no other natives in her class, and she was lonely. Two of her highlights from this time were skating on the river and helping a brother feed his sled dogs (and secretly eating spicy bits of fish for herself). And there were so many new things in town – bakeries, movie theaters, a store that sold chameleons!

As she grew older, Tiny became more aware of how she was perceived in the world. Once, in one of the villages, she was teased with shouts of “You're not a native!” and began to wonder why other children said that to her. “What makes a person a native? I realized then that we don't speak our native language and I wondered why.”

When she was seven, her parents took some of the children to the mission boarding school for about three weeks. It was the first time they had been away from their families. The regimented life was very different from family life, and Tiny was homesick – and worried about her “little friends and the rest of the mission children” who had no home to return to.

The Holy Cross Mission closed in 1956 and the staff and students were transferred to the Copper Valley School, a new, integrated Catholic boarding school (which only operated until 1971). Starting in seventh grade, Tiny spent six years there. Aside from being pelted with chalkboard erasers and having a nun tell her her goal was to “break my spirit,” Tiny found the school a happy place, “a source of strength, the beginning of long friendships and spirit as a driving force of values ​​to be passed on.”

Tiny became a caring wife and mother, a friend to many, a significant leader, and a revered elder. Her professional focus was on promoting community health and cultural revitalization. She served as a producer and director at KAKM-TV (Anchorage's public television station), a leadership coordinator at UAF, and in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act Registration Division. The many traditions she drew upon are hinted at in this line from a biography written by her husband and brother at the end of her book: “Tiny loved her Holy Cross King salmon strips, banana nut bread, and spicy Russian tea.”

Many people helped complete Tiny's Stories. The finished book includes a wealth of photographs as well as several maps. The acknowledgements section states, “Throughout the process, the circle of Tiny's Stories family and friends continued to grow – a whole village to make a book.” The result is an intimate look into an inner life shaped by family and cultural values ​​during a little-studied period of Alaska's history.