This Friday Five is specifically about a short novel by Velma Wallis that retells the Athabaska legend of two old women who survive against the odds. This is a great book to pair with the short story “The Law of Life,” by Jack London.
1. Don’t complain. In this short myth, the two older women complain all the time, and in the time of hunger and trial, they are left behind. It felt as if the leaving behind was less about uselessness (after all, they tanned hides in exchange for food and shelter) and more about the incessant complaining.
2. Age should not limit you. When they are left behind, Sa’ is 75 and Ch’idzigyaak is 80. These women, while creaky in the bones, remain sharp in mind. The first day of slogging through snow to their destination seems almost impossible, but their bodies adjust, and old skills and knowledge return to them as they must become active participants in survival, rather than passive recipients of charity.
3. Friendship can save your life. The refrain after the People leave them behind Sa’ repeats is this: “we may as well die trying.” Without her encouragement, I’m not sure Ch’idzigyaak would have moved. However, as these women work together to build shelter, snare rabbits, and survive, they form a bond not only of shared experience, but shared stories. Late in the night on cold winter evenings, they share stories of their past and become fast friends.
4. Forgiveness may be difficult, but it is worth it. When the People realize the two old women may be alive, the Chief has to swallow his pride and admit he make a mistake. While the women fear for their safety initially, once they realize the People actually need help and don’t want to hurt them, they eventually forgive the decision made to abandon them.
5. Women have everywhere and always, been strong. This old myth of the Athabaska people, passed on in the oral tradition, reminds me of the strength of women in all cultures, at all ages, for all time. I am often surprised when my high school students share their perceptions that women have only recently been strong or held power. This story allows me to point to a particular story of feminine strength, courage, and survival.