The Shanaghan How did the Shanaghan help her people?

Shanaghan Sarah Tizya & Martha Tizya

There is a body of Gwich’in stories about the beneficial deeds of shanaghan — old women who often outwit danger and overcome great obstacles to live and provide salvation for their people.

“Since, as in so much of the world’s folklore, ‘the last shall be first,’ poor old widows, who occupy the least enviable statuses in subarctic American society, frequently play critical roles.” (Slobodin 1971:282)

In long-ago stories, old women, especially widows, were relatively powerless and vulnerable members of Gwich’in society. These stories highlight how they were able to overcome great difficulties in spite of their weakness and limited resources. The value of their experience, ingenuity and moral steadfastness prove their greatest assets. Generally there is an ironic twist whereby instead of being feeble liabilities, their actions feed the people in time of famine or protect them from significant threats.

Elders emphasize that in long-ago times, people travelled a great deal. For the elderly and infirm who could not manage such strenuous activity nor be easily transported by others (such as in summer when sleds could not be used), settling at locations such as fish traps during the season when many fish species spawn was a valuable alternative. Stories describe how shanaghan not only accomplished their own survival but that of their people as well, while relying on their limited physical resources but considerable experience and ingenuity.

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