I was fortunate enough to sit with Joe Jack, the grandson on Copper Chief, son of Billie Jack and Agnes Boss. Through stories, Jack traces his roots all the way back to Alaska. His great grandfather Taicho came to Canada in 1885. He has family in the Yukon and Alaska. Jack is taking the big step of allowing the stories he has learned, from childhood through adulthood, to be written down and shared for the first time. To begin understanding the place of traditional stories in Jack’s culture, it is important to know that traditional stories are “hand-in-glove” with traditional knowledge. This is because the stories are of the land, and in Jack’s culture, the land is sacred. Therefore, traditional stories are also regarded as sacred.
In a world where the land is seen only as a resource, these sacred stories offer a perspective that can bring us into a different understanding of the world we live in.
Jack was five years old when his father first began telling him stories. At the time, he had no idea of the importance of these stories. However, as years went by and he heard the stories over and over again, they became part of his bones. He heard the stories on hunting trips, sitting on the land under the stars and meeting up with his family. Story was a large part of his life with his father, who always told the stories with all the facts exactly the same. Nothing was changed, enhanced or altered. Jack intrinsically understood that the stories were to remain as he heard them. These stories had been passed down from one generation to the next. In this sharing, the teller always kept the story as it was heard. No deviation. The telling was pristine.
While we sat together, Jack gave me an image to use to understand this more fully.
“Imagine,” he told me. “A giant puzzle. Each story is a piece of that puzzle, and in order to complete the puzzle and truly see the big picture, each piece needs to fit. if we change even one tiny piece of the puzzle, it will not fit seamless into the pieces around it. It will change what we see. If there was a tiny deviation of all the pieces, the picture, the stories we paint for people to understand would be false. People may look at their piece and say, ‘that cannot be right, because my view tells me this, and your story does not tie up with mine.’”
I thought of the world’s written history and who wrote it down and from what place they viewed those events. Consider if those historians sat down within a medicine wheel, with eight directions, and one in the centre, and told the story of the events that happened from eight differing points of view. Imagine if they then used the centre to shift and move and shake and correct and make sure all the pieces locked together seamlessly. What would our history look like? What would we understand of the past? What would we have learned?
In the weeks ahead, Jack will be bringing onto the page the stories that go back generations. The stories that we will now be able to read will be exactly as they were told by that very first teller.
We will be sitting around the fire of truth, able to reach across to each other and find a vision of all the parts of the picture—one that is accurate, crisp and pure.
This is the story of Taicho and the grizzly bear as told by my dad Billy Jack, and is called: Taicho and the grizzly bear.
This happened a few years after Taicho brought his family over from Alaska from his community or village of Taral Village near Chitina, Alaska, over the Copper Grease trail which was located up the Kennicott river to the headwaters of the White and down the White River. His family would reside for the first three years in a place called Tchawsahmon Lake because it was good fishing there. In the summer he would take his family back up near the headwaters of the White to a place called North Fork Island, here he would gather with his Ahtna relatives, and some Upper Tanana people from Chisana area. On this particular summer when he got up to North Fork Island camp, there was nobody else there. It was early July, the weather was very hot, the sun was very hot and they could see nearby on a glacier, a band of caribou, maybe 10 to a dozen lying on the ice pack to cool themselves. When Taicho spotted them, he quickly got excited and said “I’m gonna go after them and see if I can get some meat.” He had with him his favourite musket that he had bought earlier on Alaska side for one black fox and two silver foxes. We figured that this musket cost about $1.400, because at that time, a black fox was worth about a $1,000, and silver foxes about $200 each.
So he grabbed his brand-new musket, his pellet bag, called his oldest son whose English name was Copper Joe (about 10 years old) to go with him to see if they could get a caribou. They went across the flats and snuck up to the caribou. They had to go across willow flats because a tributary runs off the glaciers and all these meandering streams drain into the White River. You could see the valley bottom of glacial gravel throughout. There would be willow communities, willows and gravel bottom, with dirty water running from glaciers. He snuck up to the caribou and he picked the big bull to shoot and killed the bull. As it dropped, he began to reload his gun. Caps go first, then the powder and then the pellet slug, you pull the trigger back, that created a spark, which ignites the caps, then ignites the powder and boom. Just when he needed to put in the caps, he checked and noticed, he did not have any caps. His caps had fallen out of the bag. Just then, his medicine doctor told him in his mind, “Hurry up and try and get home because danger is coming your way.” Soon as he heard that, he told his son to work fast on the downed bull caribou and he said, “We have to hurry because danger is coming our way and we have to hurry because I have no cap and I have no gun.” So they opened caribou real quickly, took out the guts and took some meat, maybe diaphragm or belly meat, threw it in the packsack and began to run home. “Hurry, hurry, run ahead of me,” he told his son. His son was running in front of him, and he was walking very fast. Taicho was a tall man among his people; he stood about 6’4” so he was walking fast, as his son was running in front of him. After a while they heard this crushing behind them in the tall willows and Taiho told his son, “Keep running, don’t stop, we just scared away a bull moose, keep going.” Then again, the crashing noise came from behind and his son said, “Daddy that no moose, that’s bear coming” and Taicho said, “I know, I know, keep going.” So as they kept moving, they knew something was coming behind them. They entered this clearing that was a little grassy meadow, (maybe 50 yards wide). In the middle of this little grassy meadow was an old spruce tree with very wide trunk. Maybe two-and-a-half feet, the diameter of the trunk, and Taicho went past the tree and kept going. There was a little bank just past the tree, that was a washout, from one of the tributaries coming from the glacier, and he told his son to get behind this little bank and he said, “Don’t make any noise” and he gave him his little axe. His little axe was basically a handle about four feet long, with the axe-head maybe four inches in length. It’s used basically to blaze a trail when you’re walking through brush, or the willows ahead of you. If you are getting rained on and need to cut your way through thick bush, this was an everyday axe to use. Some people use machetes in the jungle, but they used an axe. As it was four feet long, it could also be used as a little walking stick. He gave that to his son and said, “If the grizzly bear gets me, do your best to get home.”
“Yes Daddy,” said Copper Joe and crouched down against the gravel bank.
Taicho went back to the tree in the meadow. The spruce tree was an old tree, especially in the open as the branches come right down to the ground. Sitting by itself, its wide trunk that tapers quickly and the branches come down to the ground. Taicho crawled beneath those branches and sat against the tree with his back against the trunk and his legs crossed in front of him. He pulled in one leg and then the other, crisscrossed, as close as he could towards his body, grabbed his gun, stock first, and sat there and waited. Of course, the grizzly knew where he was, as he could smell him right away. The grizzly stuck his head under the branches to grab Taicho and, as he came in front of him, Taicho jabbed him with the stock of the gun right on its nose a few times. He knocked the grizzly bear out with the stock of this gun and as soon as the bear went down, he crawled out and started to run. He was about 30 yards away when he thought, “No I am not going to run away, I’m going stay here and wait.” Taicho had a knife about two feet long, so he pulled out the knife, stood 30 yards away from that grizzly bear and waited. The bear started to wake up and pulled himself out from underneath the tree. The bear was groggy and Taicho hollered at him. He said “Brother what the heck you’re trying to do anyways, what the heck you trying to kill me for, I never bother you. You’re supposed to be my brother, and you’re trying to kill me. You see this knife? I could have cut your throat, but I didn’t, so just leave me alone. Go away.” The grizzly bear looked at him and staggered and then he turned and walked away.
Later, when Taicho would tell this story over and over again, he would always end the story by saying, “You know I’m supposed to be a pretty smart man, people say I am a smart man, but don’t know why I didn’t kill that grizzly bear because if that grizzly bear would had got hold of me, where he would have sent me, I’m not going to need no gun anyways.” And he would let out a big laugh. The little boy that hid behind that bank, when it was his turn to tell the story, he would always end his story same as dad’s story by saying, “If that grizzly bear would have got my dad I would have gone after it with this little axe.”
Joe Jack the great grandson of Taicho, spoke to the importance of those two endings as his father taught him from the time he was five years old when they were out hunting on the land. “When I turned 35 years old, my father told me it was my turn to tell these stories and that was when I took on the function of telling these family stories and my dad would listen to me as I told his stories in public. I told then at potlatches or conferences. In 1993 there was a group of five of us that went over to Alaska, to trace our roots to find out where we came from. During this trip, we met an elder from Chistochina, named Jack John Justin. Justin knew [almost] the exact same story of Taicho and the Grizzly Bear. Jack Justin said he knew my grandpa, Copper Jack. He grew up with Copper Jack, and he knew all the Copper boys that grew up on the Canada side. He said he was one of the little boys when he went to North Fork Island. His people were staying near Chisana, Alaska, so they would make their way for their summer activities over at the North Fork Island. So, the purpose saying this, that this is a confirmation, or verification of Billy Jack’s story of Taicho and the Grizzly Bear. Jack John Justin confirmed it by telling the exact story in 1993. We have never met the elder from Chistochina, until he invited into his cabin to tell us his story.
Joe Copper Jack also had an occasion to tell the same story at a storytelling conference in Anchorage, Alaska, in October 2001. We went across to a conference in Anchorage, Alaska, an elder from Tanacross, Kenny Thomas, was one of the spectators, or participants in my storytelling session. He would not tell me before I told my stories that he knew some Copper Chief stories. He said, “I came to listen to some Copper stories” and only after my stories where finished did he come out with a big smile and he said, “You have good stories because I’ve heard those stories before too.” So, in a way he was checking to see if my stories were the same ones that he knew. Also, Kenny Thomas and Jack John Justin’s people from the Alaska side have all the songs from Taicho family–including my grandpa’s songs. They are still holding it for us in Alaska, waiting for us to go and pick it up, which has to happen soon.